Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
We move on to the 1967 Six-Day War, which, like the wars of 1948 and 1956, was not immediately followed by Israeli-Arab peace. Peres tells me that in May 1967 he tried to avert war by proposing “a certain measure”—foreign press reports, which he would not confirm, have stated over the years that Peres had proposed Israel explode a nuclear bomb in the Negev, as a warning to Nasser not to start a war. But the Israeli Cabinet rejected Peres’ idea, and Israel embarked on a preemptive attack, crushing the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and conquering East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
A few days after the war ended, there was a secret Israeli Cabinet decision, on June 19, 1967, to give back Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace, with a demilitarization of these territories.
[The decision was to withdraw back to] the international frontier [in exchange for peace], yes. [A similar proposal was not made vis-à-vis the West Bank] as Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank [in 1948-1950] wasn’t [internationally] recognized, except by Pakistan [and Britain]. The offer to Egypt and Syria was also made publicly. In a Knesset speech. They knew about it.
Why didn’t Israel immediately after the war offer to give back to Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
We—Rabin, [Foreign minister Yigal] Allon, and I—met [Jordan’s King] Hussein in 1974 on the Red Sea, and each of us proposed [something]. Allon [proposed] the Allon Plan [in exchange for peace to withdraw from and give back to Jordan the hilly, populated crests of the West Bank while retaining the almost unpopulated Jordan Valley]. I asked Rabin permission to present my plan, and Rabin agreed.
What did you propose?
This was the [thrust of the 1986 Hussein-Peres] London Agreement, the first time it was proposed. There would be three entities: Jordan and Israel and the West Bank (which would be jointly ruled; each West Banker would be able to vote for his own parliament). And a local [West Bank] parliament would handle matters other than foreign and defense affairs. [The 1986 agreement was vetoed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.] Hussein agreed to this. He agreed that this would be “a basis for negotiation.”
But this isn’t the same as giving back the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordanian sovereignty. What if we had offered to give back all the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
[Hussein] wouldn’t have agreed. He would have been alone and charged with treachery. Egypt and Syria would have prevented this.
Or what if we had withdrawn from the West and East Jerusalem, unilaterally, without agreement [and avoided Palestinian nationalism and the current imbroglio]?
And who would have guaranteed our safety, with a distance of only 10 miles from the West Bank’s western edge to the Mediterranean coast? … There was an exaggerated enthusiasm after [the victory of] 1967.
I try to draw him out on the Israeli atomic bomb, which, he prefers to call “the Israeli nuclear option.” It was the young Peres who, in the mid- and late-1950s, successfully negotiated with France for assistance with the construction of the Dimona nuclear plant, where, according to foreign press reports and Israeli spy Mordechai Vanunu, Israel produced and produces its nuclear weapons. And it was Peres who, apparently as Ben-Gurion’s agent, oversaw the whole program.
You are sometimes called the father of the Israeli nuclear bomb, but somehow, in Israeli public consciousness, it was not chalked up to your credit, for example at election-time. [Peres lost elections in 1977, 1981, and 1996; in 1984, under Peres, Labor won more seats in the Knesset than any other party but proved unable to form a left-wing coalition government and ended up in coalition with the Likud, with Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir “rotating” as prime ministers. This series of electoral defeats earned Peres a reputation with the Israeli public as a political loser, which he greatly resented.]
It was kept secret.
But a well-known secret.
It was completely hidden, unknown. Formally there was the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, but I managed everything. My role with the French was not known. And everybody was against me. [Here Peres is referring to opponents of the nuclear project within the Israeli establishment. They argued that Israel was too poor and technologically undeveloped to complete the project alone should the French withdraw their assistance, and that, even if successful in producing bombs, the bombs would cause Israel no end of political and diplomatic problems. Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, was among the critics of the project; Moshe Dayan was among the skeptics. According to foreign press reports, Israel achieved atomic weaponry in 1967-1968].
Is this not an injustice done [to you] by history?
Let me tell you. You won’t like this. But history [meaning the writing of history] in my eyes is not that important. I have reached the conclusion that a leader who worries about how he will go down in history will not be a great leader. He must give up his place in history in order to make history. I am an example of a person who had to lehitapek [keep silent] for a long time. My place in Israel Aircraft Industries [a leading Israeli weapons manufacturing company] was unknown, my part in [launching the] Entebbe [raid, in which Israeli commandos rescued more than 100 airplane passengers hijacked to Uganda by Palestinian and German terrorists in 1976] wasn’t known. [Rabin eventually reaped the credit.] I thought that the ability to do things, if I was straight with myself, was more important than being written down in history. To be No. 2, without the title, is sometimes more important than being No. 1. I know, look at my record.
I suppose I won’t have a major place in history. But this is unimportant. What is important is that I was a fair person [hogen]. I was not necessarily on the right [tzodek] side—that will only become apparent later—but I was on the fair side. So, I could sleep calmly at night. Churchill, of course, assured how he would be seen in history by writing his histories.