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.

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.

There is a very simple reason for Peres’s not mentioning either man in his account of the Lavi’s fate: it would detract from his own image as Israel’s sole high-technology visionary. There was a second reason why Peres omitted Arens’s name in particular: the two men despised each other. Peres never forgave Arens for meeting with Secretary of State George Shultz in Washington at the request of Prime Minister Shamir—Peres having become foreign minister when he exchanged places with Shamir in 1986—to abort a plan for a Middle East peace conference that Peres had negotiated with King Hussein of Jordan without receiving Shamir’s approval. Indeed, the only time he mentions Arens at all is in the course of his recounting of the failed effort to reach an understanding with Jordan. Not surprisingly, Peres fails to note that his prime minister and ministerial colleagues initially were totally unaware of what he had been doing; nor does he provide a credible explanation for his decision not to show Shamir the actual agreement that he had reached with Jordan’s King Hussein. And Peres does not mention that he had briefed George Shultz on the agreement without Shamir’s approval or even knowledge; as Shultz recalled in his memoirs, the agreement with Hussein had been “revealed to me [Shultz’s emphasis] before it had been revealed to the Israeli government itself!” Arens, and Shamir for that matter, had every reason to consider Peres a manipulative schemer; once again he had gone behind the back of the sitting prime minister.

Peres claims that he had developed serious doubts about the Lavi program, due to its costs, and that it was he who cast the deciding vote in the Israeli cabinet to terminate the effort. None of this is true. Although Peres’s protégés, Amnon Neubach and Abrasha Tamir—who later served under Peres as director general of the foreign ministry—were opposed to the project’s continuation due to its mounting costs, they were unable to persuade their mentor. When I first briefed Peres on the program in April 1985 (having been assigned by the Pentagon to look into its viability as an American-funded project), Peres made it clear to me that he supported Israel’s high-tech industries, and as a consequence was firmly behind the Lavi. Indeed, I told Neubach immediately after the briefing that Peres was not listening to him; Neubach simply replied, “That’s politics.”

A year later, Peres still had not changed his mind about the fighter. On May 26, he assured his cabinet that he remained firmly behind the program. Seven months later, despite mounting evidence of the program’s skyrocketing costs, Peres repeated to me that he was not yet prepared to oppose the project. Instead, he and Prime Minister Shamir, who was very close to Arens, sought to persuade the Reagan administration to reconsider its opposition to funding the plane. It was only at the last moment, when the Israeli cabinet was about to vote on terminating the project, that Peres finally came out in opposition. Since the vote to end the program was twelve to eleven, with four abstentions, Peres could claim that his vote was decisive. So too, however, could Yitzhak Nissim, the finance minister, who was the only Likud minister to vote against the plane.

Peres could claim credit, on the other hand, for getting the cabinet to adopt his proposal to allocate $100 million to Lavi technologies, which over time was a major factor in the transformation of Israel’s defense industry into a high-tech defense powerhouse. Surprisingly, he does not mention this cabinet decision at all. Perhaps he forgot.

HAVING TASTED the premiership once, Peres tried once again to win his party’s leadership to fight the 1992 Israeli elections. Once again it was Rabin whom the rank and file preferred, and it was he who became prime minister in 1993, while Peres became foreign minister for a second time. Peres was eager to achieve a breakthrough with the Palestinians; Rabin’s known preference was for a peace agreement with Syria’s Hafez al-Assad. Shortly after Rabin took office, Walid Muallem, then serving as Syrian ambassador to Washington, contacted me with a request that I ask Rabin whether he was serious about reaching a deal with Assad. I phoned Rabin on his private number, and received an affirmative reply, which I transmitted to Muallem. In the event, Assad refused to negotiate, thereby leaving the door open for Peres to pursue his own agenda with the Palestinians.

Peres’s account of what became known as the Oslo process offers no new revelations. He recalls that virtually from their inception, he kept Rabin apprised of the informal discussions between a senior PLO official and two Israeli professors, later supplanted by Uri Savir, director general of the foreign ministry and another Peres protégé. Peres claims credit for the Declaration of Principles that emerged from the Oslo talks; in fact it was Savir, who headed the negotiation team, and Yoel Singer, Rabin’s personal representative and legal advisor for the agreement, who drafted the historic document. Peres mentions Savir’s role, but offers not a word about Singer—perhaps because Singer, unlike Savir, was not his protégé but instead was close to Rabin.

Having achieved an agreement with the PLO, for which he, Rabin and Yasser Arafat all received the Nobel Peace Prize, Peres next turned his sights on a peace agreement with Jordan. After all, he had met several times with King Hussein and, to his mind at least, had successfully negotiated an agreement with the Jordanian monarch seven years before. This time, however, Peres kept no secrets from his prime minister, and in 1994 the two men, with the help of the United States, signed a peace treaty with the Hashemite kingdom.

It was not long thereafter that a young extremist Israeli assassinated Rabin, and Peres once again became prime minister. Ever eager to be elected to the position, Peres called an election the following year, only to be defeated by Benjamin Netanyahu. Most men would have retired from public life at that point; Peres was seventy-three years old. Instead, for the next twenty years, whether in office as a minister in the Ehud Barak government from 1999–2001 and in the Sharon government from 2001–02 and 2005–06, or as president of Israel from 2007–14, or out of office in the intervening years, Shimon Peres became Israel’s leading spokesman both for peace with the Palestinians and for Israel’s ongoing development as a “start-up nation.” Even more important, as president he finally shed his reputation as a schemer and instead became a beloved national treasure. The war hawk had turned peacemaker; the manipulator had risen above politics.

It was Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose rants against the Oslo Accord contributed to his defeat of Peres in the 1996 election, but who became close with the older man during Peres’s presidency, whose eulogy captured some of the essence of Israel’s last surviving founding father:

“He soared on the wings of vision but he knew that the runway passes through the rocky field of politics. He was able to do all that—to be pummeled, to fall and get back on his feet time after time—thanks to his passion for activism and ideals.”

But there was even more to Peres than that: in his old age, he was reported to have become more religious, reverting back to his early youth and his love for his grandfather, the rabbi. Perhaps that should come as no surprise. Many people come to terms with their maker in their sunset years. Yet there was something more to it: Peres, looking back on all he had done, truly came to believe that the promises Biblical prophets had made to the Jews more than two millennia previously were finally coming to fruition. The boy from the Polish shtetl had come a long way, and his Biblical dream had come true.