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In Israel, Mourners Come To Terms With Shimon Peres' Complex Legacy


This is the first day in Israel without Shimon Peres. That's what Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today, remembering the former Israeli prime minister and president who was one of the founders of the country. Shimon Peres was 93 years old. Around the world, he's remembered for his Nobel Peace Prize and negotiations with the Palestinians. In Israel and among Palestinians, he had a more complicated legacy. NPR's Daniel Estrin reports from Jerusalem.

DANIEL ESTRIN, BYLINE: Israelis views of Peres have changed over the years. For a long time, he had a reputation for losing elections and being a naive idealist. But he played a key role in nearly every major chapter in the history of the 68-year-old country. People came to see Peres as a symbol of Israel itself, as Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said today.

BENJAMIN NETANYAHU: His name will be forever engraved in the story of the rebirth of the Jewish people as one of our great leaders, as one of the founding fathers of the state of Israel.

ESTRIN: Peres was born in Eastern Europe in 1923. He immigrated to Palestine and became a top aide to Israel's first prime minister. He helped start Israel's nuclear program, and for decades, he filled nearly every leadership post in the country. His optimism about forging peace with the Palestinians was not shared with many in his country, but people were floored by his stamina. Even at the age of 93, he was still crisscrossing the country, preaching tolerance and innovation and a bright future for Israel. In some ways, Israelis thought he would live forever. Today, radio stations played somber music, and Israel is preparing to host scores of world leaders expected at a funeral Friday. He lies in state tomorrow outside Israel's parliament building.


ESTRIN: Workmen prepared the area where Peres casket will lay in state. Asher Hazan helped carry out a large, black base where the coffin will rest. He remembers fixing up Peres' parliament office years ago when Peres himself offered him hand.

ASHER HAZAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: He was a major personality, Hazan said. He didn't like Peres' peace efforts, but he still admired him. Initially, Peres was a hawk and a supporter of Israel's settlements in the West Bank, but he changed. He was part of secret talks with the Palestinians leading to the Oslo agreement. It earned him a shared Nobel Peace Prize with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin.


ESTRIN: Peres will be buried next to Rabin, his partner in peace efforts. Gravediggers dug a rectangle in the ground today. Mohammed Badran was in charge of mixing cement. He's Palestinian. I asked him if he and other Palestinians liked Peres.

MOHAMMED BADRAN: (Foreign language spoken).

ESTRIN: Nobody likes Peres, he mumbled. Many Palestinians remembered Peres as being prime minister in 1996 when Israel launched an attack on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon that ended up killing scores of Lebanese refugees at a U.N. shelter. Palestinian bookshop owner Imad Muna doesn't forgive Peres for that attack, but he does admire him for his peace efforts.

IMAD MUNA: But the Israelis who say things - Israeli leaders who don't see a leader like him that can make peace with Palestinian - and I'm sorry to say that.

ESTRIN: Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas expressed his sorrow at the death of Peres today. He said he made, quote, "persistent efforts to reach a just peace from the Oslo agreement until the final moments of his life." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Daniel Estrin is NPR's international correspondent in Jerusalem.