By Ori Lewis
JERUSALEM (Reuters) – Shimon Peres, one of Israel’s last surviving founding fathers who developed its powerful armed forces and nuclear capabilities before seeking peace with the Palestinians and sharing a Nobel prize, died on Wednesday at 93 after suffering a stroke.
A convinced campaigner for Middle East peace who remained energetic until the final days of his seven decades in public life, the center-left elder statesman was mourned by world leaders and praised for his tireless engagement.
“A light has gone out,” said U.S. President Barack Obama who, the White House later confirmed, will attend Peres’s funeral on Friday.
“There are few people who we share this world with who change the course of human history, not just through their role in human events, but because they expand our moral imagination and force us to expect more of ourselves,” Obama said in a statement. “My friend Shimon was one of those people.”
Despite decades of rivalry with Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-winger who defeated the then-Labour Party leader in a 1996 election, praised him as a stalwart of the center-left and a visionary.
“There were many things we agreed upon, and the number grew as the years passed. But we had disagreements, a natural part of democratic life,” Netanyahu said after holding a minute’s silence at a specially convened cabinet meeting.
“Shimon won international recognition that spanned the globe. World leaders wanted to be in his proximity and respected him. Along with us, many of them will accompany him on his last journey to eternal rest in the soil of Jerusalem.”
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said he had sent a condolence letter to Peres’s family expressing his “sadness and regret” and praising his “intensive efforts to reach out for a lasting peace … until the last days”.
It was not clear whether Abbas would attend the funeral, which will be held at Jerusalem’s Mount Herzl cemetery in a section dedicated to “Great Leaders of the Nation”.
In the Gaza Strip, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the enclave’s Islamist Hamas rulers, said Palestinians were “happy about the departure of this criminal, who was involved in many crimes and in the bloodshed of the Palestinian people”.
The Israeli Foreign Ministry published a long list of dignitaries it expected to attend the funeral, including Britain’s Prince Charles and former U.S. president Bill Clinton. French President Francois Hollande confirmed he would be present, alongside his predecessor, Nicolas Sarkozy.
The announcement of Peres’s death was made at Tel Hashomer hospital by his son, Chemi, and son-in-law, Rafi Walden.
“His life ended abruptly when he was still working on his great passion, strengthening the country and striving for peace. His legacy will remain with us all,” said Walden.
The Polish-born Peres, whose family moved in the 1930s to then British-ruled Palestine, was part of almost every major political development in Israel from its founding in 1948.
Peres served in a dozen cabinets and was twice prime minister, though he never won a general election, struggling to connect with ordinary voters.
He was first elected to parliament in 1959 and, barring a brief interlude in early 2006, held his seat for 48 years, before becoming president in 2007.
In every role Peres undertook – from forging Israel’s defense strategy in the 1950s to running his eponymous peace foundation – he was known for his energy and enthusiasm, even recording jokey YouTube videos into his 90s.
“Optimists and pessimists die the same way,” he said. “They just live differently. I prefer to live as an optimist.”
He shared the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize with the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for reaching an interim peace deal in 1993, the Oslo Accords, which however never turned into a lasting treaty.
Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli ultra-nationalist who opposed the interim accords with the Palestinians, and it was Peres who took over as prime minister after Rabin’s death.
Peres is widely seen as having been the prime developer in the 1950s of Israel’s armed forces and its means to build nuclear arms through the procurement of the Dimona reactor from France during his tenure as defense ministry director-general.
As defense minister, he oversaw the 1976 Israeli rescue of hijacked Israelis at Entebbe airport in Uganda.
In the Arab world, his legacy was tainted by the 1996 shelling of a United Nations compound in the village of Qana in southern Lebanon during an Israeli military offensive. More than 100 civilians sheltering there were killed. Peres was prime minister at the time and Israel said its forces had been aiming at Hezbollah militants firing rockets nearby.
Peres was also seen to have done little to rein in the expansion of settlements on land Israel captured during the 1967 Middle East war, even if he was not an active proponent of a policy that Obama has described as an obstacle to a permanent peace accord with Palestinians seeking an independent state.
From 2007, when he was elected president on his second attempt, Peres played more of a ceremonial role, trying to raise Israel’s profile internationally while advocating for peace through his foundation. He stepped down as president in 2014.
Despite the influence he has had on Israel’s landscape, his death is not expected to have an impact on the already dim prospects for a return to peace talks with the Palestinians. The last round of negotiations collapsed in 2014.
(Additional reporting by Jeffrey Heller in Jerusalem and Jeff Mason in Washington; writing by Ori Lewis and Luke Baker; editing by Mark Heinrich)