JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres, who died Wednesday, was both a former president and prime minister, the only person in Israel to hold both jobs. Of Israel’s 12 prime ministers, three are still living: current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu; his predecessor, Ehud Olmert, who is in prison after a bribery conviction; and Ehud Barak, who appears to be plotting a comeback.
A look at some of its key prime ministers:
DAVID BEN-GURION (1886-1973)
Israel’s founding father and first prime minister served from Israel’s creation in 1948 until 1963, with a two-year hiatus in 1954-55. Renowned for declaring Israel’s independence and building its military might, he oversaw the development of Israel’s nuclear program and agreed to a historic reparations deal with West Germany over the Nazi crimes in the Holocaust. A towering figure in Israeli history and mentor to Peres, Ben-Gurion is regarded as the guiding force behind a philosophy of maintaining a strong military while also pursuing peace with Arab neighbors.
GOLDA MEIR (1898-1978)
Israel’s first and only female prime minister served between 1969 and 1974. Known as the “Iron Lady” of Israeli politics, she was born in Kiev, raised in Milwaukee and spoke in American-accented Hebrew. She oversaw a tumultuous time in office that included the emergence of hijackings by Palestinians and attacks on Israeli targets. Following the murder of 11 Israeli athletes at the 1972 Munich Olympics, Meir ordered the Mossad assassinations of Palestinian militants in Europe. She resigned after the 1973 Mideast War, when Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel. Although the Israeli military ultimately fended off the attacks, there were high casualties, tarnishing Meir’s legacy for being caught off guard.
YITZHAK RABIN (1922-1995)
The first native-born Israeli to become prime minister took office in 1974 after Meir’s resignation. The highlight of Rabin’s first term was ordering the daring rescue operation of Israeli hostages at Entebbe, Uganda, in 1976. The former military chief of staff resigned the next year after it was revealed he and his wife held a joint bank account in Washington, a breach of Israeli law at the time. During Rabin’s second term between 1992 and 1995, he made peace with neighboring Jordan and started a peace process with the Palestinians for which he won a Nobel Peace Prize, along with Peres and then-Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Rabin was assassinated by an extremist Jew opposed to his peace efforts.
MENACHEM BEGIN (1913-1992)
He led the nationalist Likud Party to its first election triumph in 1977, knocking the Labor Party out of power after 29 years. Despite his pugnacious reputation, the former underground guerrilla leader signed Israel’s first peace accord with an Arab nation when he made peace with Egypt and agreed to withdraw from the Sinai peninsula. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Begin later ordered the bombing of Iraq’s unfinished nuclear reactor and invaded Lebanon to drive out Palestinian militants. The 1982 massacre of hundreds of Palestinians in Beirut’s Sabra and Chatilla refugee camps by his Lebanese Christian allies led to an inquiry commission that ruled Begin bore “a certain degree of responsibility.” He resigned in 1983 and went into virtual seclusion.
YITZHAK SHAMIR (1915-2012)
Another underground guerrilla fighter, he succeeded Begin in 1983 and served until 1992, with a two-year break in the middle. He is known for building West Bank settlements and refusing to bargain for land. Barely over 5 feet (1.52 meters) tall and built like a block of granite, he projected an image of uncompromising strength in the first Palestinian uprising against Israel in the West Bank and Gaza. His term was marked by conflict with the U.S. administration over West Bank settlements, as well as a massive airlift of thousands of Ethiopian Jews to Israel and the 1991 Gulf War, when he resisted pressure to respond to the firing of dozens of Iraqi Scud missiles at Israel. He also attended the first Arab-Israeli peace conference in Madrid in 1991. He is remembered as a solid if uninspiring champion of the status quo.
SHIMON PERES (1923-2016)
In addition to a brief stint as acting prime minister in 1977, Peres led the government from 1984-86 in a rotation agreement with Shamir. He later served as caretaker prime minister from 1995-96 after Rabin’s assassination. Peres is credited with disentangling Israeli troops from Lebanon, rescuing its economy from triple-digit inflation in the 1980s and guiding a skeptical nation into peace talks with the Palestinians in the 1990s. Celebrated around the world as a Nobel Prize-winning visionary, he suffered many electoral defeats at home: In five general elections seeking the prime minister’s spot, he lost four and tied one. After years of setbacks, Peres finally secured public acclaim when he was chosen by parliament to a seven-year term as ceremonial president in 2007, taking the role of elder statesman.
ARIEL SHARON (1928-2014)
For years, Sharon was a polarizing general and politician, notorious for leading the country into a war in Lebanon as defense minister in 1982. An official inquiry found he bore “personal responsibility” for the Sabra and Chatilla massacres, and he was forced to step down. A longtime ally of the West Bank settler movement, the hard-line Sharon was head of the opposition when the second Palestinian uprising began and led his party to victory. He was prime minister from 2001 until suffering a debilitating stroke in 2006. But during that time, he underwent a transformation. While quashing the Palestinian uprising, he forged close ties with President George W. Bush and endorsed a U.S.-led peace plan. His boldest initiative was the unilateral withdrawal from the Gaza Strip in 2005. That pullout, months before he was incapacitated, cemented his legacy as a warrior-turned-statesman.
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