He was just 11 when he left behind his native Poland and caught sight of his new homeland: Israel.
Little could he or others predict that Peres would go on to have a major impact on his adopted country’s political scene, serving as prime minister and president in a career spanning 70 years and 12 cabinets.
He was involved in some of the most daring military operations in history, including Entebbe, but it was also as his role as a man of peace that he forged a reputation as one of the world’s most admired statesmen.
In this extract from his memoir, No Room For Small Dreams, finished only weeks before his passing aged 93 and published to coincide with the first anniversary of his death, Peres recalls the vitriol aimed at him and Yitzhak Rabin following the signing of the Oslo Accords and the political assassination that would change history forever…
“After so many years of rivalry and partnership, it was only during that summer that my respect for Rabin would become genuine admiration.
He and I had become targets of vile attacks, not just in the media, but on the streets. Opponents dressed our effigies in Nazi uniforms and burned them. They marched in droves through the streets, at one point carrying a coffin meant for Rabin. It was horrifying.
I remember being told about one particularly shocking moment, as Rabin walked past the Wingate Institute in Netanya, between Haifa and Tel Aviv.
The gathered crowd began to shout abominable things, swearing and screaming, and even spitting on the prime minister.
Rabin didn’t change his pace or his expression; he walked past it all, head held high, giving off the aura of a man of conviction, a man too busy in his pursuit to be swayed by such vile behavior.
He showed extraordinary courage in those dark days, refusing to back down no matter the personal price…
As violence at home continued to drain support for the peace process, Rabin feared that if elections were held, we were likely to lose.
Recognizing that we had to recapture the enthusiasm for peace, and tamp down the preference for war, I suggested we hold a grand rally – a peace rally, one that would give us the chance to show the Israeli people that though the voices of peace were being drowned out by the shouting fury of the opposition, they hadn’t disappeared…
Rabin was anxious about the idea. “Shimon, what if it’s a failure?” he asked me in a late-night call a few evenings after we first discussed the idea. “What if the people don’t come?”
“They will come,” I promised him. Rabin and I arrived at the rally on November 4, 1995, to find a scene beyond our wildest expectations. He was stunned to see more than a hundred thousand people, gathered together in peace, for peace, in what was then known as Kings of Israel Square…
Rabin had truly been taken by surprise. It was the happiest I’d ever seen him—possibly many decades of working together, I had never heard him sing.
Now all of a sudden he was singing “Shir l’shalom,” the song of peace, out of a songbook he held in his hand. Even at the height of our greatest achievements, Rabin had never hugged me. All of a sudden, he hugged me.
As our time at the event drew to an end, we got ready to leave. We were supposed to all go down together, but just before we planned to depart, members of the intelligence service came in to speak with us. They had credible information that there would be an attempt on our lives, and for security purposes they wanted to change the way we planned to exit…
Before I turned to walk down the stairs, I went over to find Rabin. He was still happy as a child. I told him I was to leave first, and that I looked forward to talking about this triumph the next day.
He gave me another hug. “Thank you, Shimon. Thank you.”
I started down the steps toward my car, as cheers continued to echo all around me. Before I entered my car, I looked back to see Rabin walking down the stairs about one hundred feet behind me.
My security agent opened the car door for me, and as I bent down to get in I heard a sound that still wakes me some nights, all these years later – the sound, in quick succession, of three shots being fired.
I tried to stand back up. “What happened?” I shouted to the security guard. But instead of answering me, he pushed me into the car and slammed the door as the car screeched off into the distance…
“Where is he? What happened to him?” I asked of the first hospital staff I could see. No one had an answer – just tears in their eyes. “Take me to him!” I shouted. In all of the commotion, the head of the hospital saw me, and I him, and suddenly we were rushing toward each other.
“Tell me what has happened. Please.” “Mr Peres,” he said, with a crack in his voice, “I am sorry to have to say, the prime minister is dead.”
It was like someone had attacked me with a knife, my chest laid bare, my heart punctured. I had forgotten how to breathe. I had just seen Rabin’s face, smiling like I’d never seen before.
There was so much life in him, so much hope and promise. And now “Shir l’shalom,” our song for peace, was quite literally stained with blood – in the pages of the songbook Rabin was holding when attacked…
Down the hallway I saw Leah, Rabin’s wife, standing at the epicenter of an unimaginable tragedy. I could see that she had been told the words I could not imagine Sonia having to hear: the worst is true.
Leah and I went together to say a final farewell. He had a smile on his face – the face of a happy man, in total rest. Leah approached him and kissed him one last time. Then I went up to him. In wrenching sorrow, I kissed his forehead and said goodbye.
I was so distraught that I could barely speak when the minister of justice came to me.
“We have to appoint someone prime minister, immediately,” he said. “It cannot wait. We cannot leave the ship without a captain. Especially not now…”
…We gathered together, holding a makeshift memorial for our fallen brother. All of the ministers agreed that I should take over as prime minister, voting on the spot to name me Rabin’s successor. It was the most alone I had ever felt.”
No Room for Small Dreams by Shimon Peres is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson, priced £25 (hardback). Available now.