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October 1, 2016

Shimon Peres and the nuclear world

Shimon Peres.

Shimon Peres.

As the world media eulogizes former Israeli Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres, there are three key moments that won’t get much press.

Israel’s Nuclear Program

The recently leaked email written by Colin Powell in 2015 has confirmed the estimate that Israel has 200 nuclear weapons. But how did Israel get a nuclear weapons program in the first place?

The story begins in an unlikely place. In 1956, Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal: an event that, seemingly, has nothing to do with Israel developing nuclear weapons. But it does. In response to Nasser’s move, Britain and France planned an invasion of Egypt. But Britain’s Prime Minister, Anthony Eden, was concerned about Britain’s reputation in the Middle East and was determined not to look like the aggressor. So the French asked Israel to invade and conquer the Sinai.

Peres, then the Director General of the Israeli Ministry of Defense, met with the French General Staff and, in response to their query, assured them that Israel was capable of taking the Sanai in two weeks. The plan was that Israel would invade, Egypt would respond, and France and Britain would demand that they both withdraw from the Sinai. Israel, as planned, would agree, while Egypt would not. Now Britain and France had a pretext to invade, and Britain would not appear the aggressor.

But in exchange for invading Egypt and touching off the Suez War, Peres set Israel’s price at a nuclear reactor. Peres insisted, and France agreed: they promised to finance the construction of a nuclear reactor in Israel.

Israel invaded on October 29, 1956. Things didn’t go as planned, but Israel had France’s word. Perez fiercely lobbied the French to honour the agreement, and, in 1957, France inked the deal and financed the construction of a 24 megawatt nuclear reactor. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky, “both parties knew [it] was not going to be used exclusively for peaceful purposes”.

Peres is sometimes called the “architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program.” But, he was more than its architect: he was its father.

South Africa

When, in 1990, South Africa became the first country in history to terminate its nuclear weapons program, the world found out that South Africa had developed the bomb. What the world did not know was that Israel was deeply engaged in helping her.

Israel actively helped South Africa with technology for systems to deliver the warheads, provided her with tritium and cooperated in testing. South Africa brought Israeli atomic scientists into the country and the two countries exchanged secret scientific intelligence. Importantly, Israel helped South Africa to build the longer range missiles she desired to deliver nuclear warheads. Israel also provided South Africa with thirty grams of tritium, a radioactive substance that increases the explosive power of thermonuclear weapons. The thirty grams–enough to boost several atomic bombs–was delivered to South Africa in batches between 1977 and 1979, during the UN weapons embargo on South Africa.

It was Peres who, in November of 1974, opened the secret meetings with South Africa leaders that would lead to the April 3, 1975 signing of SECMENT, an extremely secret security and secrecy agreement that governed every aspect of this new military agreement. And it was Shimon Peres who, on April 3, 1975, signed it.

So, Peres is not only the father of Israel’s nuclear weapons program: he also midwifed South Africa’s.

Peres also helped South Africa in other ways. In 1976, Defense Minister Peres dispatched Colonel Amos Baram to the apartheid regime to act as an advisor to the South African military. His function was to advise on “security problems,” and not just on South Africa’s borders, but “internal problems too”: a clear reference to Israel’s helping South Africa to maintain apartheid. Polakow-Suransky quotes Colonel Baram’s admission years later that “I was advising them on how to defend it”.

Peres also nursed South Africa’s invasion of Angola. The Israeli Defense Forces welcomed South African officials and trained South Africans in airspace control techniques. Peres sent Admiral Binyamin Telem, commander of the Israeli navy, to South Africa where, together with Baram, he would advise the Chief of South Africa’s army, General Constand Viljoen “on everything,” according to Telem, on South Africa’s Angolan invasion.


Surprisingly, Israel’s relationship with Iran did not immediately sour after the Islamic Revolution. In 1977, the Israeli’s even began working with Iran to modify an Israeli missile so that Iran could have a missile with the longer range of two hundred miles. But–and here’s the incredible part–these weapons were capable of being fitted with nuclear warheads. According to Iranian expert Trita Parsi, though the two countries did not exploit this possibility at the time, Iran read Israel’s signals “as indications that this possibility could be explored down the road”. According to General Hassan Toufanian, then in charge of Iran’s military procurement, secret Israeli documents left “no doubt about it”.

It was Peres who was largely responsible for the change in policy that turned Iran into the archenemy of Israel and the Western world.

In 1992, the Labour Party won a landslide election that brought first Rabin and then Peres into power. Peres was first the Foreign Minister and then the Prime Minister. Several important geopolitical changes brought about by the Intifada, alterations in demographics and shifts in regional powers led Peres to see the doctrine of the periphery in a new way.

The doctrine of the periphery can be traced back to two leaders of Mossad: Reuven Shiloah and Isser Harel. But its central premise, that political compromise with the Arabs is impossible, may be traced back even further to Vladimir Jabotinsky. According to this perspective, Israelis look out from a tiny island to find themselves surrounded by a sea of hostile Arab nations whose differences with Israel are so essential that compromise and friendship are impossible. This impossibility of political ties with her neighbours drives Israel to reach for alliances with non-Arab states just beyond the circumference of her neighbours: to the periphery.

This local world view was adopted by David Ben-Gurion and became his doctrine of the periphery. It has been a dominant piece in the Israeli foreign policy puzzle ever since. The doctrine of the periphery had made allies of Israel and Iran for quite some time.

But Peres pushed the pendulum. For him and Rabin, the threat no longer came from the Arab vicinity, but from the Iranian periphery. In Peres’ “New Middle East,” Israel would move closer politically and economically to the Arabs and push Iran out of the neighbourhood.

It was Peres, to the total shock of the Iranians, who first cast Iran in the role of Israeli enemy and international threat. This bold move as casting director produced a total shift in Israel’s foreign policy and world view. It represented a complete realignment of the periphery doctrine. Rabin and Peres, who had until recently been pushing the Americans to improve relations with Iran, would now attempt to make friends with the Arab vicinity and vilify the Iranian periphery.

It was this reorientation by Peres that first severed relations with Iran and sought to cast the Islamic Republic as a world threat. It was this reorienting and casting decision by Peres and Rabin that set in motion the push for conflict with Iran. It was now, for the first time—with obvious implications for today—that Israel began to accuse Iran of seeking nuclear weapons and warning the world that Iran would have a nuclear bomb before the millennium: a script still being read by Netanyahu.

Though none of these three key moments will be mentioned as the press remembers Shimon Peres, they all played important roles in the story of the nuclear threat faced by the world.


Shimon Peres from the perspective of his victims

Officials and mourners surround coffins covered with Lebanese flags during a mass funeral in the southern Lebanese town of Tyre, 30 April 1996. The victims were killed in an Israeli artillery attack on a UN base in Qana, in southern Lebanon, on 18 April as part of an operation ordered by then Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Ahmed Azakir AP Photo

The obituaries for Shimon Peres have already appeared, no doubt prepared in advance as the news of his hospitalization reached the media.

The verdict on his life is very clear and was already pronounced by US President Barack Obama: Peres was a man who changed the course of human history in his relentless search for peace in the Middle East.

My guess is that very few of the obituaries will examine Peres’ life and activities from the perspective of the victims of Zionism and Israel.

He occupied many positions in politics that had immense impact on the Palestinians wherever they are. He was director general of the Israeli defense ministry, minister of defense, minister for development of the Galilee and the Negev (Naqab), prime minister and president.

In all these roles, the decisions he took and the policies he pursued contributed to the destruction of the Palestinian people and did nothing to advance the cause of peace and reconciliation between Palestinians and Israelis.

Born Szymon Perski in 1923, in a town that was then part of Poland, Peres immigrated to Palestine in 1934. As a teenager in an agricultural school, he became active in politics within the Labor Zionist movement that led Zionism and later the young State of Israel.

As a leading figure in the movement’s youth cadres, Peres attracted the attention of the high command of the Jewish paramilitary force in British-ruled Palestine, the Haganah.

Nuclear bomb

In 1947, Peres was fully recruited to the organization and sent abroad by its leader David Ben-Gurion to purchase arms which were later used in the 1948 Nakba, the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians, and against the Arab contingents that entered Palestine that year.

After a few years abroad, mainly in the United States, where he was busy purchasing arms and building the infrastructure for the Israeli military industry, he returned to become director general of the defense ministry.

Peres was active in forging Israel’s collusion with the UK and France to invade Egypt in 1956, for which Israel was rewarded by France with the needed capacity to build nuclear weapons.

Indeed it was Peres himself who largely oversaw Israel’s clandestine nuclear weapons program.

No less important was the zeal Peres showed under Ben-Gurion’s guidance and inspiration to Judaize the Galilee. Despite the 1948 ethnic cleansing, that part of Israel was still very much Palestinian countryside and landscape.

Peres was behind the idea of confiscating Palestinian land for the purpose of building exclusive Jewish towns such as Karmiel and Upper Nazareth and basing the military in the region so as to disrupt territorial contiguity between Palestinian villages and towns.

This ruination of the Palestinian countryside led to the disappearance of the traditional Palestinian villages and the transformation of the farmers into an underemployed and deprived urban working class. This dismal reality is still with us today.

Settlers’ champion

Peres disappeared for a while from the political scene when his master Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, was pushed aside in 1963 by a new generation of leaders.

He came back after the 1967 War and the first portfolio he held was as minister responsible for the occupied territories. In this role, he legitimized, quite often retroactively, the settlement drive in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

As so many of us realize today, by the time the pro-settlement Likud party came to power in 1977, the Jewish settlement infrastructure, in particular in the West Bank, had already rendered a two-state solution an impossible vision.

In 1974, Peres’ political career became intimately connected to that of his nemesis, Yitzhak Rabin. The two politicians who could not stand each other, had to work in tandem for the sake of political survival.

However, on Israel’s strategy toward the Palestinians, they shared the Zionist settler-colonial perspective, coveting as much of Palestine’s land as possible with as few Palestinians on it as possible.

They worked well together in quelling brutally the Palestinian uprising that began in 1987.

Peres’ first role in this difficult partnership was as defense minister in the 1974 Rabin government. The first real crisis Peres faced was a major expansion of the messianic settler movement Gush Emunim’s colonization effort in and around the West Bank city of Nablus.

Rabin opposed the new settlements, but Peres stood with the settlers and those colonies that now strangulate Nablus are there thanks to his efforts.

In 1976, Peres led government policy on the occupied territories, convinced that a deal could be struck with Jordan, by which the West Bank would be within Jordanian jurisdiction but under effective Israeli rule.

He initiated municipal elections in the West Bank but to his great surprise and disappointment, the candidates identified with the Palestine Liberation Organization were elected and not the ones loyal to Jordan’s Hashemite monarchy.

But Peres remained faithful to what he named the “Jordanian option” as an opposition leader after 1977 and when he returned to power in coalition with the Likud in 1984-1988. He pushed forward the negotiations on the basis of this concept until King Hussein’s decision to cede any political connection between Jordan and the West Bank in 1988.

Israel’s international face

The 1990s exposed to the world to a more mature and coherent Peres. He was Israel’s international face, whether in government or outside it. He played this role even after the Likud ascended as the main political force in the land.

In power, in Rabin’s government in the early 1990s, as prime minister after Rabin’s 1995 assassination, and then as a minister in the cabinet of Ehud Barak from 1999 to 2001, Peres pushed a new concept for what he called “peace.”

Instead of sharing rule in the West Bank and Gaza Strip with Jordan or Egypt, he now wished to do it with the Palestine Liberation Organization. The idea was accepted by PLO leader Yasser Arafat, who may have hoped to build on this a new project for the liberation of Palestine.

As enshrined in the 1993 Oslo accords, this concept was enthusiastically endorsed by Israel’s international allies.

Peres was the leading ambassador of this peace process charade that provided an international umbrella for Israel to establish facts on the ground that would create a greater apartheid Israel with small Palestinian bantustans scattered within it.

The fact that he won a Nobel Peace Prize for a process that advanced the ruination of Palestine and its people is yet another testimony to world governments’ misunderstanding, cynicism and apathy toward their suffering.

We are fortunate to live in an era in which international civil society has exposed this charade and offers, through the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement and the growing support for the one-state solution, a more hopeful and genuine path forward.


As prime minister, Peres had one additional “contribution” to make to the history of Palestinian and Lebanese suffering.

In response to the endless skirmishes between Hizballah and the Israeli army in southern Lebanon, where Hizballah and other groups resisted the Israeli occupation that began in 1982 until they drove it out in 2000, Peres ordered the bombing of the whole area in April 1996.

During what Israel dubbed Operation Grapes of Wrath, Israeli shelling killed more than 100 people – civilians fleeing bombardment and UN peacekeepers from Fiji – near the village of Qana.

Despite a United Nations investigation that found Israel’s explanation that the shelling had been an accident to be “unlikely,” the massacre did nothing to dent Peres’ international reputation as a “peacemaker.”

In this century, Peres was more a symbolic figurehead than an active politician. He founded the Peres Center for Peace, built on confiscated Palestinian refugee property in Jaffa, which continues to sell the idea of a Palestinian “state” with little land, real independence or sovereignty as the best possible solution.

That will never work, but if the world continues to be committed to this Peres legacy, there will be no end to the suffering of the Palestinians.

Shimon Peres symbolized the beautification of Zionism, but the facts on the ground lay bare his role in perpetrating so much suffering and conflict. Knowing the truth, at least, helps us understand how to move forward and undo so much of the injustice Peres helped create.

The author of numerous books, Ilan Pappe is professor of history and director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter.

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