Likud ministers and Knesset members lined up Friday to slam President Shimon Peres for declaring Thursday that Israel could not “go it alone” in tackling Iran’s nuclear program — a statement that runs contrary to the Israeli government contention that it maintains a military option for thwarting Iran.
Politicians from Peres’s pre-presidential section of the political spectrum, the center-left, were unsurprisingly more supportive of the president’s attempt at intervention. The president, holding a largely ceremonial position, is traditionally supposed to maintain a position above partisan politics.
Environmental Protection Minister Gilad Erdan (Likud) said that Peres was wrong to speak out against the prime minister’s position, calling his statements “a gross attack on the elected government’s official policy.”
“Israel’s presidents usually don’t deal with foreign policy and if they do, must do so in a quiet manner, not through interviews and headlines,” said Erdan, noting that the president, as opposed to the government, is not elected by the public. (The president is chosen for a seven-year term by the 120 members of Knesset.)
Likud MK Miri Regev went so far as to say that she was looking into impeaching Peres for his words. “There is no president in the world who supports the president of a foreign country over his own country,” said Regev, alluding to Peres’s ringing declaration of trust in President Barack Obama to handle the Iran crisis. “Peres remains the same old Peres: leftist, defeatist, an underminer who doesn’t support the prime minister.”
Coalition chairman Zeev Elkin (Likud) said it was a shame that Peres had gone back to being “the familiar Shimon Peres of Oslo” — the attempt at peacemaking with the PLO — and “is once again recommending that we gamble with the safety of our citizens.”
Elkin added that had then prime minister Menachem Begin listened to Peres’s counsel against a preemptive strike an Iraq’s Osirak nuclear facility in 1981, Saddam Hussein would have attacked Israel with “entirely different weapons,” during the 1991 Gulf War.
Leading those who came to the president’s defense was Labor head Shelly Yachimovich, calling the attacks on Peres “aggressive and rude.”
“The president expressed deep concern and responsibility for the standing and the security of the state of Israel,” Yachimovich said, “and it would behoove [Prime Minister] Netanyahu to listen well to the president and internalize his words.”
Former justice minister and longtime Peres confidant Haim Ramon said that Peres could not be expected to stand aside when he sees an impending disaster.
“Sometimes the president’s job is to prevent such disasters from happening, especially when it is a president that Prime Minister Netanyahu himself approved for handling political affairs. He [Netanyahu] cannot ask Peres to be involved only when it suits him,” Ramon said. Ramon asserted that Netanyahu had sent Peres on various diplomatic missions, thereby bringing him into the heart of Israeli policy-making and implementation.
Peres refrained from addressing the controversy Friday, but sources close to him said he had made his position clear — that he respects the prime minister and will continue to work alongside him.
Peres made the Iran-related comments in an interview with Channel 2 News marking his 89th birthday on Thursday. Peres said that he was convinced that halting Iran’s nuclear program “is an American interest” and that Obama “understands the American interest and isn’t just saying [that he will stop Iran's nuclear weapons drive] to please us. I have no doubt about this whatsoever, even in talks with him.
“It is now clear to us that we cannot go it alone,” Peres added, referring to a solo Israeli military attempt to destroy Iran’s nuclear enrichment capabilities. “We can forestall it; therefore it’s clear to us that we have to work together with the America. There are questions of coordination and timing, but because of the nature of the danger, we are not alone.”
“Iran is a global threat, to the US and Israel alike,” the president added, and said that he was convinced that the US would take action when the moment of truth came.
Regarding timing, Peres said that contrary to speculation that there will be an attack on Iran this fall, he does not foresee such a strike prior to the US presidential elections in November. A Channel 2 News broadcast last Friday reported that Netanyahu and Barak are “almost finally” decided to strike Iran’s nuclear facilities this fall.
Commenting on statements by Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak that Israel must defend itself as it sees fit, Peres said: “Israel needs to depend on itself, but that doesn’t mean that it needs to give up on its friends. When I say I have a right to self-defense, that doesn’t mean that I must be enraged at everyone. Not at all.”
When asked how Israel should proceed if it doesn’t succeed in stopping Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons, Peres said that the “Plan A” was to stop Iran from going nuclear, at all costs. “There is no Plan B,” he added.
Peres’s statements in opposition to a unilateral strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities followed Barak’s statement in the Knesset earlier in the day that there is disagreement among the government elite regarding the best course of action vis-a-vis Tehran.
Peres’s biggest mistake in this context, though, said the source, was in opposing the 1981 Israel Air Force attack that destroyed Saddam’s nuclear reactor at Osirak.