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Shimon Peres, last of Israel’s founders, dies

Shimon Peres, the former defence hawk turned Nobel Peace Prize winner and the last of Israel’s founders, died before dawn on Wednesday, at the age of 93.

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BEN SALES

Shimon Peres, the former defence hawk turned Nobel Peace Prize winner and the last of Israel’s founders, died before dawn on Wednesday, at the age of 93.

The former president suffered a massive stroke two weeks ago and was reported initially to be in stable but critical condition. His condition deteriorated dramatically on Tuesday afternoon. Israel Radio quoted his family, who were at his side, as saying he was “fighting until the end”.

The phoenix of Israeli politics, Peres continually reinvented himself as the country changed. He began his career in the Defence Ministry and was the architect of Israel’s nuclear programme, but in his later years Peres was more closely identified with the quest for peace with the Palestinians. He was instrumental in negotiating the Oslo Accords, the landmark Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, and was present on the White House lawn for its signing in 1993.

Though he served as prime minister three times without ever winning an election outright, and shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize for a peace that has yet to materialise, Peres emerged late in life as Israel’s beloved elder statesmen and a rare figure capable of uniting a fractious society.

Following the signing of the Oslo Accords, Peres emerged as Israel’s global ambassador for peace, predicting the emergence of a “new Middle East” in which conflict was supplanted by shared prosperity.

Elected to the largely ceremonial role of president in 2007, talk of peace pervaded nearly every speech he gave. Well into his 90s, Peres still insisted he would live to see the day when peace would come.


Shimon Peres and Nelson Mandela, Shaking hands


History - mandela and peres

Peace, however, doomed his political career. After middling political success in the 1980s, the Oslo Accords debilitated Peres’ Labour Party, which fell from power in 2001 with the outbreak of the second intifada and has yet to win another election. When Peres won the presidency in 2007, he was a member of Kadima, a short-lived centrist party.

As president, Peres rose again, this time as Israel’s wise old man. Free to rise above the political fray, Peres trumpeted Israel’s technological achievements and articulated its hopes for a brighter future. More than anything, he became a symbol of the country’s resilience – able to survive, thrive and remain optimistic – no matter the challenges.

Peres visited South Africa earlier this year, addressing the SA Jewish community and meeting with various dignitaries including Winnie Mandela, having been a good friend of her former husband.


Shimon Peres, talking in South Africa, 2016
Photo Credit: Ilan Ossendryver


Shimon-Peres2

Born Szymon Perski in Wiszniewo, Poland in 1923, Peres moved with his family to Tel Aviv in 1934. At 20, he became the head of a Labour Zionist youth group, through which he met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister.

In 1945, Peres married Sonya Gelman, who had just returned from Second World War service in the British Army.

The couple was married for 67 years, though they separated after Peres became a presidential candidate. Sonia Peres had long refused to play the part of political wife, and after Peres moved to the president’s residence in Jerusalem, she changed the name on her Tel Aviv mailbox to Sonia Gal, a Hebraicised version of her maiden name. Sonia Peres died in 2011 at the age of 87.

In 1947, Peres joined the Haganah, managing arms purchases and personnel. After Israel gained independence the following year, he continued working in the Defence Ministry, becoming its youngest-ever director-general in 1952 at age 29.

In that capacity he expanded Israeli arms purchases from France and later helped manage the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He also founded Israel’s arms production industry and led efforts to develop a nuclear weapon.

Peres was first elected to the Knesset in 1959 with Ben-Gurion’s ruling Mapai party, becoming deputy defence minister. He would serve in the Knesset for an as-yet unmatched total of 48 years. Peres remained a close Ben-Gurion ally, splitting from Mapai with him in 1965 to form a rival party and then rejoining Mapai when it became the Alignment in 1968.

After serving in several minor ministerial positions, Peres became defence minister in 1974 under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.

Peres was a territorial hawk, opposing early proposals for West Bank withdrawal and supporting settlement expansion. When Rabin resigned amid scandal in 1977, Peres briefly became acting prime minister, then lost the post when the Alignment was defeated in the 1977 election by Menachem Begin’s Likud party.

Peres headed the Alignment – the precursor to today’s Labour Party – for the next 15 years, contesting three more close elections with Likud. The two parties formed a unity government following the 1984 elections – Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, then foreign minister under Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir from 1986 to 1988.

As foreign minister in 1987, Peres conducted secret negotiations with King Hussein of Jordan for Israel to withdraw from the West Bank as part of an Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty. But Shamir rejected the proposed agreement, and the following year Jordan unilaterally relinquished its claim to the West Bank.

After the Alignment lost the 1988 elections, Peres again joined a Likud-led government as finance minister, but tried to overthrow the government two years later. In what became known as the Dirty Trick, Peres assembled an Alignment-led coalition with leftist and charedi Orthodox parties, only to see it fall apart after he received a mandate to form a governing coalition.

He lost his party’s chairmanship to Rabin in 1992, and again became foreign minister when the party, now renamed Labour, won elections that year.

Under Rabin, Peres was the architect of the Oslo Accords, which gave the Palestinians autonomy in parts of the West Bank and Gaza. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

“Israel’s role in the Middle East should be to contribute to a great, sustained regional revival,” Peres said upon accepting the prize. “A Middle East without wars, without enemies, without ballistic missiles, without nuclear warheads.”

After Rabin was assassinated in 1995, Peres became acting prime minister, but lost the post again in a close race with Likud’s Benjamin Netanyahu. Following his defeat in ’96, he founded the Peres Centre for Peace, which runs programmes aimed at regional reconciliation.

Peres remained in the Labour Party through 2005, twice regaining the chairmanship and serving another stint as foreign minister under Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In 2006, following the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza, Peres joined Sharon’s new centrist Kadima party.

The next year he won a race for Israel’s largely ceremonial presidency. As president, Peres stayed largely above the political fray, though he conducted secret negotiations with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas in 2011, culminating in a peace deal that Netanyahu’s government rejected. After leaving the presidency, Peres remained largely silent on politics.

Peres frequently travelled internationally as president, focusing his speeches and activism on encouraging Middle East peace and touting Israel’s technological achievements. His annual Presidential Conference brought together leaders in politics, science and culture. He finished his presidential term in 2014.

He is survived by three children, Tsvia Walden, Yoni Peres and Chemi Peres, eight grandchildren and two great-grandchildren. (JTA)

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Closer ties between Zim and Israel rattles ANC

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Zimbabwe and Israel have had full diplomatic relations since 1993, but further overtures by our northern neighbour to the Jewish state could cause conflict with South Africa, particularly certain factions in the African National Congress (ANC).

According to an article by Carien du Plessis published on News24 on Wednesday, 3 February, “Zimbabwe has been seeking closer ties with Israel in the hope of securing more investment and doing away with sanctions. This move has caused unease within the ANC, which has a pro-Palestinian stance, although it’s unlikely the party will act on it.

“The ruling party [in Zimbabwe], ZANU-PF, has historically positioned itself as pro-Palestinian, but Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa’s latest move closer to Israel represents a change in policy direction,” Du Plessis writes.

She reports that although the head of the ANC committee on international relations, Lindiwe Zulu, said that, “We cannot interfere with the sovereign decisions of the governing party of any other government”, there have been divisions within ZANU-PF and within the ANC about the Israel matter.

“A pro-Palestine lobby within the ANC wants South Africa’s governing party to take a more hardline approach to its Zimbabwean counterpart, while the pragmatists prefer not to push this issue for diplomatic reasons,” Du Plessis says.

Darren Bergman, the shadow minister for international relations and cooperation and a member of the Southern African Development Community (SADC) Parliamentary Forum Human Rights Committee, didn’t mince his words about South Africa’s response.

“The people of Zimbabwe are suffering. The internal affairs of Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, the situation in Zimbabwe couldn’t get South Africa to act, but the relationship with Israel gets South Africa to act,” he said.

“This is a sinister situation that must make the SADC and African Union [AU] question what exactly South Africa’s situation is with regard to the Middle East,” Bergman said.

“It’s one thing to have an opinion and a position, but it’s another to keep a hard-pressed, almost spiteful stance at all times that can actually harm and injure the people and the continent. To this I would say that South Africa should show diplomatic constraint, and hold back.”

One of Mnangagwa’s recent moves to improve relations with Israel is the appointment last year of Israeli national Ronny Levi Musan as honorary consul of Zimbabwe to Israel.

The Afro-Middle East Centre reported in October 2020 that, “Musan has set plans into motion for Mnangagwa’s official visit to Israel. His activities in Zimbabwe include collaboration with Pentecostal churches to push for Christian support for Israel. Zimbabwe’s honorary consul is also pushing for Israeli businesses to invest in Zimbabwe’s agricultural sector, and he recently announced the intention to open an Israeli academy of agriculture in Zimbabwe. On the diplomatic front, Israel hopes that Mnangagwa will follow the example of his Malawian counterpart, Lazarus Chakwera, who announced plans to open an embassy in Jerusalem.”

Musan told the SA Jewish Report he had worked in Africa for the past 20 years to strengthen links between churches and the Holy Land. “About five years ago, I was invited to visit Zimbabwe which lasted about two weeks. I tried to do everything possible to connect Zimbabwe to Israel on a practical level. After the first visit, I visited Zimbabwe several more times, and met a number of ministers and church leaders, and just fell in love with the place.

“From there, it continued through my activities with the Israeli foreign ministry and the foreign ministry in Zimbabwe to promote diplomatic relations between the countries.” He was eventually appointed to this role.

“My main responsibility is to do everything possible in every field to bring knowledge and support from Israel to Zimbabwe, and vice versa. The main issue is technology in the field of agriculture, education, and innovation. These are the cornerstones that will return the crown to Zimbabwe as the ‘grain basket of Africa’.”

Local political analyst Daniel Silke says that Zimbabwe’s overtures to Israel “could well be an attempt by Zimbabwe to follow the Sudan example, in which currying favour with the United States via the channel of restoring relations with Israel allows the country to receive assistance and perhaps even escape some of the worst sanctions. But, of course, [former US] President Donald Trump is no longer in the White House. Whether this will have any traction with Joe Biden, who I think will be a lot more critical of the Zimbabwean regime, remains to be seen.”

In terms of the impact it could have on South African-Israel relations, Silke says, “Many other African countries are forging their own path in terms of relations with Israel. For President [Cyril] Ramaphosa, it’s a difficult balancing act given the demands from within his own party. But I don’t think South Africa has any leg to stand on in terms of interference with any country which wishes to forge some sort of close relationship with the Jewish state. As head of the AU, Ramaphosa is again in a tough position because of the changing dynamics across Africa, but I don’t think it’s an issue that will really get much attention.”

Rowan Polovin, the chairperson of the South African Zionist Federation, says, “We see this as a positive development, particularly for Southern Africa, which is part of the momentum that is being created by the Abraham Accords.

“Northern Africa has been very much part of the momentum. In the southern region, Malawi, which is diplomatically and geographically close to South Africa, has signalled its intention to open an embassy in Israel. If all this has an impact on South Africa’s neighbours, then South Africa will see the benefits. It’s very hard to ignore the importance of building ties with Israel, which has so many solutions for African issues, particularly water, electricity, agriculture, and security. Notwithstanding the noise that the ANC might make, ultimately it’s positive.”

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Just how successful is Israel’s vaccine push?

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Israel is reporting promising initial results from its COVID-19 vaccine rollout, the fastest in the world.

The first official findings released by the health ministry show that only 0.04% of people caught the virus a week after their second dose, and a mere 0.002% needed hospital treatment.

Clalit, the country’s largest health service organisation, has also released its preliminary data. It compared 200 000 people aged 60 and over who’ve been vaccinated with 200 000 similar unvaccinated older adults. It found that the rate of those who tested positive dropped 33% among the vaccinated 14 days after they received it. No decline was seen in the unvaccinated.

Maccabi, another healthcare organisation, saw an even larger drop. Infections decreased 60% among 430 000 people 13 to 21 days after they received the vaccine. The data also suggested the vaccine was 92% effective, close to the 95% efficacy claimed by Pfizer.

Israeli researchers are conducting more in-depth analysis, and point out that real-world effectiveness of vaccines is often lower than the efficacy seen in clinical trials due to a number of factors.

But experts warn that this data has yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal so it should be viewed with some caution.

There are also various factors that could be influencing the results. The current lockdown and behaviour such as travelling and gathering less, wearing masks, and greater physical distancing might be decreasing infections.

The first people to receive the vaccine were mostly from vulnerable populations, so they are more likely to take precautions which could also skew the data.

In spite of the encouraging news, the death toll from COVID-19 continues to climb. Of the 4 816 fatalities at the time of writing, 30% occurred in January when the vaccination rollout was already in full swing. The government blames this on the more transmissible British variant of the virus, especially among children. According to Clalit, when the vaccination campaign started in late December, the new variant caused 30% to 40% of infections, whereas now that figure has doubled.

As for the South African strain, there are currently 80 detected cases in Israel, and there is concern that the vaccine isn’t as effective against this variant. A number of Israelis who previously had COVID-19 have been re-infected with the South African strain, with the most recent case identified two days ago.

Compounding the situation is the flagrant disregard by the ultra-Orthodox community, that comprises just less than 13% of the population, for lockdown rules. Since the start of the pandemic, one in five ultra-Orthodox has tested positive.

Many in the community doubt the safety of the vaccine or believe the country’s citizens are being used as guinea pigs to test its efficacy. Prominent rabbis have also said that communal prayer and study needs to overwrite lockdown concerns.

Last Sunday, 31 January, thousands of ultra-Orthodox mourners, many without masks, crowded together to attend two funerals of famous rabbis who died from coronavirus. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has been criticised for not cracking down harshly enough on the community for political reasons – he needs their votes in the upcoming 23 March election.

Residents of Tel Aviv spoke to the SA Jewish Report, complaining that the actions of the ultra-Orthodox were forcing the whole country to go repeatedly into lockdown, and it wasn’t fair. It’s no surprise thus that the latest word from the government is that the current – third – nationwide lockdown may not be Israel’s last.

Many Israelis want cities and towns to once again be divided into red, orange, yellow, and green zones and scales of restrictions to be put in place accordingly. This would mean those who obey the restrictions wouldn’t have to pay the price of those who don’t.

In recent days, there’s also growing concern in some quarters in Israel that because the mass vaccination campaign is running in parallel with an active coronavirus outbreak, it could lead to an “evolutionary pressure” on the virus in which it would ultimately become immune to vaccination. Doctors are suggesting that in future, people will need to take an annual anti-COVID-19 jab, much in the same way the annual flu injection is taken.

But for now, the race to innoculate everyone is on. Among the first to be injected were people aged 60 or older. More than two-thirds of this age group have already received the required two doses. Up to 200 000 people are being injected each day, and the vaccine is now available to anyone over the age of 35. High-school students aged 16 to 18 are also included in the hope that they will be able to sit for exams. It seems Netanyahu is on track to fulfil his promise of innoculating five million of the country’s nine million citizens by the end of March.

To date, just more than one in three Israelis has been inoculated – about 1.7 million of them twice. Because this is a far higher fraction than anywhere else in the world, it makes the country a test case for the international vaccine push.

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The right to demonstrate, even during lockdown

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Israelis are being allowed out of their homes in full lockdown to call for the resignation of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (Bibi), who is viewed by many on both sides of the political spectrum as corrupt.

This freedom in a lockdown which ordinarily limits you to being no more than one kilometre from your house is based on the country’s constitutional right to protest. On bridges, at junctions, and outside Bibi’s house in Jerusalem, daily protests occur, resuming after Shabbat goes out on Saturday night.

Lech! Lech!” (Go!) is shouted loudly – which is also the name for the movement against Netanyahu.

There are some staunch Likud followers who scream, “Arafat and Rabin sold out the country,” prompting laughter amongst some demonstrators, who point out that their arguments are old and outdated. Demonstrators including doctors, lawyers, pilots, accountants, and students point out that this isn’t about the Israel-Palestine issue, it’s not about being leftist or rightist, but about ethics and bringing to justice an allegedly corrupt prime minister.

The protestors are passionate, some defying orders not to camp outside Bibi’s residence. At 21:30, police order the drums, trumpets, and whistles to cease. The protestors obey, but continue to demonstrate quietly, so as not to disturb the Jerusalem neighbourhood.

Then, at about 23:00, carrying Israeli flags in blue and white and others in red and white, the protestors pack up and go home to lockdown.

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