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Shimon Peres is Israel incarnate

    I'm guessing the year was 2000, maybe 2001. It was a morning editorial meeting at the Guardian and someone mentioned plans for coverage of a royal funeral. "When the Queen Mother dies…" he said. "No, no, no," I interrupted. "If the Queen Mother dies."

    At that stage, she was 100 years old and seemed destined to go on forever. Some public figures are like that. They've been around so long, captured in photographs from decade after decade, that you come to assume they're part of the fixed landscape, like a geological feature.

    In Britain, that role has long been played by the Queen. In Israel, her equivalent has, for years, been Shimon Peres.

    Israelis cracked similar jokes about him, riffing on his longevity. On word of a new archaeological discovery, some smart-alec would say: "They found ancient Roman coins, a Maccabean spear - and Shimon Peres's barmitzvah suit."

    The assumption was that Peres had been around for eternity and would stay that way. When he stepped down from the presidency, aged 91, Israeli commentators asked: "What will Peres do next?"

    Present at the creation, he is the last human link to the birth of Israel

    Still, and inevitably, when word came last week that Peres had suffered a serious stroke, it was his long past that came to mind.

    Think of each Israeli decade and Peres had a prominent role in it: president in the noughties; Prime Minister and Oslo signatory in the '90s; PM and Finance Minister in the '80s; acting PM and Defence Minister in charge of the Entebbe rescue operation in the '70s; rising star minister in the '60s; key player in the Suez drama, and architect of Israel's secret nuclear programme, in the '50s; close aide to David Ben Gurion, in charge of arms procurement for the embryonic IDF, in the 1940s.

    It's that last fact that is the most staggering. Only in his twenties, Peres was an influential figure in the 1948 War of Independence and an intimate of the founder of the state of Israel. It's as if in the United States of, say, 1844, there lived a politician who had begun his career advising George Washington. Peres was present at the creation. It makes him the last survivor of the founding generation, the last human link to Israel's birth. As as write, it seems that link will soon be severed.

    That is bound to have an effect on the country. I remember Israeli commentators saying something similar a decade ago when Ariel Sharon, then Prime Minister, suffered the stroke that incapacitated him. Now, they wrote, the giants were gone. From now on, only lesser mortals would govern Israel - perhaps bringing an end to the grandiose visions of the past and heralding a future more like a normal country.

    I'm not sure. But Israel will certainly feel different when none of the 1948 generation is around, when living memory slips into history. Think of how individuals are once they no longer have a living parent: there's a sense that now it's up to them, that ultimate responsibility falls on them and them alone.

    There's something else, too. When the time comes for obituaries, it'll be tempting to laud Peres the way he styled himself, as the "man of peace." After all, Peres won a Nobel prize for his involvement in Oslo, was tenacious in his pursuit of dialogue with Arab and Palestinian partners and was a constant target of the Israeli right for his advocacy of territorial compromise. They mocked him as hopelessly naive, an ingénu even in his nineties.

    But that was not the whole picture. Peres was also the godfather of Israel's atom bomb; as a minister, he repeatedly indulged the spread of West Bank settlements and, most notoriously, sat in the prime minister's chair in 1996 when Israel shelled a UN compound in Qana, Lebanon, a horrific, and still contested, episode that took the lives of more than 100 Lebanese civilians, all of them seeking safety.

    In other words, Peres can be written up as both a dove and a hawk. The legendary writer Amos Oz, a friend of Peres, likes to point out that it was the pacific figure of Levi Eshkol who ended up building "the largest Jewish empire since King David" while it was the nationalist Menachem Begin who gave away more territory than any Israeli leader before or since.

    Oz's point is that people change, surprising both themselves and us. But it is also true that no one is ever just one thing. Peres lived a life in full, notching up a history marked by both pride and shame. Just like Israel itself, the country he shaped from the very start.

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