Israel's Last Founding Father

December 19, 2017 Topic: Security Region: Middle East Tags: IsraelNetanyahuShimon PeresPalestineJerusalem

Israel's Last Founding Father

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.

Peres always had a soft spot for the French; he was known to be more comfortable in Paris than Washington. His love affair with France began in secret, when in the face of government opposition—a recurring theme in Peres’s account of his exploits—he set off to Paris with the objective of establishing France as Israel’s primary arms supplier. The Fourth Republic was best known for its short-lived governments, so Peres had to forge relationships with politicians from across its political spectrum. That he managed to do so, without knowing a word of French when he first arrived in Paris, was indeed no small feat.

Even more remarkable was his success at persuading the French to finance and build a nuclear facility at Dimona. He claims that France was “Europe’s most advanced country in the nuclear field,” which it was not; the British were equally if not more advanced, particularly in the strategic nuclear realm. Be that as it may, Peres recognized that he had no hope of seeking support from the British, whose relations with Israel had remained uneasy ever since the state came into being.

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.

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.