The lifetime of Shimon Peres, who died Tuesday at age 93 after suffering a stroke on Sept. 13, spans the lifetime of the state of Israel. Born in Belarus, his family moved to Tel Aviv when he was 11, more than a decade before the country was founded. He lived on a kibbutz, when those communal settlements and a utopian, leftist ideology defined the nascent state. He also served in the pre-independence militia that became the Israeli Defense Forces, the institution that would ultimately define Israeli society. A hawk in the early decades of the country’s existence, Peres was a close aide and protege of David Ben-Gurion, the founding father and first prime minister of Israel, and confidant of Moshe Dayan, the commander of the Six-Day War that placed the mountainous West Bank of the Jordan River, and hundreds of thousands of Palestinians, under Israeli military occupation. At the time, Peres encouraged the establishment of Jewish enclaves on that territory, famously calling settlements “the roots and the eyes of Israel.” Those enclaves grew into some 200 present-day settlements that stand as the major physical obstacle to the establishment of the Palestinian state that Peres later came to champion. In 1994, he shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Bill Clinton and Palestinian Leader Yasser Arafat for negotiating the Oslo Accord, which aimed to finally resolve the contest for the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean Sea.
Israel continued to change — turning increasingly inward and pessimistic after the promise of Oslo crumbled amid the Palestinian suicide bombings and Israeli incursions that characterized the uprising known as the Second Intifada, which peaked in 2002. Peres, however, remained what he had become: Israel’s most prominent dove. The country that in its earliest decades had fought for its life at regular intervals — seven wars since 1948 — had become the most powerful nation in the Middle East, its military pre-eminence guaranteed by its alliance with the United States, and military aid that, in a deal cemented the day Peres collapsed, will run to $38 billion over the next ten years. Peres, also regarded as the founder of Israel’s nuclear program, with an arsenal that has never been officially acknowledged, was among the minority of Jewish Israelis arguing that the country could afford to rise from a defensive crouch and enthusiastically pursue a negotiated peace. Polls consistently showed him in a minority — that most Israelis wanted a peace deal, but harbored scant faith one would work — but he persisted in arguing that negotiations were the only way to lasting security. To an outside world that persisted in viewing the conflict through the prism of peace talks, Peres’ continued prominence amounted to an article of faith, whatever grim new reality had taken hold on the ground.
“What people don’t understand, you don’t begin peace negotiations with a happy end,” Peres told TIME in a February interview, at the seaside “Peace Center” named for him, overlooking a Jaffa beach long favored by Israelis of Palestinian descent, but where Jewish Israelis were arriving in greater numbers. “Keep the happy end for the end. You have to begin from an obscure, complicated situation. And it takes time. You always have to find some new ways. Old ways are too known. They have too many objections.”