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Dunsmore: Shimon Peres

From the moment it was announced during Pope Francis’ recent Middle East trip, that he was inviting Israeli and Palestinian leaders to visit him in Rome, it was evident this particular effort at peace-making would be symbolic, at best. That’s because the man invited to represent Israel was Shimon Peres. He has been one of the giants of modern Israeli history. But in his largely ceremonial post of president, Peres had virtually no power. And it’s one measure of the prestige of the Israeli presidency that the man who preceded Peres, Moshe Katsay, is now serving a long prison term for rape.

Peres concluded his term as president, earlier this week. Those of us who came to respect him over the years, know that he holds a profound desire to see peace come to Israel and the region. He spent most of his lifetime dedicated to serving his country, including as prime minister, defense minister and foreign minister.

Early in his career, Peres caught the eye of Israel’s founding Prime Minister David Ben Gurion, who became his mentor. As a young man in the early 1960’s Peres went to Paris and with Ben Gurion’s backing, he ultimately persuaded the French to secretly supply Israel with the technologies that would directly lead to Israel becoming a nuclear power. Today, Peres is the acknowledged father of Israel’s never officially acknowledged nuclear program.

As Foreign Minister, Peres was the main Israeli negotiator of the Oslo Accords, the Israeli-Palestinian agreement reached in 1993 that was to serve as the framework for the two state solution for Arab Israeli peace. It was signed by Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, and PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat, with President Bill Clinton coaxing them into the famous Rabin-Arafat hand-shake on the White House lawn.

Rabin, Peres and Arafat won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. But there was strong opposition to the agreement by the Israeli settler movement and right wing politicians. In 1995 Rabin was assassinated by an opponent of the agreement. Peres succeed Rabin but after seven months was narrowly defeated in the 1996 election by Benjamin Netanyahu.

Peres served 48 years as a member of the Israeli Knesset- the longest ever. He has held all the top posts in the government and been part of 12 cabinets. But it is not the statistics of Peres political career that matter. It is the substance of it.

He will be 91 years old this summer and is the last of a vanishing group that once included Golda Meir, Abba Eban, Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin and Yitzhak Rabin. Among the seven American secretaries of state I traveled extensively with in covering the region, there were sometimes serious differences between Washington and Israel’s leaders - but there was always basic mutual respect.

In recent days, with America in the midst of the Ukrainian crisis, Mr. Netanyahu showed questionable respect for Israel’s major benefactor - by agreeing to open up a communications hot line with Vladimir Putin.

Barrie Dunsmore is a veteran diplomatic and foreign correspondent for ABC News, now living in Charlotte.
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