In an AFP wire-service piece in The Age today 6 May (Israel to Press Obama on Iran) there is a breakout phrase highlighting a comment made by Israeli President Shimon Peres, currently in Washington, in an address to the America-Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). Mr Peres reportedly told his audience, “The Middle East finds itself in the shadow of a nuclear threat”.
Indeed it does, and Mr Peres deserves an Oscar for being able to say this with a straight face. For Mr Peres is the central figure in the story of Israel’s development and deployment of its nuclear strike force.
The idea of Israel developing a nuclear weapon had been planted in the mind of Israel’s first Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, by Ernst David Bergmann, his scientific adviser, but in the words of Avner Cohen in his definitive history of the Israeli nuclear program (Avner Cohen, Israel and the Bomb, Columbia University Press, 1998):
...it was Shimon Peres who persuaded Ben Gurion in 1956-57 that the time was right to initiate the nuclear project. From the beginning, Peres was entrusted by Ben Gurion to lead Israel’s pursuit of a nuclear capability.
It was Peres who formed the nuclear relationship between France and Israel (the Israelis having concluded that the United States would only assist them under its Atoms for Peace Program, with strict safeguards) and Peres who negotiated the collaboration which made possible the Dimona reactor which in due course produced Israel’s weapons grade plutonium.
The Israeli nuclear program was good for the ambitious Peres, who had never served in uniform. In the words of Cohen (p. 20):
For Peres, establishing a secret nuclear nuclear program under his own supervision meant also creating a new political and bureaucratic power base. It added to his special relationship with Ben Gurion and allowed Peres to promote a new strategy for Israeli national security, a strategy that made traditional military strategy less relevant.”
Peres also told his AIPAC audience that he would be delivering to President Obama “a strong message for a country yearning for peace”.
Presumably Peres is referring here to the country that invaded Lebanon in 2006 and bombed the southern suburbs of Beirut, causing heavy civilian casualties, which bombed Syria in September 2007, which invaded Gaza in January this year, again with great loss of life, which muses aloud about the need to attack Iran, and which has elected an administration that rejects the idea of a Palestinian State.
Of course Peres has “form” as far as invading the neighbours is concerned. It was Peres as Director-General of the Ministry of Defence whom the French Defence Minister of the day, Bourges-Manoury, approached to sound out whether Israel would be prepared to participate in an invasion of Egypt following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal. To quote Cohen again (p. 53):
Peres responded: “Under certain circumstances I assume we would be so prepared.” To the admonition of an aide, who told Peres that he – Peres – had no authority to promise Israel’s participation and that he might be punished, Peres responded that he would “rather risk his neck than risk missing a unique opportunity like this.” Peres’s biographer [Matti Golan] writes that Peres readily replied in the affirmative because he calculated that this could be the opportunity that would give Israel the reactor.
There was no simple deal that Israel would participate in the invasion of Suez in return for assistance with the reactor. It was rather a case of the desire for nuclear collaboration being part of the Israeli calculation about the desirability of participating in the invasion, and as events turned out, Peres was right in his assessment that participation in the invasion would facilitate negotiation of the nuclear collaboration. As a consequence, the Suez invasion and the nuclear programs of Israel and France became part of the one narrative.