By Judith Sudilovsky
Catholic News Service
JERUSALEM (CNS) — One of the last ceremonies in which former Israeli President Shimon Peres participated as a public figure took place in the Vatican Gardens in June 2014, the last month of his presidency. Along with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, he planted an olive tree at the invitation of Pope Francis.
The evening of peace prayers and the tree planting had been initiated by the pope following his pilgrimage a month earlier to the Holy Land, where he met with both men, and just weeks after American-sponsored peace talks had foundered.
At the meeting, Peres, who died Sept. 28 at 93, called the act of making peace a "holy mission."
"I was young. Now I am old," media reports quoted him as saying after the ceremony. "I experienced war. I tasted peace. Never will I forget the bereaved families — parents and children — who paid the cost of war. And all my life I shall never stop to act for peace, for generations to come. Let’s all of us join hands and make it happen."
At the Vatican Sept. 28, Pope Francis said Peres’ death renewed his "great appreciation for the late president’s tireless efforts in favor of peace. As the state of Israel mourns Mr. Peres, I hope that his memory and many years of service will inspire us all to work with ever greater urgency for peace and reconciliation between peoples."
Early in his political career, Peres was known as a military hawk, who, unlike his colleagues in the left-leaning Labor Party, supported the establishment of settlements in the West Bank. By the second half of his career in public life, in the early 1980s, he became a staunch proponent of territorial compromise and the peace process.
Peres dedicated himself to the work of achieving peace during the last years of his life, largely through the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv, which he founded in 1996, and other initiatives. He also became an advocate for responsible use of the earth’s resources.
Two months after leaving office as Israel’s ninth president, Peres again met with Pope Francis. He initiated the meeting to propose that the pontiff head a parallel United Nations called the "United Religions" to counter religious extremism in the world.
At the time, Jesuit Father Federico Lombardi, then-Vatican spokesman, said the pope had listened to Peres’ idea during the unusually long 45-minute meeting, "showing his interest, his attention and encouragement," reflecting the pope’s "esteem and appreciation" for the nonagenarian.
The pope did not commit to the proposal.
Associated with the secular left of Israel throughout his life, Peres later counseled in the meeting with the pope not to underestimate "the power of the human spirit," and he emphasized the important role prayer can have in peacemaking.
"We must not become cynical," he was quoted as saying afterward. "The human being is much more than being made up of just flesh and blood."
Born in Poland in 1923 in an area that is now Belarus, Peres was the son of a successful timber merchant and a librarian. He lived in the religiously observant home of his grandfather, a prominent rabbi who taught him the Talmud, a collection of writings that constitute Jewish civil and religious law.
Later, as a political leader in Israel, he opposed ultra-Orthodox religious extremism and called on Israelis to defend the democratic character of the country.
With the rise of the Nazis in Germany, in 1934 Peres’ family traveled in 1934 to Palestine, which was then under the rule of the British Mandate. Peres grew up in Tel Aviv and, as a young man, he helped found Kibbutz Alumot, one of many communal agricultural villages founded by Jewish pioneers.
All of his relatives who did not leave Europe were killed in the Holocaust. In his address at the German Bundestag Jan. 27, 2010 — International Holocaust Remembrance Day — Peres recalled how the Jews from his village, including his grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Melzter, were herded into the synagogue and burned alive by Nazis forces.
Peres’ involvement in the political and defense capabilities of Israel spanned six decades. After being elected to the Knesset in 1959, he served continuously except for a three month break in 2006 and 2007 until he assumed the presidency. He also served in several ministerial positions, including two nonconsecutive terms as prime minister.
As foreign minister, he initiated negotiations with the Palestinians, which led to the signing of the Oslo Accords with the Palestine Liberation Organization in 1993. Peres, former Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, who later became president of the Palestinian Authority, received the Noble Peace Prize for negotiating the agreement.
Soon thereafter, Peres oversaw the negotiations with the Vatican that resulted in the signing of a Fundamental Agreement with the Holy See Dec. 30, 1993, and led to the opening of diplomatic relations between the two entities.
"President Peres was a man of political dialogue and also interreligious dialogue," said Auxiliary Bishop William Shomali of Jerusalem. "I remember every time we went to attend the official New Year reception, he spoke about the importance of dialogue between people of faith. He really believed in that."
Because of Peres’ belief in the power of people of faith, Pope Francis invited Peres to plant the olive tree in the Vatican Gardens, Bishop Shomali told Catholic News Service.
"It was an interreligious ceremony with prayers for peace and he will be remembered for this encounter in Rome," he said.
In Israel, Peres was beloved and disliked for the peace negotiations, with some observers labeling him a traitor. The same held true within the Catholic community, which is part of the Israel’s Arab society, said Wadie Abunassar, a Catholic political analyst.
"Some people love him but others called him a fox because, in reality, he did not achieve a good agreement with the (Palestinians)," Abunassar said. "But some people remember him as a good man who achieved the Oslo peace agreements and who was a bitter enemy of the extreme right."