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.
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.
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