Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
Did Israel’s possession of a nuclear bomb—OK, “option,” if you prefer—really serve Israel’s security?
Without doubt. Say there is a suspicion that [Israel has nuclear bombs]. This serves to deter. Let me tell you a story. Amr Moussa—formerly Egypt’s foreign minister, then secretary of the Arab League—we had good relations. One day he comes to me and says, “Shimon, we are friends, take me to Dimona and show me what you have there?” I said, “Are you crazy? I’ll take you there, you’ll see there’s nothing there, you’ll stop being suspicious, and they’ll fire me. And I’m not interested in you stopping being suspicious. Be suspicious.” This suspicion played a major role, I know, in [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s decision not to [try to] reach Tel Aviv [in planning the Yom Kippur War of 1973], in limiting the war to Sinai, not to exaggerate [in their war aims].
How do you know this?
I heard it from Yigael Yadin [a former IDF chief of general staff, later Israel’s deputy prime minister], who heard it from Sadat. And Yadin was someone completely reliable. [The nuclear capability] affected [that is, enhanced] Israel’s position in the world. This can’t be denied.
But since then, especially in recent years, the suspicion or reality of Israel having nuclear bombs enables [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to say: “Why should we be forbidden nuclear weapons?”
They would have gone for nuclear weapons anyway, whether we had them or not. They want to destroy us.
But this gives them the excuse to go for the bomb.
The world understands the difference [between Israel having the bomb and Ahmadinejad having it]. To this day it serves as a [good] deterrent.
He is clear on the crucial point: “They want to destroy us.”
The handling of the matter, by the West, by all of us, has been wrong-headed, from the beginning. There are two elements. One is, in whose hands are the bombs. Say Switzerland got the bomb. Would anybody be worried?
I don’t think it’ll be easy to replace the Iranian regime.
I think the first sanctions should have been [and should be] moral sanctions.
Yes, against the leadership. To prevent anyone meeting them. Like Fascists, like Nazis, not that I’m saying they’re Nazis. Get them ousted from the United Nations. Put them on trial for calling for the destruction of a fellow U.N. member state. They are behind terrorism. Hezbollah.
But would this have stopped the Iranian nuclear project?
This together with economic sanctions. And place a ring of anti-missile missile systems around Iran.
On the settlements issue, you spoke of proportions, of before 1977 [when, as defense minister, you were responsible for Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank] and after [when for much of the time, the Likud was in charge]. You did have a hand [during 1974-77] in establishing settlements on the [heavily Arab-populated] hill crests. For example, Sebastia [ where a precedent-making breakthrough occurred in 1975, when Israel’s Labor-led government permitted the establishment of a Jewish settlement in the heavily Arab-populated hilly spine of Samaria].
It’s a matter of proportions, I never agreed to 300,000 settlers. We were for settlements which were agricultural-military [not civilian settlements]. Like Ofrah. That was the idea.
He suggests that the compromise with the settler group Gush Emunim, essentially to allow the settlers to take root, was reached behind his back by Yisrael Galili, a fellow Labor minister, and that Peres’ negotiation and deals with the settlers at the time of the Sebastia crisis were irrelevant to the outcome. But Israeli critics, then and since, have consistently charged Peres with precedent-making responsibility for the government cave-in to illegal Gush Emunim actions that led to the settlement enterprise in the heartlands of the West Bank.
But I was held to blame. And this joined the other defamations against my character—that I owned factories [and made money through my Defense Ministry position], that my mother was an Arab, etc. All untrue.
Israel refused to talk with the PLO for a long time, then changed its tune in the early 1990s. Maybe that was a mistake? [Perhaps Israel should have begun to talk to them earlier?]
Look, there was the Socialist International. It had several deputy presidents, including myself. Three leaders [were relevant]: Olof Palme [prime minister of Sweden], Bruno Kreisky [chancellor of Austria], and Willy Brandt [sometime chancellor of West Germany and head of its Social Democratic Party]. They wanted to bring PLO head Yasser Arafat into the International. The only vice president who was opposed was me. There were fierce arguments. They pressured me, they said you don’t know Arafat. I said, I am not against. We are a socialist and democratic organization. If he becomes a democrat and socialist, I won’t oppose him. Meanwhile he’s a terrorist. And [gradually] they persuaded him. It was them, 100 percent. They persuaded him to accept [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 242 [which implied recognition of Israel’s right to exist], to abandon terrorism. To talk to Israel.
Arafat was an extraordinary person. Very complicated. He was born in lots of places. [Peres was alluding, jokingly, to the fact that Arafat said he was, or was reported to have been, born variously in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Cairo—and, perhaps, more generally to his penchant for telling tall tales.] He had a wonderful memory, [he remembered] every name and birthday. But facts he didn’t remember. They didn’t interest him. They were something he forgot. So you couldn’t conduct an orderly conversation with him. He was [politically] isolated. Even among the Arabs. Had the Arab states helped him, as world Jewry had helped us, he would have had a state years before. The [European socialist leaders] gave him money, a platform, made him an international figure. And what they wanted from him, he delivered [i.e., announcing abandonment of terrorism, willingness to recognize Israel, etc.].
Kreisky, incidentally, had a big part in bringing Sadat to Jerusalem [and in bringing about peace], [through arranging or endorsing] a meeting between the Egyptian ambassador in Austria and [then-Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan. Kreisky always attacked us. I once asked him: Why? He said, “If I didn’t, how would I be able to help you?”