In a political career that has spanned eight decades, Israeli President Shimon Peres has been in on almost every important development in his country’s history – from the violent birth of the state, through its many wars, its peacemaking efforts and its scientific development.
In every one of the decades, it seems, he has played a different role: from right-hand man to Israel’s founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to defence minister, foreign minister, prime minister and now President.
He is known best today as a Nobel Prize-winning activist for peace, but the earlier edition of Mr. Peres was decidedly hawkish, such as when he started the country’s nuclear program in the 1950s and 1960s.
While he is sharply critical of Iran developing nuclear weapons, he makes no apologies for Israel’s own nuclear program, one that could very well have produced a number of weapons.
Speaking with The Globe and Mail in advance of a state visit to Canada next week, Mr. Peres, 88, said he sees no hypocrisy in this. “We are the only country that is threatened to be destroyed, and we are a country that never threatened anybody to be destroyed,” he said, speaking from his office in the President’s residence in Jerusalem.
Israel’s nuclear program is shrouded in mystery
The nuclear program, which was started with the help of France, is shrouded in mystery. Few people can say with certainty that Israel actually has nuclear weapons. What can be said is that the country’s nuclear facilities, in the southern desert town of Dimona, has the capacity to produce them. But there is not necessarily a stockpile of them. Perhaps they sit in two or three parts ready to be assembled at a moment’s notice. No one can be sure, and Mr. Peres relishes that uncertainty.
In fact, he credits that uncertainty with saving Israel in what would be a historic turning point for the country and for Mr. Peres himself.
It was 1973, in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, joined by Syria’s Hafez al-Assad in the north, attacked Israelis forces that had been occupying Egypt’s Sinai peninsula since 1967.
What mattered, Mr. Peres said, wasn’t what Egypt attacked. It was what it didn’t attack: Israel itself.
Mr. Sadat believed that if he struck at Israeli cities or industries, “Israel may employ other sorts of weapons,” the President said, and it put doubt in his mind. “So he tried to create pressure [to withdraw from Sinai]but did not try to destroy Israel. ...
“This was a watershed,” Mr. Peres said, “because until Dimona, the Arabs were sure they could destroy us.”
This also marked the beginning of Mr. Peres’s transition from hawk to dove. He told historian Benny Morris: “So long as the Arabs thought that they could destroy us, they refused to make peace. They weren’t ready. During this period, I was a hawk. Once they showed readiness to make peace, the picture changed,” he said.
Mr. Peres became a leading advocate for peace.
He recalls that several years after the Yom Kippur War, and after a peace treaty with Egypt was signed and the Sinai returned to Egypt, he was visited by Amr Moussa, then the Egyptian foreign minister.
“He came to me,” Mr. Peres said, “and he said: ‘Shimon, we’re such good friends, why don’t you take me to Dimona and let me have a look at your nuclear reactor?’“ “ ‘Are you crazy?’ I said to him. ‘I should take you to Dimona, and you may see there is nothing there, so then you will stop worrying? That would be the end of my career.’“ “Worrying is the purpose,” Mr. Peres said this week. “We don’t want to attack anyone, but we don’t want to be attacked either.
“So if this doubt serves as a deterrent, why not?”
There certainly was lots of doubt in the minds of Israel’s first leaders 25 years earlier that their little country would survive. “We were 650,000 Jewish people against 40 million Arabs; they had arms and we had nothing,” Mr. Peres said.