Israel's Last Founding Father

Israel's President Shimon Peres goes over his speech for the swearing-in ceremony of the new President, in his bureau at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, on his last day in office, July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Shimon Peres spent the first half of his career helping develop the Israeli military and the country's settlements, but spent the remainder of his days advocating peace and reconciliation.

January-February 2018

Peres recounts that once again he faced opposition to his scheme—from his old nemeses Golda Meir, who always considered him an upstart, and Levi Eshkol, who, as finance minister, “promised we wouldn’t see a penny from him.” Whether Eshkol actually said this we will never know: it pays to outlive your political opponents, and Peres outlived nearly all of them.

But Peres was supported by the man who mattered: Ben-Gurion. He somehow managed to win the agreement of the French government hours before it was defeated by a vote of no confidence. He then successfully talked De Gaulle’s skeptical, indeed hostile, foreign minister, Maurice Couve de Murville, into abiding by the agreement, even after Le Général turned on Israel and threw his support behind the Arabs in the aftermath of the Six-Day War.

Peres coyly describes the Dimona facility as intended for “peaceful purposes,” even as he also notes its importance as a deterrent against any efforts to annihilate the Jewish state. He recounts that he told John Kennedy, “Mr. President, I can tell you most clearly that we shall not be the first to introduce nuclear weapons to the region.” Few observers doubt that Peres was being disingenuous—he was so good at it. For many years, there has been widespread agreement that Israel maintains a powerful theater nuclear capability; indeed, the tone of his reminiscences indicates that Peres would have loved to take credit for it, if only security reasons had not prevented him from doing so.

Interestingly, during his first tenure as prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin attached far less importance to nuclear deterrence. In one of his many clashes with Peres, he favored allocating more funds to Israel’s immediate conventional military needs. Peres makes no mention of this fundamental disagreement over defense priorities, just as he downplays their rivalry, which at times bordered on outright hatred. The blunt, straight-talking Rabin was never comfortable with Peres, whom he, like many in and outside the Labor Party, considered to be the epitome of the smarmy operator; in his memoirs, he described Peres as an “inveterate schemer.” The two men continued to disagree over the importance of the nuclear deterrent, although, with the passage of time, it was Rabin who became its strong supporter, while Peres was inclined to negotiate a Middle Eastern nuclear-free zone.

IT WAS only during Rabin’s second term as prime minister that Rabin and Peres finally buried the hatchet, particularly with respect to seeking peace with the Palestinians. Peres—whose name in Hebrew means “hawk”—had been an early supporter of the more extreme elements among the West Bank settlers, who viewed the Palestinians as an obstacle to be ignored and dislodged. While serving as Rabin’s defense minister in the mid-1970s, Peres maintained a tacit understanding with the religious settler movement known as Gush Emunim, and supported their strategy, which settlers follow to this day, of creating “facts on the ground” by establishing outposts and then winning government acquiescence to expand them into settlements.

Of this unfortunate history, Peres says nothing at all in his final memoir. Instead, his account of his days as Rabin’s defense minister focuses on Israel’s amazing rescue of hostages held in Entebbe, Uganda, on July 4, 1976. As Peres recalls, it was his small cell that devised what became the actual rescue plan, which he asserts Rabin only approved after much hesitation. But Yehuda Avner, the senior civil servant who served four prime ministers as notetaker, had a very different recollection of the events leading up to the rescue. As Avner recorded in his memoir, The Prime Ministers, Rabin was furious at Peres for grandstanding during the inner cabinet’s deliberations over whether Israel should negotiate with the terrorist hostage takers. Rabin was inclined to negotiate; Peres objected. Rabin called in Motta Gur, the IDF chief of staff, to get his opinion regarding next steps. As Avner recounts, Rabin told the cabinet, “I don’t have the slightest doubt that Peres’ pontifications about not surrendering to terrorist blackmail are for the record only, so that he’ll be able to claim later that he was in favor of military action from the start.” That is exactly what Peres does in his book. But when Rabin asked Gur if there was any way in which a military operation could rescue the hostages, and Peres interrupted by saying that he had not discussed it yet with the chief of staff, Rabin exploded. Avner writes that “the veins on his forehead seem[ed] ready to pop.”

“What,” Avner recalls a furious Rabin saying, “fifty-three hours after we learn of the hijacking you have not yet consulted the chief of staff on the possibility of using military means to rescue the hostages?” Peres claims that he could say nothing because the IDF had not formulated a plan; but he could have told Rabin he was working on one. Instead he kept his boss, the prime minister of Israel, in the dark.