Life & Culture

Peres the husband: Private angst amid joy


Shimon Peres was the man who could never stop serving his country. And while this inspired Israel, it drove a wedge between him and his late wife Sonia. They had got together as teenagers and attended youth movement camps as a couple but she was never fully reconciled to his transformation into a public figure.

She waited for his retirement but, when it was clear that there wouldn't be any retirement, she took the view that enough was enough and they became estranged.

This final separation took place after Peres decided in 2007, aged 84, that he would run for President. He had stood unsuccessfully seven years earlier and was determined that, this time he would succeed. When he did, Mrs Peres snubbed the swearing in ceremony and, when she died in January 2011, was said to have never set foot in the Presidential Residence.

She stayed in the couple's Tel Aviv flat and though they never divorced, started using the surname Gal - the name she was born with in the Ukraine, Gelman, given a Hebrew twist. The letterbox on the flat was duly adjusted and, just as she never went to the Presidential Residence, Peres was not included in family gatherings at the flat.

He never stopped loving his wife, and recalled in his eulogy for her how they fell in love at a youth village. "I saw a young girl tending the garden," he said. "She was wearing shorts, with a braid in her hair. She had a wonderful face. I knew that it was love at first sight."

We decided to go our separate ways. It was difficult

But when his love for her was pitted against his love of public service and determination to become President, the latter won out.

Three years after his wife died, Peres spoke of his decision to interviewers from Yediot Achronot: " 'Look,' I said to her, 'I have served the country, the people, all my life. This is what gives my life content. I don't even know what time off is, for me time off is like dying. I will die if I don't do this.' She said to me: 'You've done enough. There are other people who can serve the country now.' "

But he said he still felt the call and "we decided to go our separate ways."

He said of the choice: "It was difficult but I respected her will and she respected mine. Had I stayed [with her], I would have suffocated."

Throughout their marriage Mrs Peres had dodged the limelight and tried hard to minimise involvement in her husband's public activities. Some analysts have suggested that this cost Mr Peres politically, making party colleagues and the public less warm to him. Once, when asked why she stayed away from public life, she replied: "I married a dairy farmer."

This July, Mr Peres revisited the subject of the separation in another interview with Yediot. "It was difficult and it was very sad. But there were no tears and no slamming of doors. When she stood by her decision, I said 'you have the right just as I have a right to stand by my opinion. You have your way, I also have my way.'

"Look, I loved Sonia without any doubt. There were different situations but it never changed our relationship with one another. In the meantime, we had children and grandchildren and to me they all look like Sonia. They are with me and they are staying with me. This is how I am still with Sonia."

The children - Tsvia Walden, Yoni Peres and Chemi Peres - kept up good relationships with their father after the separation, as did his grandchildren. They would visit the Presidential Residence at weekends and once his term ended, would go to see him at home. There was also a meeting of minds between Peres and some of his descendents. Chemi Peres is chairman of the board of the Peres Centre for Peace and his granddaughter, Mika Almog, worked with him to create the video that he released after leaving the Presidency. The hilarious film showed him trying out new jobs, from petrol pump attendant to skydive instructor, and ended by making it clear that, even if he was ill-suited to these jobs, his public role in Israel was still far from over.

Share via

Want more from the JC?

To continue reading, we just need a few details...

Want more from
the JC?

To continue reading, we just
need a few details...

Get the best news and views from across the Jewish world Get subscriber-only offers from our partners Subscribe to get access to our e-paper and archive