PARIS —Shimon Peres is recognized as a great statesman and will be remembered after his death early Wednesday morning at age 93 as a passionate advocate of peace between Israel’s Jews and the Arabs of the Middle East.
With a longer view, historians will note that he managed to become prime minister twice and president of the State of Israel, but he never clearly won the powerful premiership in popular or parliamentary votes. He was always admirable, but in the end, proved almost unelectable, a brilliant rhetorician, but not nearly as successful a politician as, say, long-serving Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Even as a peacemaker, or perhaps especially as a peacemaker, Peres could articulate brilliantly and beautifully the desires for peace, the reasons for peace, the benefits of peace, and indeed he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the PLO’s Yassir Arafat. But Peres could not bring home the goods, and the relative calm that exists in Israel and the occupied territories for the moment is far from the peace that Peres so often and so eloquently described.
So it is ironic that his greatest single accomplishment—the one that has protected his nation decade after decade in the savage landscape of the Middle East, is one the Israeli government still, as a matter of form, will not acknowledge. Because it was Peres who brought home to Israel the nuclear weapons and the ballistic missiles that were and, for better or worse, still are the ultimate guarantor of its survival.
One key to the Israeli nuclear-weapons program launched in the mid-1950s was France, where the young Peres—still in his thirties and serving as the director general of Israel’s defense ministry—cultivated a vast array of important political and scientific contacts.
The other key was the systematic deception of the United States, which at first opposed Israel’s development of a nuclear-weapons capability, then failed to connect the dots that showed that’s what it was doing, then tried to buy it off with a huge increase in conventional weapons shipments, and finally, in 1969 accepted tacitly what it had failed to prevent explicitly.
Avner Cohen’s book Israel and the Bomb, published in 1998, still offers some of the most detailed and thoughtful information about what he calls Israel’s “nuclear opacity,” the refusal to admit what the world knows and what is, in fact, a vital source of deterrence. To study that history of 60 years ago is also to understand why Israel is so suspicious of Iran’s nuclear deceptions. It’s been there, done that, and Peres led the way.
That said, Israel’s perilous situation in the 1950s was hugely different than it is now. Today it is seen, rightly, as the region’s pre-eminent military power, with solid, massive, unequivocal backing by the United States.
In the mid-1950s, no country was ready to guarantee Israel’s survival, and its Arab neighbors were committed to its obliteration, exploiting the massive displacement of Palestinian refugees as a central cause around which to build pan-Arab nationalism, even as the Palestinians themselves were forced into camps and isolated in these supposedly sympathetic countries.
As early as 1954, then-Prime Minister David Ben Gurion was speaking obliquely and behind closed doors about the importance of “science.” “It might be that our ultimate security would rest on that. But I will not talk about it any further. This could be the last thing that may save us.” In an address to the nation in 1955, he said “the future of Israel was not dependent on what the gentiles would say, but on what the Jews would do.”
“This attitude,” writes Cohen, “became the motto of the nuclear program.”
The Polish-born Peres, more at ease in European political and social circles than some of his sabra colleagues, had been exploring the possibility of defense cooperation with the French from early in the decade. By the spring of 1956, as Cohen writes, “Peres had reached a comprehensive security understanding with the government of Guy Mollet.”
The government of the Fourth Republic in Paris was badly divided, and facing a growing rebellion in Algeria, where Arabs inspired by Egypt’s new leader, Gamal Abdel Nasser, no longer wanted to be an ostensible part of France.
At the time, the Americans, Russians, and British had developed nuclear weapons, but the French themselves, while they had the technology, had not decided what to do. Peres exploited the situation for all it was worth, forming bonds with the pro-nuclear factions in France, trying to persuade them to give Israel the technology the Americans would only share under strict safeguards, which would have prevented its use to make or develop weapons.
“Peres arranged to obtain French weapons through unconventional channels, using these channels to explore whether France would assist Israel in pursuing nuclear weapons,” Cohen writes. “That France itself was still undecided about the acquisition of its own nuclear weapons, and that the pro-nuclear camp advanced its cause stealthily and incrementally, made it easier for Peres to advance Israel’s nuclear objective. Defense Minister Maurice Bourges-Maunoury, a supporter of French nuclear weapons, understood Peres’s vision just as he understood the need to keep the two countries’ nuclear plans opaque.”
The decisive moment came in 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, previously controlled by the British, and London and Paris wanted to cut a deal with Israel to launch a tripartite war against Egypt. Peres, greatly exceeding his authority as the appointed head of the defense ministry’s bureaucracy, could not let the opportunity pass. He believed such a deal would open the door to the nuclear-weapons cooperation he wanted. Ben-Gurion’s government eventually agreed to the alliance. When the war began, Israeli troops rolled across the Sinai toward the canal.
The Eisenhower administration in Washington demanded an end to the fighting and the withdrawal of the Israeli and allied forces, while the Soviets, who backed Nasser, made a clear and potentially apocalyptic threat. The Israeli government was “criminally and irresponsibly playing with the fate of its own people,” Moscow declared, “which puts in jeopardy the very existence of Israel as a State.”
Peres spoke to his French counterparts. “I don’t trust the guarantees of others,” he said. “What would you think if we prepared our own retaliation force?”
The French agreed in secret to help Israel build a nuclear reactor and underground reprocessing plant that would allow Israel to produce sufficient quantities of plutonium to build atomic weapons. Construction began at Dimona, in the Negev desert.
All this while Peres and successive Israeli governments insisted in public that any work being done on a nuclear program was for strictly peaceful purposes—to produce energy for a country that often had limited access to fossil fuels. But those directly involved in France and Israel never had any doubt about what was going on. Peres reoriented the atomic energy program from research to weapons development, and the lid of secrecy around it was screwed on ever more tightly.
By 1958, American intelligence was getting wind of the developments at Dimona, but failed to connect the dots. Over the next couple of years, as evidence accumulated, the Israelis agreed to let the Americans visit Dimona, and managed to convince them nothing was amiss. In 1962, Peres persuaded the French to sell Israel its first ballistic missiles.
But by then, Charles De Gaulle was president of the new Fifth Republic in France, and he was not happy about the nuclear deal with the Israelis. He ordered it stopped. Peres worked around him, and his persistence and his contacts paid off once again. The program managed to continue with French cooperation for another two years or more after De Gaulle ordered it halted.
One big problem was where to get 20 tons of “heavy water” for Dimona. The United States would not cooperate without safeguards, and Peres wanted no part of those. De Gaulle would not supply the heavy water either. But Norway had begun producing it for its own peaceful reactors, and agreed with Peres to sell the needed quantity.
In 1967, Israel’s preemptive war against Egypt and, quickly, against Jordan and Syria, lasted just six days, and the nuclear program was not a direct factor, although rumors and reports of its developments clearly had increased tensions.
Once the victory was achieved, and Israel set about occupying East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank, the exaltation of victory and the promise of “land for peace” seemed to show that Israel was secure with conventional weapons. But the nuclear program continued nonetheless.
By 1969, the CIA was certain that Israel had at least a nuclear-weapons “capability,” and in 1970 the Nixon administration let it be known publicly that the U.S. government believed this to be the case. But efforts to get it to join the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty were unavailing. In fact, it was building an atomic arsenal that would grow to 80 and, by some estimates, as many as 200 warheads.
Peres had, by the late 1960s, gone into politics. He’d been elected to the Knesset and began his rise to the top of what eventually became the Labor Party.
As he tried and failed repeatedly to win a clear-cut victory as prime minister, one of the things that the Israeli electorate held against the intellectual Peres was his lack of experience as a soldier. Given his decisive contributions to Israel’s phenomenal military power, that must go down as one of history’s great ironies.