As world leaders gathered last week in Israel to commemorate the life of Shimon Peres, I and six of my Conservative parliamentary colleagues were already in the country on a visit organised by Conservative Friends of Israel. It was 23 years since I had visited Israel as a newly-selected parliamentary candidate along with then-aspiring MPs like David Lidington and Alan Duncan.
This time I was privileged to lead the delegation, which was again intended to increase the understanding of MPs of Israel and its place in the region.
The news of Peres’ passing came halfway through our trip and was particularly poignant for me as we had had the privilege of meeting him on that first visit 23 years ago.
I remember well his patience in explaining the complexities of the conflict between Israel and the Palestinian people and his optimism and determination that a peaceful solution could be found. His charisma and humanity were obvious and the warm eulogies of recent days emphasise the indelible mark this great leader left on many people across the world.
Peres was a giant, playing a leading role in Israel’s defining moments. Everywhere we went during our visit we saw evidence of his lasting legacy, from high-tech start-ups to peaceful co-existence charities.
The equity crowdfunding platform iAngels, which partners funders to Israeli start-ups, epitomises the vibrant Start-up Nation launched by Peres, demonstrating Israel’s capability as a technological powerhouse. At Beit Issie Shapiro, an organisation developing innovative solutions to empower people with disabilities, we experienced a pioneering sensory room and tested facial-recognition software enabling users to have hands-free access to technology.
Save A Child’s Heart embodies the former president’s desire to bring Israelis and Palestinians together. The charity uses Israeli medical expertise to perform heart surgery on children from the West Bank and Gaza with congenital heart defects as well as training doctors and treating children from developing countries.
We visited Sderot, known as the ‘bomb shelter capital of the world’, where new housing developments show the resolve of Israelis who are not prepared to desert their homes in face of constant rocket attacks. On a visit to the West Bank, we also went to see Rawabi, a new town development for Palestinians and the brainchild of a remarkable man, Bashar al-Masri. He told us the Israeli politician who had given him most support to make it happen had been Peres.
The appetite for a two-state solution was palpable throughout our stay, with speakers often referring to one of Peres’ best-known achievements, the 1993 Oslo Accords, and their impact on launching direct negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians.
Peres’ passing defined the trip as one of reflection and great meaning, one I will not forget. In life, he championed co-existence and sought peace tirelessly; in death, he united adversaries who put aside differences to remember a remarkable man.
The presence of Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas at Peres’ funeral and his warm greeting with Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu cemented this, giving Israelis and Palestinians renewed hope for the resolution Peres so dearly wanted.
My visit to Israel demonstrated his powerful legacy, and I, together with the people of Israel, mourn his passing.