Israel’s Last Founding Father

The National Interest, 19.12.2017
Dov S. Zakheim, ex subsecretario de defensa norteamericano (2001–4) y vicepresidente del Center for the National Interest
  • 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.

Shimon Peres, No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel(New York: Custom House, 2017)

Shimon Peres, who was present at the creation of the state of Israel and helped to determine its fortune for seven decades, was the author of no fewer than ten books, five of which, including his valedictory No Room for Small Dreams: Courage, Imagination, and the Making of Modern Israel, were memoirs. This, his final volume, was completed only days before his death at the age of ninety-three in September 2016. The book is actually an extended essay; its subtitle hints at Peres’s sense of self and how he wishes posterity to remember him. It is about the man’s courage, and imagination, and his outsized role both in creation of the Jewish state and providing for its security. This, perhaps, should come as no surprise. As the veteran journalist Akiva Eldar wrote more than a decade ago, Peres “always nurtured an inclination for historical grandeur.”

Peres, who was born in 1923, grew up in Vishneva, a shtetl in what is now Belarus, near the Lithuanian border, but which was then on Polish territory. Jews accounted for about two-thirds of its population of less than three thousand. The Persky (or Perski) family, as they were known at the time, had lived in Vishneva for several generations. Some of their relatives had moved to America; one of them, who claimed to be Peres’s cousin, was a young woman named Betty Joan Perske, better known as Lauren Bacall. She claimed to be Peres’s first cousin, though Peres repeatedly asserted that he was unsure of the supposed family connection with the famous beauty.

Jews from the area where the Peres family lived were called “Litvaks,” presumably because the region was once part of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. Litvaks had the reputation of being rather stingy, dry, generally humorless intellectuals. Peres writes that he inherited his love of books from his mother, who loved to read and had trained as a librarian; he certainly cultivated the image of a cosmopolitan intellectual. He was a polyglot: the family spoke Yiddish, Hebrew and Russian at home, and he later learned both English and French. There was nothing dry about him, however. He possessed a sharp wit, and his book reflects his love of the bon mot. Yet he seems to have been something of a loner as a youngster; perhaps even then he was seen as someone who was something of a show-off. He acknowledges that his long-winded “fully formed addresses about the nature of Zionism” turned off his schoolmates: “It made me something of an outcast, the one so clearly unlike the others.” He adds, “What I was, in fact, was what I have remained: at ninety-three, I am still that curious boy, enamored of hard questions, eager to dream, and unbowed by the doubt of others.” His long-time antagonist, the former ambassador and defense minister Moshe Arens, characterized him in similar, but far less flattering terms: “Peres was . . . supremely confident in his own judgment, having little respect for the opinion of others. His blustering overconfidence had led him at times to recklessness in word and on occasion even in deed.”

Peres mentions no childhood friend by name. Indeed, almost all of the names that appear throughout the book are what might be called “boldface.” Of these, there are many; it would have been helpful if the book had an index.

The Peres family was not poor. The elder Peres, like his father before him, was a lumber merchant. But it was his maternal grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, whom the young boy adored, and whose influence led him to be more scrupulous about Jewish practice than his parents were. Peres claims that his mother was “brilliant” while his rabbinic grandfather studied at “the finest yeshiva in Europe.” He does not identify the institution, however, perhaps because others might not consider that particular institution as the Harvard of the yeshiva world, thereby implicitly calling into question his thinly disguised claim to his own inherited brilliance.

The Pereses were Zionists, inspired by Theodor Herzl’s vision of a Jewish national homeland as a solution to the ubiquitous anti-Semitism that confronted Jews in central and eastern Europe. Poland in particular was a difficult place for Jews in the 1920s and 1930s. Universities applied a numerus clausus to limit the number of Jewish students; those who successfully matriculated were forced to stand in the rear of classes. Jewish businesses also suffered. Faced with the destruction of his business due to the government’s imposition of crushing taxes, the elder Peres moved to Mandatory Palestine in 1932 and brought his family there two years later. They arrived in the second year of a major wave of Jewish immigration, called the Fifth Aliyah, that accelerated with the rise of Adolf Hitler in Germany. Among the Litvaks emigrating during that period was a young dropout from the University of Warsaw named Yitzhak Yezernitsky, who changed his name to Shamir, just as the family Persky changed its name to Peres upon arrival in Palestine.

Young Shimon Peres, as he was now called, was eleven years old when he first set foot in the Promised Land. Within a few years the family he left behind in Poland, including his beloved grandfather, like the rest of the Jews in the village, were all murdered by the Nazis. Shamir’s family suffered a similar fate: as he told me, and related to many others, when his father sought refuge at the home of a neighbor he had known from childhood, the man responded by killing him with a shotgun blast. Yet Peres never seemed to harbor the same bitterness against Poles that ate at Shamir for the rest of his life. As he told the Polish senate in 2008:

The remnants of the death camps on Poland’s land will serve as a pillar of fire in our collective historical memory,” but “the new Poland will bear no resemblance to the occupied one.”

Peres quickly rose to prominence as one of David Ben-Gurion’s blue-eyed boys. He became active in socialist politics as a teenager, and it was then that he caught the eye of the man would become Israel’s first and (until Benjamin Netanyahu) longest-serving prime minister. Peres, whose political reputation always suffered because he never served in the military, Israel’s most respected profession, was recruited by Ben-Gurion to the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Force (IDF), in 1947, a year before the state came into being. Then and thereafter, however, whenever he worked within the military establishment, it was from behind a desk, not on the battlefield. Only twenty-four when he was assigned to the Haganah, his rise under Ben-Gurion’s tutelage was meteoric: head of the naval service in 1948–49, director general of Israel’s defense mission to the United States for the following three years and then, at the tender age of thirty, director general of the Ministry of Defense.

Never a shrinking violet, and resented by older colleagues such as Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, both future Labor prime ministers, Peres was nevertheless especially adept at keeping secrets and conducting secret negotiations, at times without the knowledge of his colleagues and superiors. His work for the Haganah consisted of acquiring weapons for its fighters from anywhere they might be located, and to do so in haste and, if necessary, in secrecy. He describes his task in rather grandiloquent terms: “Days earlier,” he wrote in his final memoir,

“I had been milking cows on a kibbutz. Now I was being thrown into one of the most dramatic periods of my life. I would build friendships with arms dealers and partnerships with arms smugglers. I would undertake secret missions using fake passports, working in the shadows to purchase as much as I could.”

Peres reveled in his mission, and he was good at it. It was his success at obtaining sorely needed weapons and ammunition from Czechoslovakia in 1947–48, as well as his desire to complete an education that had ended before receiving his high-school diploma, that led Ben-Gurion to approve his transfer to New York to lead Israel’s defense mission in the United States. Peres’s primary task was to evade the American embargo on weapons sales to Israel, and he succeeded in doing so with the help of a former U.S. Army Air Force pilot named Al Schwimmer. Schwimmer, who had piloted Israeli aircraft during the new country’s War of Independence, had returned to his native California, where he rented a hangar and secretly ran a maintenance facility for Israeli aircraft. Peres would direct to Schwimmer whatever aircraft, or parts of aircraft, he was able to get his hands on. The American would then reconstruct the planes and secretly fly them to Israel.

But Peres had grander ideas. He envisaged the creation of a domestic Israeli military industry that would not only support the needs of the fledgling state, but ultimately export its products worldwide. Peres recognized that he needed Schwimmer to realize his dream, and that however useful the American was in the United States, he would be of far greater service to the Jewish state if he moved there. Peres, by now director general of the defense ministry, confronted opposition to his plan from Israel’s military establishment, ministers, economists and outside experts—he recalls that one shouted at him, “Our only industry is bicycles!” He went ahead anyway, raising money for his project from private sources when he could not obtain sufficient funds from the finance ministry. He then ensconced Schwimmer as president of Israel’s new domestic military maintenance facility, called Bedek, the forerunner of what has since become the powerhouse known as Israel Aircraft Industries.

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.

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.

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