Shimon Peres: A Great Statesman, a Tragic Politician

Israeli President Shimon Peres speaks during a meeting with Secretary of Defense Chuck Hagel in 2013. Wikimedia Commons/Department of Defense

He was one of the two most influential people in Israel’s short modern history.

Shimon Peres, who died on Tuesday at the age of ninety-three, was a one-of-a-kind biological and historical phenomenon. After all, other than Peres, can we name a single person who played a major role in the creation of a new state and who some sixty-five years later held what is formally the highest office of the state he helped create—the state’s presidency? Indeed, while rarely if ever are there clearly right or wrong answers in the realms of history and politics, one college exam question about Israel’s history that has only one correct answer is: name two individuals who contributed more than anybody else to Israel’s existence. The correct answer: David Ben-Gurion and Shimon Peres.

Publically, Peres liked to refer to David Ben-Gurion as the grand master and to call himself the student. But in reality, while Ben-Gurion was the grand strategist, Peres was the one who executed: he made it all happen. During Israel’s formative years—the late 1940s, and through the 1950s—Peres built at least three pillars of the grand strategy that Ben-Gurion had designed. He was also in charge of managing the inbuilt tensions between these pillars.

The first of these pillars was self-help: the Jewish state would not rely on others’ good will for its security and survival. And so, as a very young director general of Israel’s Ministry of Defense, and later as its deputy minister, Peres set out to create the country’s armament industry, first the Israel Military Industry (IMI) and later its Israel Aircraft Industry (IAI).

The second pillar of Ben-Gurion’s grand strategy was the pursuit of an alliance with a major power. The first decisive move he made in that direction was to side with the West. Although Israel’s creation was supported by both Truman’s America and Stalin’s Russia, when in 1950 the War in Korea forced Israel to chose sides, Ben-Gurion decided to abandon Israel’s neutrality and to place the two-year-old country squarely in the American-led camp. The decision was costly—it earned Israel decades-long hostility from both the Soviet Union and Communist China.

The second decisive move took place when, by 1954, it became clear that due to its broader regional and global interests, the United States was not yet prepared to become Israel’s primary arms supplier. Assessing that Israel and France shared the same security threat—Egypt’s new president Gamal Abdel Nasser inspired Arab masses with pan-Arab rhetoric centered on hostility to Israel, and with anti-colonial rhetoric that centered on hostility to Britain and France—Israel shifted its pursuit of an external big-power ally from Washington to Paris.

The decision to bet on France was Ben-Gurion’s, but the execution was left entirely to Shimon Peres. Within less than two years, and still in his early thirties, Peres planted all the seeds of a full-fledged military alliance that resulted in the launching of a major war: the 1956 Suez-Sinai War. The alliance lasted more than twelve years, and was only gradually replaced by significant U.S. military assistance after 1970.

A less remembered chapter in Peres’s contribution to Israel’s security and survival was his critical role in an equally important relationship established by Israel during the 1950s: that with West Germany. Barely a decade after the Holocaust, in an effort to avoid becoming an economically failed state, Israel sought reparations from West Germany. This met with huge resistance in Israel—from the far left to the far right—by Holocaust survivors and many others who argued that it was immoral and unethical to accept financial compensation from people who perpetrated the greatest horror ever inflicted on the Jewish people.

For Ben-Gurion, however, the Holocaust imposed a different moral imperative: to prevent such a catastrophe from ever happening again. And the only insurance policy Ben-Gurion saw as effective against the recurrence of such a catastrophe was the existence of a robust Jewish state. And if the latter goal required the acceptance of German financial support, the imperative was well worth surrendering a measure of ethical purity.

Together with Ben-Gurion, Peres launched a major campaign in Israel, arguing that in the aftermath of the Second World War, a “new Germany” has emerged with which Israel must establish close relations. And while Ben-Gurion forged a unique understanding with the new Germany’s leader, Chancellor Konrad Adenauer, it was Peres who built Israel’s relationship with the country’s young guard and particularly with its most conservative elements: the Bavarian section of the Christian Democratic Party led by Franz Josef Strauss. Thus the basis were laid for Germany’s massive financial support of Israel in the form of individual and collective reparations, of its supply to Israel of gas masks on the eve of the 1967 War—when Israel feared Egypt’s possible use of chemical weapons—and of its provision to Israel of Dolphin-type submarines in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War. It is these submarines that in the eyes of many now comprise an important dimension of Israel’s strategic deterrence, to which Peres gave birth three decades earlier in Dimona.

And this brings us to the third pillar of Ben-Gurion’s grand strategy that Peres was assigned to implement: deterrence. Very early, Ben-Gurion understood that the numerically inferior Israel could not fight wars indefinitely. War avoidance thus became an imperative, and Israel’s founding father was impressed, years before Bernard Brody, Thomas Schelling, Henry Kissinger and others wrote their important books on nuclear deterrence, that the atom could provide “the few” facing “the many” with a “great equalizer” that could deter war.