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A 1970s decision complicates peace mission for Israel's Shimon Peres

Israel's President Shimon Peres at his office in the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem.

Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail/ahikam seri The Globe and Mail

Israeli President Shimon Peres, in Canada on a state visit this week, is best known for his efforts to forge peace between Israelis and Palestinians. So it's worth noting that Mr. Peres, who turns 89 this August, didn't always make peace with Palestinians his highest priority.

Indeed, in the mid 1970s, Mr. Peres was responsible for decisions that would lead to one of the greatest obstacles to peace: the enormous growth of Israeli settlements in the West Bank, especially in the area north of Jerusalem, known as Samaria.

Until 1974, the Israeli forces occupying the West Bank and Gaza had resisted efforts by Israelis attempting to build settlements in the territories. (The exceptions were a number of communities in the Jordan Valley, along the Jordanian frontier, that combined a small military base with farmers, as well as the settlements of Gush Etzion and Hebron that had been the historic site of Jewish communities.) But when Yitzhak Rabin succeeded Golda Meir as leader of the Labour Party and as prime minister, activists began a concerted campaign to establish a foothold in Samaria. Effort after effort was repelled by Israeli forces, then under the direction of the new defence minister, Shimon Peres.

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But Mr. Peres, aware that the country still was reeling from seemingly near defeat in the Yom Kippur War a year earlier and wanting to keep peace with the angry Israeli right, would eventually bow to the pressure.

He offered to allow settlers to establish a camp alongside an Israeli military base, as a kind of extension of the base. It was to be the first step on a slippery slope.

"The settlement I agreed to was Ofra," Mr. Peres acknowledged in an interview last week, referring to a now expansive Israeli community in the midst of several Palestinian villages north of Ramallah.

What he had in mind, Mr. Peres said, was "a settlement that could take care of the radar" that the military wanted to set up in the area (something like the communities in the Jordan Valley to the East where civilian formers and military bases were combined). But Ofra would spawn other settlements in the area, ones such as Qedumim and Elon Moreh, showpieces of the Gush Emunim (Bloc of the Faithful) settler movement. What once was a small concession to pressure has grown to more than 200 settlements with more than 300,000 people (not including another 200,000 in new Jerusalem suburbs in occupied territory) and a huge obstacle to a peaceful settlement with Palestinians who claim the territory.

Mr. Peres argues that he was not responsible for this. He pointed out that his Labour Party was defeated in elections in 1977 and replaced by the Likud government of Menachem Begin.

At the time, he said, "we had 20 settlements and 6,000 people. It wasn't a problem at all."

"The ones who converted the 6,000 into 300,000 was not us," he insisted.

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