JERUSALEM • Mr Shimon Peres, one of the last surviving pillars of Israel's founding generation, has died at age 93, triggering an outpouring of grief for the historic figure and beloved statesman in the Jewish state and round the world.
His death early yesterday morning at a Tel Aviv hospital came two weeks after he suffered a stroke, and was announced by his son Chemi and son-in-law Rafi Walden. Immediately - on TV panels and coffee shops here - Israelis began to debate his complex legacy.
A leader who did more than anyone to build his country into a formidable, nuclear-armed regional military power then turned into a tireless campaigner for Middle East peace, Mr Peres remained energetic until his final days.
"His life ended abruptly when he was still working on his great passion, strengthening the country and striving for peace," said Dr Walden, who was also his personal physician. "His legacy will remain with us all."
Indeed, Mr Peres never left the public stage during Israel's seven decades. He led the creation of Israel's defence industry, negotiated key arms deals with France and Germany, and was the prime mover behind the development of its nuclear weapons. But he was consistent in his search for an accommodation with the Arab world.
His biggest breakthrough came in 1993 when he worked out and signed a deal with the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) for self-government in Gaza and in part of the West Bank, both of which were occupied by Israel.
On his passing, US President Barack Obama summed up the expressions of many world leaders yesterday when he said: "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. My friend Shimon was one of those people."
Former British prime minister Tony Blair called Mr Peres "someone I loved deeply", and said: "His intellect, his way with words that was eloquent beyond description, his command of the world and how it was changing were extraordinary."
Despite decades of rivalry with Mr Peres, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a right-winger who defeated the then Labor Party leader in a 1996 election, praised him as a stalwart of the centre-left and a visionary.
"Shimon won international recognition that spanned the globe. World leaders wanted to be in his proximity and respected him," Mr Netanyahu said after holding a minute's silence at a specially convened Cabinet meeting.
Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas issued a statement saying he had sent a condolence letter to the family expressing his "sadness and regret" and praising Mr Peres' "intensive efforts to reach out for a lasting peace... until the last days".
By contrast, in the Gaza Strip, Sami Abu Zuhri, a spokesman for the enclave's Hamas Islamist rulers, said: "The Palestinian people are happy over the departure of this criminal, who was involved in many crimes and in the bloodshed of the Palestinian people."
It was not clear if Mr Abbas would attend Mr Peres' funeral, which will take place tomorrow at Jerusalem's Mount Herzl cemetery, in a section dedicated to "Great Leaders of the Nation". Israeli media was reporting that an array of world leaders, including Mr Obama, former US president Bill Clinton and Britain's Prince Charles, among many others, have confirmed that they will attend.
NYTIMES, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE