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Israel's president Shimon Peres at his office in the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, Israel. (Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail/Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail)
Israel's president Shimon Peres at his office in the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, Israel. (Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail/Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail)

Israeli politics

'We are the only country that is threatened to be destroyed' Add to ...

An international embargo on supplying arms to either Israel or the Arab states was being observed by the United States, Britain and Canada, three of the countries with the biggest stockpile of weapons from the just-concluded Second World War.

But Russia, and its allies, flouted the embargo and supplied weapons to its clients in Egypt and Syria.

Mr. Peres was tasked by Mr. Ben Gurion to find some weapons. He learned that Canada would be willing to sell some arms to us, weapons not covered by the embargo, and he asked if he could buy 30 “25-pounders,” a widely used type of portable artillery, and some machine guns.

“The Canadian government, to my great surprise, approved the [artillery]and disapproved the machine guns,” he said.

Canada saw the 25-pounders as “defensive weapons,” Mr. Peres explained, and the machine guns as “attacking weapons” that, in the spirit of the embargo, they would not sell.

However, alarmed at the price the federal government wanted for the artillery ($2-million), Mr. Peres set off to Montreal in 1951 to seek help from Sam Bronfman, the Seagram liquor baron and an influential man in Ottawa.

Mr. Bronfman drove Mr. Peres to Ottawa in his Cadillac to meet the minister of supply and reconstruction, C.D. Howe.

It was a wintry day, the President recalled, and his millionaire guide wanted to stop for a glass of whisky along the way. “I thought that was nice,” he said.

“We arrived in Ottawa and he [Mr. Bronfman]stormed into Howe’s office,” complaining about the outrageous price of the guns. “‘These people [Israelis]don’t have anything,’ he said.”

“Howe was impressed and he cut the price in half,” Mr. Peres said.

On the way back to Montreal, a pleased Mr. Bronfman turned to Mr. Peres and asked where he was going to get the million.

“From you,” he said he replied.

Mr. Peres recalls good relations over the years with many Canadian political leaders, especially Pierre Trudeau.

On the day the two met, Mr. Trudeau invited him for lunch at his home, and surprised him by insisting on taking lunch outside on a blanket on the lawn. “We sat like two young children and had our lunch,” Mr. Peres said.

“And then we developed a really good friendship.”

The Israeli President laughs when he recalls the time Mr. Trudeau called him out of the blue from Libya, where the Canadian was meeting one of Israel’s greatest enemies, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, in the desert.

By the 1980s, the dove in Mr. Peres had fully emerged, but it was only in the early nineties that his efforts met success. He and his protégés ushered in the Oslo Agreement, the result of secret talks in Norway with Palestinian representatives.

While the accord in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized each other did not result in a treaty, Mr. Peres believes that its spirit lives on and the two-state solution the accord envisioned remains the only way to achieve real peace.

It has become popular in Israel to mock or condemn Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as ineffective or disingenuous for his efforts to win recognition at the United Nations and his refusal to negotiate until Israel ceases its construction of settlements. But Mr. Peres went out of his way last month to describe Mr. Abbas as a “worthy partner for peace.”

“You know, the Oslo Agreement that was signed on the White House lawn was signed by him and by me,” the President said, looking across his desk to the Nobel Prize he was awarded for that agreement. “So we have known each other for quite a long time.”

Mr. Abbas “says publicly that he is against terror, that he’s against war, that he understands the need of Israel for security, that he’s for the two-state solution,” Mr. Peres said. “I have the highest respect for him and I think he’s a person that we can talk and should talk with.”

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