Before Shimon Peres became the man of peace extolled by world leaders for his dedication to coexistence, he was a man of defense and security, setting up some of Israel’s most important military victories and strategic assets.
To many, Peres is synonymous with the 1993 Oslo Peace Accords, for which he was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize, and his eponymous Center for Peace, which promotes dialogue and opportunities for both Israelis and Palestinians. Yet few people in Israel have contributed more to the country’s military capabilities.
Following the War of Independence, Peres helped build the country’s air force into the world-renowned juggernaut that it is today and allegedly gave Israel the ability to manufacture nuclear weapons, which reportedly give the country second-strike capabilities in the case of an attack.
“Shimon Peres designed the character and values of the Defense Ministry; he led the strengthening and build-up of the IDF’s power and its strategic capabilities,” the Defense Ministry said in a statement.
“He developed security relationships with other nations in the world and took a central role in the creation of the Israel defense industries,” the ministry said in its statement.
After a brief stint in the Haganah and the fledgling Israel Defense Force, Peres led a Defense Ministry delegation to the United States in 1950 and soon after his return was named deputy director-general of the ministry in 1952.
He became director-general a year later and in that capacity laid the groundwork for turning Israel’s immature, poorly supplied military into the technological powerhouse the IDF has become.
In the early 1950s, Peres started a relationship with the French government that allegedly resulted in the creation of Israel’s nuclear arsenal and in the purchase of the fighter jets and bombers to replace the IDF’s antiquated World War II-era planes, which would go on to be instrumental in Israel’s victory in the 1967 Six Day War.
Entering the position at age 29, Peres remains the youngest director-general of the Defense Ministry in Israel’s history. But his young age and inexperience did not stop him from setting up Israel’s defense ties with France essentially singlehandedly, according to Guy Ziv, an associate professor at American University’s School of International Service.
“What makes this case particularly compelling is not merely that one individual yielded disproportionate influence over the relations beween the two countries, but also that this individual was not a senior policy-maker,” Ziv wrote in a 2010 article in the Journal of Contemporary History.
During the early 1950s, the Foreign Ministry and other high-level Israeli officials were essentially banging their heads against the wall trying to convince the United States to sell artillery, aircraft, guns and tanks to the young Jewish state.
Peres, who had tried desperately and failed to purchase weapons from the United States in 1950, turned instead to France, the “friendliest country today,” as he referred to it in a 1954 Defense Ministry meeting.
The young Peres had to convince then-defense ministers Pinhas Lavon and David Ben-Gurion that the “French connection,” and not the American, was the way to go, according to Ziv.
“It was natural that the people of post-war France, who had themselves tasted the bitterness of Nazi horror, should feel a kinship with the victims of Nazism who had suffered greater losses,” Peres wrote in his book “David’s Sling.”
Through Peres’s relationship with the French, Israel purchased huge quantities of weapons, including artillery cannons, tanks and radar equipment. But most notably, Israel also acquired the French Dassault Mystère IV and Dassault Ouragan fighter jets in 1955, the Dassault Super Mystère B2 in 1958 and the Dassault Mirage IIIC, one of the most advanced aircrafts of its time, in 1962.
All of these aircrafts were used in the 1967 Six Day War, taking out the air forces of Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan, which helped pave the way to an unexpected Israeli victory. But the star of the 1967 war was the Mirage, known in Israel as the Shahak, which both carried out bombing runs and engaged in aerial dogfights, shooting down the lion’s share of enemy aircraft.
The Mirage remained in use until 1986, and its design was used to create the Israeli Aerospace Industries’ Nesher and Kfir fighter jets, the latter of which was in use until 1996.
But while those aircraft played hugely important roles in the military’s victory in 1967, Peres’s relationship with the French government also fundamentally changed Israel’s security strategy and position, with the creation of Israel’s Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona.
Going nuclear, allegedly
In late 1956, representatives from the United Kingdom, France and Israel, including Peres, met for three days in secret at a villa in Sèvres, France, to address Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the Suez canal.
At the meeting, it was decided that Israel would spark a conflict with Egypt and the UK and France would send in forces ostensibly to break up the war, but in fact to occupy the area and ensuring shipping through the naval passage.
The then-secret agreement became known as the Protocol of Sèvres. It lauched on October 29, 1956, when Israeli forces invaded the Sinai Peninsula. The operation lasted nine days.
Israeli, British and French troops succeeded initially in taking over the area, but considerable outcries against the campaign from the United States and the British and French public forced a withdrawal and turned the secret plan into a public embarrassment for the UK and France — though Israel escaped relatively unscathed.
Though it was not a formal part of the Protocol of Sèvres, during the three-day conference planning the ill-fated war, the French agreed to help Israel develop a nuclear reactor, according to a 1997 Foreign Affairs article by Avi Shlaim, a British-Israeli historian.
“It was here that I finalized with these two leaders” — France’s then-prime minister Guy Mollet and then-defense minister Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury — “an agreement for the building of a nuclear reactor at Dimona, in southern Israel,” Peres wrote in his 1995 book “Battling for Peace.”
That nuclear reactor in Dimona, along with a supply of uranium, allegedly went on to create Israel’s atomic weapons.
On Wednesday, following Peres’s death, Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission praised the former president, prime minister and defense minister for his role in its creation.
“Peres provided a fundamental contribution to the creation of the Negev Nuclear Research Center and to the creation of Israel’s nuclear policies. This was a significant element in securing the national resilience of the State of Israel. Peres’s legacy will lead the IAEC in its actions even in the future,” the commission said in a statement.
Israel still maintains an official policy of so-called “nuclear ambiguity,” neither confirming or denying the possession of atomic weapons.
However, in 1998, Peres told reporters in Jordan that Israel had “built a nuclear option, not in order to have a Hiroshima but an Oslo.”
Israel’s alleged nuclear capabilities, though controversial, are seen as crucial to the country’s survival by many security analysts.
“Israel needs its nuclear weapons. This bold statement is not even remotely controversial,” Purdue University professor Louis René Beres wrote in 2014.
If deprived of its nuclear weapons, whether still-ambiguous or newly disclosed, Israel would irremediably lose its residual capacity to deter major enemy aggressions,” he wrote.
In the late 1950s, Peres left the civil service and formally entered politics, running with the Mapai party, a precursor to today’s Labor.
Following the 1959 elections, Peres was named deputy defense minister, a title he held until 1965.
In 1974, he returned to the ministry to lead it, under then-prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. It was in that position that in 1976 Peres helped plan the daring Operation Thunderbolt, the so-called “raid on Entebbe.”
On June 27, 1976, Palestinian and German terrorists hijacked an Air France flight from Tel Aviv to Paris. After a few days, the terrorists released the non-Jewish captives, save for the pilots and flight crew, who refused to leave.
“From the moment I heard about the hijacking I knew that we must do everything possible to free you and bring you back home,” Peres said earlier this year, at an event with some of the survivors of the incident.
So Peres, along with what he described as the “fantasy branch” of the military, devised the rescue operation despite having little to no intelligence.
“Many doubted the ability of the IDF to carry out this mission, fearing that there was no precedent for such an operation, but I knew all along that it was possible,” Peres said.
It cannot be known how sure Peres and the Israeli government were that their play-it-by-ear plan would succeed; however, Dalia Rabin, who attended the event, recalled her father saying of the risky operation that “tomorrow, either I will be a king, or I will be hanged in the town square.”
The operation was, of course, a success. All but three of the 106 hostages survived, and the Israeli rescue force suffered just one fatality — Yoni Netanyahu, the operation’s commander and Benjamin Netanyahu’s brother.
“Operation Entebbe is one of the most calculated and important in Israeli history, and raised the prestige of the IDF throughout the world,” Peres said of the feat.
Peres left the ministry soon after, staying out for nearly 20 years.
Following Rabin’s assassination in 1995, Peres became both acting prime minister and acting defense minister.
‘We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise’
He served in that capacity for just seven months, but oversaw the IDF’s Operation Grapes of Wrath, an attack on Hezbollah in southern Lebanon. During the operation, the army shelled a United Nations facility in the village of Qana. Some 106 Lebanese civilians were killed and over 100 were injured.
In a report, the UN said it was “unlikely” that the bombardment had been carried out accidentally — a claim Israel fervently denied.
“We did not know that several hundred people were concentrated in that camp. It came to us as a bitter surprise,” Peres said in a cabinet meeting after the incident.
Peres left the Defense Ministry two months later, in June 1996, never to return.
After another decade in the Knesset, Peres was elected president, a position he held from 2007 to 2014.
During that time and since, Peres praised the IDF and the country’s security services, but emerged as the face of the Israeli peace initiative.
“Shimon Peres was a soldier for Israel, for the Jewish people, for justice, for peace, and for the belief that we can be true to our best selves — to the very end of our time on Earth, and in the legacy that we leave to others. For the gift of his friendship and the example of his leadership, todah rabah, Shimon,” US President Barack Obama said Wednesday.
- Israel & the Region
- Israel Inside
- Shimon Peres
- Defense Ministry
- defense minister
- Dimona nuclear reactor
- Israel Atomic Energy Commission
- Dalia Rabin
- Yitzhak Rabin
- Labor Party
- Mapai party
- David Ben-Gurion
- Israeli War of Independence
- 1956 Suez War
- Israel-France relations
- Israel-US relations
- Israel-UK relations
- IDF Israel Defense Forces
- Yoni Netanyahu
- United Nations
- Peres Center for Peace and Innovation