Shimon Peres, a three-time prime minister and former president from Israel’s generation of founders has died at the age of 93. Although celebrated internationally as a humanitarian and peacemaker, Peres’s true legacy includes the ongoing colonization of Palestinian lands and creation of Israel’s nuclear weapon program.
Peres is remembered by his supporters foremost as a leading Israeli advocate for establishing a Palestinian state and a co-founder of the Labor Party. His youth was spent active in socialist organizations before he became a state-builder. Having helped create Israel’s decisive military advantage as an early head of the Israeli Defense Ministry, in the last part of his life Peres hoped to secure Israel’s longevity by integrating economically and politically into the broader region. He was involved with two peace treaties and authored eleven books on his vision of a “new Middle East,” in which Israel would build economic ties with the rest of the region. The New York Times headline this morning sets that narrative: “Shimon Peres of Israel Dies at 93; Built Up Defense and Sought Peace.”
Yet, to many, Peres will be remembered as a military hawk who, though he never wore a uniform himself or fought in an Israeli war, used international prestige from his participation in the peace process to distract attention from his role is promoting Israeli militarism.
“Young Peres was a determined war-monger,” Uri Avnery wrote in 2014, citing the late leader’s offensives into Egypt (1956) and Lebanon (1982). In 1996 while Peres was both prime minister and defense minister, Israel launched “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” in Lebanon. On April 18, 1996, Israel bombed a UN compound in Qana, Lebanon, where 800 civilians had taken refuge, killing over 100. The massacre drew protests at Peres’ speaking engagements. In his later years Peres never expressed regret over the operation, in fact he said he was “at peace with it.”
In today’s Independent, Robert Fisk vividly recalls the Qana slaughter. The U.N. repeatedly advised Israel that Qana camp was sheltering refugees; Israel struck for 17 minutes. Fisk mocks the international tributes and says that Peres approved the attack to improve his political credentials:
When the world heard that Shimon Peres had died, it shouted “Peacemaker!” But when I heard that Peres was dead, I thought of blood and fire and slaughter…
Peres, standing for election as Israel’s prime minister – a post he inherited when his predecessor Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated – decided to increase his military credentials before polling day by assaulting Lebanon.
Peres’s credentials as a critic of Palestinians was also strong. Just four years ago, Peres described Palestinians as “self-victimizing.” When David Frost suggested that Israel has a reputation as a bully and Palestinians are the victims, Peres bridled.
“They are self-victimising. They victimise themselves. They are a victim of their own mistakes unnecessarily.”
There are other shadows over Peres’s legacy as well. Peres was the architect of Israel’s nuclear weapons program – a program that has never been officially acknowledged. While defense minister during Rabin’s first prime ministership he sought to sell nuclear weapons to apartheid South Africa.
From Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa:
In November 1974, Shimon Peres came to Pretoria to meet secretly with South African leaders. After the trip he wrote to his hosts thanking them for helping to establish a “vitally important” link between the two governments. Peres — who routinely denounced apartheid in public — went on to stress that “this cooperation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and out refusal to submit to it.” Peres predicted that “the new links which you have helped to forge between our two countries will develop into a close identity of aspirations and interests which will turn out to be of longstanding benefit to our countries.” Over the next two decades Peres’s prediction would prove to be remarkably accurate.
He met South African defense minister P.W. Botha the following year in Switzerland, and it was there that the two ministers laid the foundation for an enduring military relationship.
When questioned about his close relationship to the South African apartheid regime years later, Peres told the Guardian’s Chris McGreal, “I never think back. Since I cannot change the past, why should I deal with it?”
While Peres’s international reputation catapulted from Israeli notable to the international stage with the signing of the Oslo Peace Accords, he was an early and enthusiastic proponent of the Israeli settlement enterprise. Archival documents published by Gershom Gorenberg on his website South Jerusalem show Peres’s early support for the settlements as defense minister in 1976 when he started laying the groundwork for what is now know as Israel’s matrix of control in the occupied territories:
In 1976, Shimon Peres was defense minister. This document, from his settlement files, is a list of proposed projects intended to expand the city of Jerusalem and the Jerusalem Corridor – the strip of land that connected the city to coastal Israel between 1948 and 1967. First on the list is building a new access road to Jerusalem, north of the Green Line. The road would connect two new areas of Israeli settlement in the West Bank.
The road was eventually built, and is known as Road 443.
Road 443 became known as Israel’s “apartheid road” and connected West Bank settlements to Tel Aviv. Around that same time in 1976, Peres told journalist Yossi Bellin that he viewed the settlements as “the roots and the eyes of Israel.”
Working under Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin as minister of foreign affairs, Peres was a public face of the Israeli government during the Oslo negotiations and Peres, Rabin and Yasser Arafat shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994. Although lauded for his role in the Oslo Accords it bears repeating that the Oslo Accords did not seek to undo the settlement project nor did it intend to create a fully viable and independent Palestinian state as much as it sought to bring about a mosaic of Palestinian bantustans that would have a degree of autonomy but would always remain under the grip of the Israeli military.
Peres was born in 1923 in Wieniawa, Poland (present-day Belarus) and immigrated to Palestine at the age of 11 in 1934. His youth was spent on a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee, which led to his entry into Israel’s socialist party, Mapai. Already a prominent political figure by the 1948 war, Peres was hand picked by David Ben-Gurion to solicit weapons for the Zionist militias and their campaign. A protege of Ben-Gurion, Peres joined the Haganah in 1947 and even though Peres never participated in combat, he was promoted to lead Israel’s Navy in 1949 and was appointed Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Defense in 1951.
A protege of Ben-Gurion, Peres joined the Haganah in 1947. Even though Peres never participated in combat, he was promoted to lead Israel’s Navy in 1949 and was appointed Deputy Director General of the Ministry of Defense in 1951. In this role, Peres was central in the planning for the 1956 Suez War where Israel, France, and Great Britain sought to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser and assume control of the Suez Canal.
In 1959 Peres entered Israel’s Knesset where he would continue to hold office until 2007. During his career in parliament he held nearly every high-ranking minister position. He was prime minister three times: first in 1977 after Yitzhak Rabin was forced to resign because of a financial scandal involving his wife; in 1984-86 during the national unity government between Labor and Likud; and in 1995-96 for an eight month period after Rabin was assassinated.