Shimon Peres: Israel's hawk turned Nobel peace laureate

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Jerusalem (AFP)

Shimon Peres, hospitalised Tuesday after suffering a stroke, is an Israeli elder statesman, Nobel laureate and two-time prime minister who spearheaded peace efforts with the Palestinians after breaking with his hawkish past.

The 93-year-old, who also served as president, was a towering figure in Israeli politics for decades and is the country's last surviving founding father.

Beyond his accomplishments in the public eye, he is also seen as a driving force in the development of Israel's undeclared nuclear programme.

He is particularly lauded abroad, and his lavish 80th birthday party was attended by ex-presidents Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev. Film director Woody Allen sent greetings "from a bad Jew to a very great Jew."

He once confided that the secret to his longevity was daily gymnastics, eating little and drinking one or two glasses of good wine.

The highlight of his career came in 1994, when he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin and the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for his role in negotiating the Oslo accords with the Palestinians.

More than two decades later, Israeli-Palestinian peace remains elusive. As a new round of talks which later collapsed began in 2013, Peres expressed his optimism.

He said the talks had "a clear purpose" to have "a Jewish state by the name of Israel and an Arab state by the name of Palestine not fighting each other but living together in friendship and cooperation".

"There is no alternative to peace. There is no sense to go to war," he said.

"Terror doesn't have a message. Terror cannot bake bread and cannot offer fresh air to breathe. It's costly, it's useless, it doesn't produce anything."

- Statesmanship, political struggles -

Peres held nearly every major office in a career spanning five decades, but despite his reputation as a statesman he never managed to win a national election.

Born in Poland in 1923, Peres emigrated to what was then British mandatory Palestine when he was 11. He joined the Zionist struggle in the 1940s and while hitchhiking met David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel's first prime minister.

At 29, he became director general of the nascent defence ministry.

A member of parliament since 1959, Peres headed the Labour party from 1977 until Rabin took over in 1992. He was prime minister between 1984 and 1986 and again from 1995-1996.

Peres, who once hawkishly rejected any compromise with hostile Arab states, said he was converted after 1977, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat made a historic visit to Jerusalem, leading to the first Arab-Israeli peace treaty.

He was elected by parliament to the largely ceremonial post of Israeli president in 2007, a crowning triumph in a career whose fortunes appeared dead just two years before, when he lost the leadership of Labour and quit the party.

In 2005 he left Labour to join the new centrist Kadima headed by Ariel Sharon.

The alliance ensured Israel withdrew troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip after 38 years of occupation, although hopes of subsequently reviving the peace process came to nothing.

The one-time foreign, defence and finance minister was defeated in Israeli general elections in 1977, 1981, 1984, 1988 and 1996. He never led Labour to victory.

In 1995, he became premier again after Rabin was assassinated, but he then lost the election to Likud's Benjamin Netanyahu in May 1996.

He was subsequently replaced by Ehud Barak as Labour leader. Three years later, Peres was again elected Labour chairman, but was toppled for a second time in 2005 by Defence Minister Amir Peretz, having failed to inspire the party.

Before becoming president, he dedicated much of his time to promoting peace between Israel, the Palestinians and the Arab world through his Peres Center for Peace.

He left office as president in 2014, but maintained an active schedule even after suffering heart trouble in January 2016.

Peres, who speaks English and French as well as Hebrew, was married to Sonya, who died in 2011. The couple had three children and numerous grandchildren.