Shimon Peres’ forgotten role in stopping Israel from bombing Iran

Shimon Peres at Davos in 2009.
Peres at Davos, Jan. 29, 2009. Photo: Sebastian Derungs

I don’t want to offer up another take on Shimon Peres’ mixed legacy because the media is flooded with them. But I do want to point out one historic act he performed that I haven’t seen mentioned anywhere, which is odd because it was his last one: Playing an absolutely crucial role, as president, in stopping Netanyahu and then-defense minister Ehud Barak from fulfilling their dream of bombing Iran’s nuclear facilities.

Ari Shavit has written, with grudging respect, that Peres “spearheaded the opposition,” working “both at home and abroad to prevent an attack on Iran – and he succeeded.”

Peres first came out publicly against bombing Iran in February 2012, when war fever was raging in Netanyahu and Barak’s offices. He told Channel 2:

“It’s clear to us that we can’t do it alone. We can only delay [Iran’s progress]. Thus it’s clear to us that we need to go together with America. There are questions of cooperation and of timetables, but as severe as the danger is, at least this time we’re not alone.”

Haaretz’s Anshel Pfeffer wrote that a Peres aide had told him in early 2010, “Shimon is doing everything to block Bibi and Barak’s crazy plan to attack Iran.” Pfeffer added that he confirmed that account with one of Peres’ “oldest confidantes,” who told him, “It’s true, [military chief Gabi] Ashkenazi and the other security chiefs are all looking to Shimon to lead the opposition to a strike on Iran.”

Haaretz has reported that Peres began working with military and intelligence leaders to block Netanyahu and Barak in 2008, a year after he became president. The public campaign against the bombing of Iran didn’t start until January 2011, when Meir Dagan, immediately after retiring from the Mossad, began speaking out against it.

But privately, in the high-level plotting against those crazy plans, Peres was there at the inception – as president and simply as Shimon Peres, whose private words carried a lot of weight in Washington, and whose later, public words would carry a lot of weight in Israel, and whose commitment to and likely leadership of the rebellion at the beginning no doubt bucked up Dagan, Ashkenazi and the others.

I’ve always thought Dagan was the movement’s hero because he was the first one who stuck his neck out, and in so doing threw away an unlimited future in politics to speak his conscience, for which he caught the expected accusations of treason from the right-wing powers-that-were-and-still-are.

But it may well be that Peres, as Shavit wrote, was the spearhead of the whole thing.

Catching it from Netanyahu, Barak

And he caught plenty of flak himself when he started expressing his opposition in public. (The only other major Israeli politician speaking on-the-record against bombing Iran was Tzipi Livni.) After that Channel 2 interview in February 2012, Netanyahu and Barak sought to undermine his credibility, slamming him publicly for overstepping his bounds as president, and recalling his opposition to Menachem Begin’s 1981 bombing of the Iraqi nuclear reactor, which is considered in Israel and much of the world to have been a masterstroke. (The consensus of informed opinion, however, is that “Operation Opera” didn’t end Saddam’s nuclear ambitions, but rather supercharged them.) Netanyahu threw in Peres’ signature Oslo Accords and support for Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza as other reasons why Israelis shouldn’t trust his judgment. (I must say, my opinion of Peres’ mixed legacy is going up by the paragraph.)

From the time I came to Israel in January 1985, when he was prime minister, until the end of the Oslo peace process in late 2000, I adored Peres. He was the leader of the peace camp, without any question. But when the peace camp had its legs knocked out from under by the second intifada, and Israel began shifting inexorably to the right, Peres, instead of leading the opposition like he should have, found his place in 21st century Israel: as its liberal fig leaf. When Israel bludgeoned Gaza, Peres was there to defend it to the West. For me, he became a terrific disappointment.

But not in the fight over what to do or not to do about Iran, one of the most fateful dilemmas Israel ever faced, and if Netanyahu and Barak had been left to their own devices, most people outside Israel and the Republican Party think it would have been a catastrophe. If not for Peres, that might indeed have been how the story turned out. Toward the end, when it counted most, he became the highest example of a liberal opposition leader, regained his role as leader of the peace camp, and this time led it to victory.

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Further reading:

“How Shimon Peres stopped Israel from bombing Iran,” Ari Shavit, Haaretz, Oct. 31, 2013.

“Actually, Shimon Peres has opposed war with Iran for years,” Anshel Pfeffer, Ha’aretz, Aug. 18, 2012.

“Bibi vs. Peres – Netanyahu aides: In opposing Israel attack on Iran, Peres forgot his place,” Barak Ravid, Haaretz, Aug. 16, 2012.

“Barak slams Peres for his objection to possible Israeli attack on Iran,” Barak Ravid, Haaretz, Feb. 24, 2012.

“The miraculous antiwar uprising of the Israeli establishment,” Larry Derfner, +972 Magazine, Aug. 10, 2012.

“The myth of the Osirak bombing and the march to Iran,” Larry Derfner, +972 Magazine, March 2, 2012.

“Barak: Netanyahu wanted to strike Iran in 2010 and 2011, but colleagues blocked him,” Times of Israel staff, Aug. 21, 2015.

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Larry Derfner

I was born in New York in 1951, grew up mainly in Los Angeles, began my career in journalism in 1981, and moved to Israel in 1985. I live in Modi'in with my wife Philippa and sons Alon and Gilad.

One thought on “Shimon Peres’ forgotten role in stopping Israel from bombing Iran”

  1. I’m going to surprise by not disagreeing so much. From afar, he seemed to be a rationalist cold warrior. But Labor’s (Peres’) participation in the second intifada national unity government suggested to me then that peace was done. Which is exactly how a cold warrior would see it.

    Israelis are cold warriors. Peres, Bibi, Bennett, Liberman, poor Herzog–just spats over political fruits and tactics.

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