Shimon Peres sought security through peace
© Getty Images

Shimon Peres, the Israeli statesman and Nobel laureate who died on Wednesday, will be remembered principally as the world's foremost champion of Mideast peacemaking. Not since former South African President Nelson Mandela's funeral in December 2013 have so many nations sent such high-level delegations consisting of kings and princes, presidents and prime ministers, and a large roster of other foreign dignitaries to pay their respects to another icon of peace.

During the first half of his seven-decade career, however, Peres was preparing for war, not peace.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel's first prime minister and defense minister, feared that the nascent state faced existential danger given that it was outnumbered and outgunned by neighbors seeking its destruction. As his young aide and protege, Peres was tasked with a mission impossible: teaming up with a great power that would arm the Jewish State so that it could survive the inevitable future attacks of collective Arab armies.

ADVERTISEMENT

Despite an international arms embargo, a severe shortage of funds, and numerous political and bureaucratic obstacles at home and abroad, Peres engaged in a most unorthodox form of personal diplomacy involving secret missions to the United States and Europe and bypassing official diplomatic channels in order to realize Ben-Gurion's vision.

Within the first two decades of Israel's existence, Peres had established the Israel Aircraft Industries; forged a secret alliance with France, which provided Israel with massive quantities of high-quality arms, as well as a nuclear reactor near the southern city of Dimona; and negotiated important arms deals with Germany.

Due largely to Peres's activities, Israel was transformed from a weak, isolated and vulnerable state into a regional superpower. Its stunning military victories in the 1956 and 1967 wars utilized French aircraft, AMX-13 French light tanks, and other arms and military equipment Peres had procured in his clandestine negotiations. The nuclear reactor provided Israel with the ultimate deterrent, which erased the widely held notion in the Arab world that Israel was a temporary entity that could be eliminated.

Egyptian President Anwar Sadat's dramatic visit to Israel in November 1977, where he delivered a message of peace, had a profound impact on Peres. Israel could now consider an alternative to the state of perpetual war it had known since its establishment. It had become strong enough, Peres believed, to begin taking calculated risks for peace.

Throughout the 1980s, he cultivated close relations with a number of Arab leaders, including Sadat's successor, Hosni Mubarak; Morocco's King Hassan II; and Jordan's King Hussein, with whom he reached a framework for a peace conference that was scuttled by then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.

Ultimately, he reached the conclusion that resolving the conflict with the Palestinians would require direct negotiations with Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) Chairman Yasser Arafat, the longtime terrorist leader who symbolized their national struggle. In 1993, Peres persuaded a skeptical Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to authorize secret talks with the PLO in Oslo. A historic deal was reached and, Peres, along with Rabin and Arafat, received a Nobel Peace Prize.

Although the Oslo process ultimately fell apart, several key elements have remained in place including mutual recognition, the Palestinian Authority's governance of parts of the West Bank, and security cooperation with Israel. The goal of peace, however, has remained as elusive as ever.

Yet Peres, an eternal optimist, never gave up hope. Even in his most recent role as president — a largely ceremonial position — he was granted permission by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to try his hand at negotiating with his old Oslo-era partner, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas. According to Peres, he reached a draft agreement with Abbas in 2011 but was given an order by Netanyahu to halt the talks before they could finalize their deal, an account backed by an aide to Abbas.

In his eulogy for Peres, Netanyahu spoke of debating Peres on the question of which was paramount for Israel — security or peace — with Netanyahu arguing for the former and Peres for the latter. Netanyahu, however, must have misunderstood Peres, the man whose contributions to Israeli security exceeded that of high-ranking generals. For Peres, security and peace were two sides of the same coin. He viewed a negotiated settlement with the Palestinians, based on a two-state solution, as fundamental to Israel's long-term survival.

As Peres liked to say, he built Dimona, the nuclear reactor, to get to Oslo. While he did not live to see peace, he had no doubt that, with courageous and creative leadership, it was attainable.

Ziv is an assistant professor of international relations at American University’s School of International Service. He is the author of "Why Hawks Become Doves: Shimon Peres and Foreign Policy Change in Israel." Follow him on Twitter @ZivGuy.


The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.