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Shimon Peres - leftist, pragmatist, peacenik, hawk, statesman and super patriot

Moshe Dayan, David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres c. 1953

There is no doubt that many politicians change political colour at the drop of a hat, which makes labelling them far from being an exact science. Shimon Peres, a lifelong socialist and man of the left, presented different faces to different people, but he always stood firmly for what he believed was best for Israel. His one overriding belief was that Israel always had to be militarily powerful, so that if and when peace negotiations with the Arab world were to take place, Israel would be able to speak from a position of military supremacy.

This article is not about Shimon Peres the politician, but rather his achievements during a career in the public service that lasted for 63 years, from pre State times to the end of his presidency in July 2014.

Shimon Peres and Moshe Dayan, 8 years his senior, were the Mapai youth representatives to the 1946 Zionist Congress in Basel, Switzerland. Peres joined the Haganah a year later, where Dayan, who was already a seasoned veteran, having joined the organisation as a 14 year old in 1929, became his mentor. Moshe Dayan was a firm believer in the dictum that peace can only be achieved from speaking to your enemy from a position of superior military strength, an ideal to which Shimon Peres fully subscribed. Many years later Dayan famously said “If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends. You talk to your enemies”

Peres was never a soldier in the conventional sense, but found his niche as a back room administrator, soon blossoming into becoming an expert on armaments procurement and manufacture. Shortly after Peres had joined the Haganah, Ben Gurion appointed him as head of personnel and arms procurement, while a year later he was also given responsibility for Pal Yam, the Haganah naval arm. Following independence he was appointed as the director of Israel’s fledgling Naval Service with the mandate of turning it into an effective fighting force.

Between 1950 and 1952 Peres headed the Israel Defence Ministry delegation to the United States, taking advantage of his stay to further his studies, including completing an advanced management course at Harvard. On his return to Israel in 1952, he was appointed as the Director General of Defence while only 29 years of age, to partner the slightly older Chief of Staff, 34 year old Yigal Yadin. Peres thrived in his new position and began to put into practice his belief that Israel had to become as militarily strong as possible as quickly as possible. Influenced by Dayan, he understood that in order to conduct meaningful negotiations with its enemies, Israel had to speak from a position of strength, a philosophy that became his prime motivation in life.

Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Yigal Yadin with Prime Minister Ben Gurion

The Soviet Union under Josef Stalin had been happy to support Israel at the United Nations as well as to supply arms through its satellite state, Czechoslovakia. This all came to an end under Stalin's successor, Nikita Khrushchev, who favoured Israel’s Arab enemies, cutting off all ties with Israel. Ben Gurion and Peres had to find a new arms supplier and very soon Peres was on his way to Paris, heralding the real beginning of his career as Israel’s foremost arms procurement official. The short lived romance with France, which lasted from 1953 to 1962, would result in Israel establishing a qualitative edge over its enemies in military equipment, which was to save Israel on numerous occasions.

The high point in relations between France and Israel was reached at a tripartite conference between France, Israel and Britain held at Sevres in October 1956. The background to the conference was to be found in the massive supply of Czechoslovakia arms to Egypt in 1955, followed by Egypts nationalisation of the Suez Canal and blockade of Eilat, denying Israel access to Red Sea shipping. France and Britain wanted to regain control of the Suez Canal while Israel needed the blockade on Eilat lifted, sufficient reason for an unlikely military alliance between the three countries. The selected venue for a tripartite meeting between the prospective allies was the Paris suburb of Sevres, which is where the conference known as Sevres Conference took place on 21 October 1956. Plans were laid for a joint military operation against Egypt, with France, Britain and Israel each having clearly defined operational responsibilities.

With the exception of the Israeli part of the plan, Operation Kadesh, which was carried out successfully, the rest of the operation was a disaster, with Britain and France failing to meet their obligations, but that is a story for another day. From an Israeli perspective, the most important aspect of the Sevres Conference was a behind the scenes meeting between Shimon Peres and French premier Guy Mollet, during which it was agreed that France would provide the technical assistance for Israel to build a nuclear reactor. The degree of cooperation between the two countries was made evident in a United States intelligence report which asserted that "Israel and France were at a similar level of expertise after the war, and Israeli scientists could make significant contributions to the French effort. Progress in nuclear science and technology in France and Israel remained closely linked throughout the fifties." Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury who succeeded Mollet as French Prime Minister, said at the time, "I gave you [Israel] nuclear potential in order to prevent another Holocaust from befalling the Jewish people and so that Israel could face its enemies in the Middle East."

Maurice Bourgès-Maunoury with then Finance Minister Levi Eshkol

David Ben Gurion and Shimon Peres shared the vision of Israel becoming a nuclear power, which resulted in the establishment of Dimona, the city which is home to Israel’s nuclear research facility, now fittingly renamed as the Shimon Peres Nuclear Research Centre. This was Shimon Peres’ greatest contribution to Israel’s security, as well as being a significant element in the economic and industrial life of the country. The French connection that Peres established and nurtured thus gave Israel its first nuclear reactor, as well as having a reliable supplier of top quality armaments. The rise to the Presidency of France by General Charles De Gaulle, unfortunately heralded the start of a cooling in relations between France and Israel. This culminated in a thinly veiled anti semitic attack on Israel after the Six Day War, in which DeGaulle accused Israel of having started the war because it had fired the first shot.

De Gaulle’s statement included the following warning about Jewish ambitions “the Jews, hitherto widely dispersed and who had remained what they had always been, in other words, an elite people, sure of itself and domineering, once they were together again in the lands of their former grandeur might transform into a burning, conquering ambition the heart-moving wishes voiced over nineteen long centuries: “next year in Jerusalem.”

Shimon Peres had been very reluctant to be dependent on only one major arms supplier, and with this in mind he made a clandestine approach to Germany. He subsequently had a secret meeting in November 1957 with German Defence Minister Franz Josef Strauss, which only became public knowledge in 1964. The result of the meeting was that by 1960 Germany was supplying surplus American Sherman tanks to Israel as well as other materiel, including submarines and artillery pieces, which were desperately needed for Israel’s defence. After the arms purchases became public knowledge, opposition to the deal was widespread within Germany, with attempts by the government to renege on the contract. Peres, by then Deputy Minister of Defence, insisted on all agreements being met, prompting a German offer of cash compensation, which Peres angrily rejected. The Germans finally delivered , completed the contracts and withdrew as arms suppliers to Israel.

German supplied - Israeli M4A4 Sherman in the Latrun museum

The unreliability of foreign arms suppliers was an ever recurring problem faced by Israel and Defence Director General Shimon Peres during the formative years of the Jewish state. With this in mind, Peres brought about the establishment of a small company, Bedek Aviation, in 1953, to provide an aircraft maintenance service for the Israeli Air Force. An initiative by Ben Gurion resulted in Al Schwimmer, already a living legend in Israel, joining Bedek as company president. The name of the company was soon changed to Israel Aircraft industries (IAI), with a new emphasis on the manufacture of fighter aircraft. American born Schwimmer had all the right credentials, being a qualified aircraft engineer with 2nd World War experience, as well as having been responsible for procuring fighter aircraft for the Israeli Air Force (IAF) before and during the 1948 War of Independence. Much of the procurement involved smuggling and Schwimmer became an expert, although he was later found guilty of various aircraft smuggling related offences by a US court. This experience stood him in good stead when he “negotiated” the purchase of the blueprints for the French Mirage fighter plane from a swiss engineer. The aircraft were then manufactured by IAI and proved vital in the stunning performance of the IAF during the opening hours of the 1967 Six Day War.

Shimon Peres in the cockpit of an Israeli manufactured Lavi fighter aircraft

During 1958, working together with Meir Mardor, Peres turned his attention to conventional arms manufacture, which resulted in the establishment of what eventually became RAFAEL Advanced Defence Systems. Mardor had worked alongside Peres in the procurement of arms before independence, later acting as Commander of the Israeli Naval Services during the period Peres was the Naval Director General. After Peres had been appointed Director General of Defence in 1953, Mardor became the head of scientific research and security in the IDF, although this was soon split into security under the IDF and a Research and Planning Division under the Department of Defence, with Mardor working in close cooperation with Peres. This division would later become a fully fledged arms manufacturing company, the birth of RAFAEL. The company currently manufactures the famed life saving Iron Dome and David's Sling, as well as many other missile defence systems.

The famed rescue of the Entebbe hostages on 3 July 1976 was a significant achievement on the part of Shimon Peres, then Minister of Defence. Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Chief of Staff Motta Gur were in favour of negotiating with the terrorists for the release of the hostages. Peres, on the other hand, conceived the idea of taking the fight to the terrorists through a military rescue mission, an idea for which he obtained the support of his former mentor, Moshe Dayan. After several days of what has been described as bickering between Peres and Rabin, the concept of an armed rescue mission was accepted by Rabin and Gur. The rest is history.

Defence Minister Shimon Peres greeting rescued hostages, P.M. Rabin is on the left

During early 1970, the Israeli government, of which peres was a member, took the decision to design and manufacture its own main battle tank. The project started under the direction of world renowned tank warfare expert, Major General Israel (Talik) Tal, who had been an advisor to Shimon Peres in the Department of Defence. Peres was appointed as Minister of Defence in 1974, bringing him together with Tal once again, and very soon the first Israeli built Merkava main battle tanks became a reality. The Merkava was designed with many unique features, each of which had an important practical application, many of them to protect the lives of the tank crew members. Unlike most other tanks, the gun carrying turret is situated as far back as possible, while the engine is front mounted, providing a much greater degree of protection for the crew in the event of a frontal attack on their tank. The position of the turret also allows for a rear door exit and entry, rather than through a hatch in the turret as on most other tanks. The rear doors provides easy access and escape for the crew, while also making it possible for battle tanks to be used as infantry carrying vehicles or to provide armoured battlefield casualty evacuations.

Shimon Peres was the man at the heart of the establishment of almost all the military hardware manufacturing capability that has made Israel famous as an innovative developer and manufacturer of highly effective weapons systems. Fighter aircraft, surface to air , air to air and air to ground missiles, drones, Merkava battle tanks and many other unique weapons systems that we don't even know about, all make Israel the military power that it has become. This is all thanks to the vision and foresight of Shimon Peres.

Slotted in between all these achievements was a political career, controversial at times, considering that this was a man who left no stone unturned in establishing Israel as a leading arms manufacturer and military power and later to become a recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize. This was the same man, who, as Israel’s Minister of Defence in 1974, encouraged the members of the original Gush Emunim movement to establish settlements in the West Bank. Addressing the Knesset, Peres had this to say in support of the first settlers “ I know of no principle that prevents the right of Jews to settle in the Judea and Samaria regions. The truth is that the controversy is not over a principle but rather a policy, not on the vision but rather on the timing, not on an area but rather on a specific place, not on volunteering but rather on law”.

The Peres philosophy of negotiating from strength was evident in his approval of the West Bank settlement initiative, as this would give Israel a powerful bargaining tool in future negotiations with regard to the borders of a future Palestinian state, should a workable peace initiative ever come to fruition.

The election of Shimon Prese to the Presidency of Israel, an office he filled with distinction from July 2007 to July 2014, was a just reward to a man who had devoted his entire adult life in service to his beloved State of Israel. When he passed away on 28 September 2016, a true giant of Israel fell, heralding the end of a significant era in the history of Israel.

Shimon {Peres, President of Israel

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A fascinating and, as always, meticulously researched article, thank you Peter. Of interest might be that Gen de Gaulle was known to be a rather cantankerous fellow, seemingly with some anti-Semitic inclinations. South African Gen Jan Smuts was also known to have a rather fractious relationship with de Gaulle.

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