WASHINGTON — It was an unseasonably hot day in the early summer of 2014. The glare reflected off the white gravel, the white façade of the building, beating down on the members of the press corps gathered outside. The doors of the White House opened, and a slight man walked out, accompanied by aides. The nonagenarian Nobel laureate Shimon Peres was dressed sartorially, despite the heat. It was a victory lap of sorts — the man who had 60 years ago seen the Eisenhower administration as a lost cause, and made a historic, if short, pivot toward France as Israel’s Western patron, was back in the American capital he had since visited too many times to possibly count.
Shimon Peres, once David Ben-Gurion’s youthful hawkish arms procurer, was in Washington as Israel’s unquestioned elder statesman, a yoda-like figure who was quoted and feted as a voice of reason in an increasingly embattled Middle East.
It might not have ended that way. It certainly didn’t begin that way. In the early 1950s, Peres pushed back against Washington’s decision to rigorously enforce its arms embargo against the fledgling Israeli state.
But on Friday, the American flag flew at half-mast in Peres’s memory over the government buildings on Washington’s Pennsylvania Avenue, a gesture almost never extended to a non-American. After seven decades’ of work in America’s capital, Peres was honored as one of a tiny elite to receive such a gesture, placing him among some of the 20th century’s greatest figures – Pope John Paul II and Nelson Mandela – as well as his former colleagues and peace allies, Egypt’s Anwar Sadat, Jordan’s King Hussein and Yitzhak Rabin.
Peres arrived in Washington at the age of 26 in January 1950, delegated by David Ben-Gurion to try and arrange arms deals with the Cold War superpower. Peres met President Harry Truman, but later said that he did not have any direct talks with him. Instead, he found that Washington was unwilling to budge on its arms embargo, forcing Peres to focus instead on procuring weapons through clandestine purchases.
The lesson learned during that early visit lasted through the remainder of the Truman administration and in to the Republican administration of Truman’s successor, Dwight David Eisenhower. While the more moderate Moshe Sharett and ill-fated Pinchas Lavon thought that Israel should continue to press Eisenhower and his secretary of state, John Foster Dulles, for assistance, Peres decided that Dulles’s latent anti-Semitism would determine policy, and that Israel didn’t need the superpower’s help.
Instead, Peres, then the director-general of the Ministry of Defense, decided to pivot towards an unexpected ally – France.
Vive la France, Vive JFK
Engaging in what American University Guy Ziv described as “an active, personal diplomacy of a most unorthodox sort,” Peres’s embrace of Paris fit the young bureaucrat’s personality and the young country’s needs – securing badly needed Mystere fighter planes, stockpiles of weapons and perhaps most critically, aid in building a nuclear reactor in the tiny desert development town of Dimona.
Stories still circulate from that period about the gregarious Ben-Gurion protégé’s efforts in France. That he lived above a brothel. About how he left cash on some docks in bags in exchange for warships which France was balking about transferring to Israel.
“When you are struggling for your life it’s not necessary to stick to formal diplomacy,” Ziv quotes Peres as saying later. “Every foreign office represents the prudence of its nation and prudence doesn’t necessarily promote aid to Israel.”
Relations with France soured following the 1956 war and Charles de Gaulle’s triumphant return to power. But the United States would also soon hold elections, sending a youthful John F. Kennedy to the White House and Peres would return to Washington to try to spin his weapons procurement magic in the American capital.
“Kennedy called me when I was deputy minister of defense, and it was exceptional that he would receive the deputy minister,” Peres recalled in a 2014 interview published in the Washington Post. “But he invited me…and I came through the rear door, accompanied by Ambassador Avraham Harman. Kennedy started to question me like a machine gun. It was the day our chief of intelligence resigned. All of a sudden Kennedy said, “Do you have a nuclear bomb?” I said Israel will not be the first to introduce a nuclear bomb in the Middle East.”
In what few at the time believed was a coincidence, Peres was walking through the White House with Kennedy’s Deputy Special Counsel Myer “Mike” Feldman during the same visit when the two ran into the president himself. According to Feldman, the president later said that they would like to see the young Israeli, and a meeting was secured that day.
The 39-year-old Peres was shocked by the youthfulness of the American president. They reportedly exchanged some witty asides, with Peres reportedly telling Kennedy that Israel’s “doves” needed some “hawks” – the US-made Hawk missiles which Israel believed were essential to its security posture.
In return, Kennedy picked Peres’s brain. He asked him what danger points he saw in the Middle East, to which Peres warned of the instability of the Jordanian monarchy, but also emphasized that the only Arab country that Israel really feared was the short-lived United Arab Republic (UAR), an alliance between Egypt and Syria.
Perhaps most tellingly, Kennedy took the time to lecture Peres about nuclear proliferation, saying that he personally strongly hoped that Israel would not develop nuclear arms.
By that point, many experts say, the nuclear technology that Peres himself had negotiated from the French, was being used to develop exactly the kind of program that Kennedy opposed.
State Department communiques from the time, however, note that Feldman “said that Peres had given an unequivocal assurance that Israel would not do anything in this field unless it finds that other countries in the area are involved in it.”
Peres spent the visit leveraging what he saw as fine differences between a sympathetic Pentagon and a State Department that feared that providing Israel with the Hawks would harm regional stability and weaken America’s standing with the Arab world. He secured the missiles, but more importantly, a tacit commitment from the US that it was on Israel’s side amid growing tensions with the UAR.
Don’t mess with Texas
Peres was back in Washington again after Kennedy’s assassination, accompanying then-prime minister Levi Eshkol to the first time an Israeli prime minister was formally welcomed to a White House summit. Peres later remembered the meeting with President Lyndon B. Johnson, that the Texan “had a huge glass of milk before him and the red telephone.”
“Johnson turned to Eshkol and said, “The United States stands four square behind you,” Peres recounted 50 years later. “The problem then was that America gave tanks to Jordan. Eshkol asked why? Jordan has an alliance to attack Israel. Johnson said, “There is an embargo, we can’t do it.”
The suggestion then was that Germany would give us American tanks. Eshkol suggested and Johnson agreed that I should be the negotiator.”
Peres rescued Eshkol from another sticky situation. At the formal dinner held as part of the visit, Johnson politely invited Eshkol’s wife, Miriam, to dance. Johnson’s wife, Lady Bird, was left standing alone and protocol demanded that Eshkol invite her to dance. Eshkol, who by his own admission didn’t dance, quickly delegated responsibility to Peres. “Young man, you dance!” he ordered.
Even at the Labor Party’s nadir, Peres was never away from Washington for very long. During the Carter administration, Israeli Ambassador Ephraim Evron coordinated a meeting between the Democratic president and Peres, then the opposition leader.
Then-prime minister Menachem Begin dressed his ambassador down for the move, complaints which Evron dodged by claiming that it was Carter himself had asked to meet with the Labor Party leader.
Carter’s defeat at the hands of Ronald Reagan opened the door, some Israelis thought, for a revamped relationship between the two states.
Although the Reagan administration ended up having a rocky relationship with Israel over such issues as the sale of AWACs to Saudi Arabia, Peres maintained his quintessential style of diplomacy – the close personal ties that characterized his relationships from Tel Aviv to Paris and Washington – with the Republican president.
Peres later described himself as “extremely friendly” with Reagan. “He conquered my heart, and we developed a personal friendship. We had a way of meeting — in every meeting Reagan told me an anti-Russian joke, and I had to bring from Israel also an anti-Russian joke,” Peres added in the 2014 interview.
It was during that decade when, as part of the national unity government with Likud’s Yitzhak Shamir, Peres began to be seen in Washington as a dovish figure, striking in contradistinction to the blunt former Lehi member with whom he shared power.
By 1992, freshly stung by a failure to maneuver a Labor takeover of government in 1990 and an inter-party defeat to his rival, Yitzhak Rabin, Peres, as Rabin’s foreign minister, was recognized in Washington as the conduit for pushing the Labor government toward a wider and wider embrace of what would be known as the Oslo Accords.
“It was quite clear to us that Peres was always out pushing the envelope, as it were, trying to accelerate the process and to take new initiatives,” recalled then-US ambassador to Israel William Andreas Brown.
The Americans recognized Peres’ pro-deal inclinations, but worried that Rabin was not willing to go as far as his foreign minister. Brown recalled a fateful meeting in the VIP lounge at Ben-Gurion Airport in which Peres, who had been pressing the US to back the talks more forcefully, seemed to go out on a limb in terms of Israel’s willingness to engage in official talks, a conversation that Brown suggested formed a basis for US engagement in the Oslo Process. Brown quickly returned to Tel Aviv and began preparing US guidelines for an agreement between Israel and the PLO.
When the agreement was struck in 1993, it was Peres, not Rabin, who the Clinton administration initially thought to invite as the Israeli representative to the signing ceremony on the White House lawn. The State Department reversed that decision within hours, inviting a still-reluctant Rabin to the ceremony, but allowing Peres to still attend and deliver a speech.
Peres wrote that speech on a legal tablet during the long flight to Washington, while he and Rabin sat in stony silence across from one another. “He is a very serious man who was obviously struggling to produce the best, philosophical, comprehensive, political statement that he possibly could as Foreign Minister,” Brown, who was on the flight with them, recalled.
Although Peres’s own political fortunes plummeted domestically following the assassination of Rabin and his narrow loss to Benjamin Netanyahu for the premiership in 1996, Washington saw Peres as the continuation of his former rival’s legacy. The Nobel Prize that he shared with Rabin and PLO chief Yasser Arafat seemed to many in Washington proof of his status as Israel’s elder dovish statesman.
It was an image that he polished and refined with well-placed witticisms, public recollections of his conversations with Israel’s founders, and his constant, unrelenting insistence that Israel must continue down the path that he and Rabin had etched out together toward a two-state solution.
Peres was already in office as Israel’s president, the presumably apolitical figurehead of a fractious polity, when a young Barack Obama was elected president of the United States in 2008. Obama was only a few years older than Kennedy was when Peres spoke with him, but two decades older than Peres was when he first met Harry Truman.
To Obama, a man who frequently quotes Martin Luther King’s adage that “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice,” Peres seemed like a fellow traveler, an older sage. Peres was a visionary, not just of the two-state solutions but for regional peace – a peace that Obama hoped that he could bring to the region.
As the tension between Obama and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to sour the US-Israel relations that Peres had worked on constructing since the 1960s, Peres became the old wise man of Mideast policy in Washington. In 2012, Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and in 2014 – as he finished his presidency – Congress granted him the Congressional Gold Medal.
It was that, and the Tom Lantos Award for Human Rights, that brought Peres to Washington that warm early summer day.
Standing out on the White House driveway, Peres was likely only yards away from where he was brought in through back doors to meet with Kennedy so many decades earlier. In the ensuing years – and largely through his own efforts – ties between US and Israeli officials had grown warmer and more frequent, while Peres himself remade himself in a new image for a new century.
Once a shadowy figure brokering arms deals in the shadow of the Cold War, Peres’s pragmatic vision made him a powerful symbol of coexistence for many in the American capital.
On Friday evening, the flags of Washington were raised back to their regular height – the flag at the White House where he met with presidents from the age of radio to the age of nanotech, the flag at the Capitol where chocolate images of Peres were distributed to members in his honor two years earlier, and at the Mayflower Hotel, which he called home on myriad visits to the city.
But Peres’s legacy continues to resonate in this, the most crucial of foreign capitals.