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

It was only in 1984, after twenty-five years as a professional politician, that Peres himself finally took office as prime minister of Israel. At the time, many observers saw him as Rabin did: a politician whose machinations matched his talents. They had good reason to view him that way. In 1965 Peres had joined several members of parliament, including his friend Moshe Dayan, and followed his mentor, Ben-Gurion, out of the Labor Party (known at the time as Mapai) to form a new party called Rafi. The party managed to exist only three more years, but in the interim, it had held merger talks with Menachem Begin’s right-wing Gahal opposition. Not surprisingly, although the Labor Party accepted him back in 1968, Peres’s long-time antagonist Levi Eshkol, now prime minister, excluded him from his government, though he had brought in Moshe Dayan as defense minister prior to the 1967 Six-Day War.

Peres has little to say about his country’s most famous military victory, and says nothing at all about his having bolted from the Labor Party and remaining in the opposition during the buildup to the war and through its aftermath. Having rejoined Labor in 1968, when it merged with Rafi, Peres was able to work his way back up Labor’s ranks, serving as minister for immigrant absorption and then minister of transportation under Golda Meir—though he evidently cared little for these jobs, of which his memoir makes no mention. In any event, an act his colleagues could only have viewed as betrayal became a major reason why Rabin defeated him as party leader in 1974, succeeding Meir as prime minister.

WHEN PERES became prime minister, it was as a result of an arrangement he had reached with the man who succeeded Begin as leader of the party by then known as Likud, Yitzhak Shamir. The deal between the Knesset’s two largest parties provided for Labor’s leader, Peres, to serve as prime minister, with Shamir as foreign minister, and then for the two men to exchange positions after two years. The deal avoided an election; the voters did not put Peres in power.

Peres took office as Israel was reeling from a financial crisis that had resulted in triple-digit inflation. He describes how he quickly pulled together a team of talented young economists who had worked in his election campaign to develop a recovery plan, and drew upon the advice of both Herb Stein, chairman of the Council of Economic Advisors under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, and Stanley Fischer, a brilliant Northern Rhodesia–born economist at MIT. Peres recognized that in order to foster a true recovery, he had to wean the economy off its socialist moorings, much to the chagrin of the powerful labor movement, while also imposing a freeze on prices that was certain to anger the business community. He succeeded in doing so, in no small part because he obtained critical financial assistance from the Reagan administration, thanks to the strong support of Secretary of State George Shultz. Peres acknowledges American support, but says far too little about Shultz’s critical role in enabling him to bring inflation under control.

Even as the economy was reeling from the impact of runaway inflation, Peres never lost focus on what was to become one of his trademark programs as he matured into an elder statesman: establishing Israel as the “start-up” nation par excellence. One of his earlier efforts in this regard was a project he described as having “nurtured from infancy,” one he had “long considered a bold and noble dream”: the development of a top-of-the line, indigenously built Israeli fighter aircraft, which ultimately became the ill-fated Lavi project.

Peres’s recollections about both the origins of the plane and its ultimate fate are remarkable for their inaccuracy. It is possible that, as the former senior British official Duff Cooper, borrowing from Shakespeare, entitled his memoirs, Old Men Forget. But not likely. His book demonstrates that, even as a nonagenarian, Peres’s memory was remarkably sound—when he wanted it to be.

Even as he describes his role in the project’s origins, Peres ignores the two Likud defense ministers who were most responsible for the plane’s initial development, Ezer Weizman and Moshe Arens. As early as 1974, Weizman, at the time chief of the Israeli Air Force, formulated a military requirement for an advanced combat aircraft. In 1980, when serving as defense minister, Weizman authorized the Air Force to develop the plane’s specifications. But it was Arens, even more than Weizman—later an outspoken opponent of the project—who was most closely associated with the Israeli push for an indigenous high-tech fighter. An aeronautical engineer by training, Arens had been responsible for the development of the Kfir, Israel’s first homegrown combat aircraft, and, while ambassador to Washington and then as defense minister, had been the Lavi’s most vociferous supporter.