Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
Peres revered “the old man” and continuously quotes him and refers to him. His book-lined office contains a collection of photos of the old man in various prime-ministerial and leisurely poses, a few of them with a much-younger Peres at his side. Ben-Gurion and his legacy have been preoccupying Peres lately. He has just completed a biography of Ben-Gurion that will be published by Shocken Books next year as part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series.
Inducted at 24 into Ben-Gurion’s personal staff in 1947, Peres served as deputy director general and then director general of the Defense Ministry from 1952 to 1959; as a member of the Knesset, starting in 1959, for about four decades; and, on and off, as a cabinet minister. He was acting prime minister and prime minister three times: briefly in 1977 (after Yitzhak Rabin resigned because of a financial misdemeanor), in 1984-1986, and in 1995-1996 (after Rabin’s assassination).
For decades regarded as a “Ben-Gurionist” hard-liner or hawk, in the 1990s Peres orchestrated the Oslo negotiations with the PLO and emerged as Israel’s leading dove. For his role in those negotiations, the first between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.
I ask Peres about Ben-Gurion’s agreement to waive the conscription to military service of the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, and to subsidize their Torah studies in yeshivas. Was this not a mistake, given today’s reality of massive exemptions from military service and the social crisis caused by massive government subsidies of the haredi tendency to have disproportionately large families and not work?
Peres: Ben-Gurion appointed me to negotiate the [exemption from service] with them. I think it was in 1951. I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer. At the time, we were talking about 100-150 yeshiva students altogether. The ultra-orthodox leaders said: If there is no exemption, the yeshivot will be established in other countries. [I thought:] Israel without yeshivot?
Peres implies that he is averse to today’s mass exemptions. He adds that he—and perhaps Ben-Gurion—expected the haredim to change over time and become productive members of society.
Peres: To be a haredi is not eternal.
It seems to be.
Haredi women are beginning to go to work; haredim are going to the army.
We’re still talking very small numbers.
We move on to Israeli-Arab relations during the first decade of the Jewish state. The 1948 war had formally ended with armistice agreements between Israel and each of its four neighbors, signed between February and July 1949. But the Arab states were deeply traumatized by their defeat, by the public spectacle of their ineptitude, and by the establishment of a Jewish state in the very heartland of Araby—indeed, physically severing the Arab West, the Maghreb (Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara), from the Arab East, the Mashreq (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq). They refused to acquiesce in Israel’s existence and, at least in their rhetoric, promised a “second round,” in which they would vanquish Israel. At the same time, some in Israel, including the revisionist right and Moshe Dayan, often or occasionally sought a second round in order to move Israel’s eastern frontier to the more defensible line of the Jordan River and to incorporate the historic heartland of the Jewish people: Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem.
During the years 1949-1956, a state of low-level belligerency persisted between Israel and its neighbors: Arabs, mostly refugees of the 1948 war, infiltrated Israel and occasionally launched terrorist attacks; Israel retaliated with strikes. Periodic clashes, especially from 1953 on, occurred between the armies of Israel and the Arab states along its frontiers. This cycle of violence culminated in the Israeli attack, joined by Britain and France, on Egypt in October-November 1956, known as the Sinai Campaign or Suez War. For Israel, this was the second Arab-Israeli war.
In the 1950s there was terrorism and Israeli reprisal attacks. The policy of reprisals didn’t work, and we ended up going to war in Sinai. And Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett thought the reprisal policy rendered the prospect of peace only more distant.
Look, I supported [the reprisal policy] today and supported it then. There were terrorist organizations. We couldn’t run after each terrorist. So, the policy was to hit the Arab states that hosted them.
But it didn’t succeed.
But we had to pressure [the neighboring] countries [to reduce infiltration]. So, we launched reprisals. [But] terror can’t be beaten. It can be only be stymied or reduced.
Perhaps we could have reached peace if we had offered greater concessions?
Our history with the Arabs is also my personal history. And I divide the history into two. So long as the Arabs thought that they could destroy us, they refused to make peace. They weren’t ready. During this period I was a hawk. Once they showed readiness to make peace, the picture changed. This happened between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Before then, [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, with his allies Syria and Jordan, thought he could destroy us. They received a lot of weapons from Russia. To this day, I don’t know why Truman refused to sell us rifles—even rifles. Britain, France, and Canada joined them [in the embargo]. Until Kennedy, they [the United States] sold us no arms. Ben-Gurion was fearful the [Arabs] would destroy us.