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.

Remembering Blair, Bush, Iraq War – the wrong way

Tony Blair and George W. Bush
Blair and Bush after White House press conference, November 4, 2004.

From the beginning, the Iraq War was a horrible idea. It was the product of post-9/11 hysteria in America, which spread to many in Britain, notably Tony Blair, as the Chilcot report on the war, released Wednesday, pointed out to the roars of vindication and vengeance from much of the country.

But even though it was a horrible war, two weeks after it began something very good happened: Saddam Hussein, his sadistic sons Uday and Qusay, and the rest of his Nazi-like regime ran for the hills. One of the most murderous, demonic governments in modern history was kicked out for good.

Why can’t the tens of millions of people screaming for Blair’s head today, like the billions who’ve been screaming for his and George W. Bush’s heads for years, acknowledge that ridding Iraq of Saddam was a great achievement?

It didn’t make up for the horrors of the war – hundreds of thousands of people killed, millions turned into refugees, a country of over 30 million devastated, with the killing and chaos still going on 13 years later,  spreading into Syria and spawning ISIS, and with no end in sight. But that doesn’t change the fact that Saddam Hussein and his regime are history; that the Iraqi governments which followed, whatever their faults, have been an infinite improvement, operating in a whole different moral universe from the one Saddam inhabited; and that this is all thanks to Bush, Blair and the U.S., British and other allied soldiers who fought the Iraq War.

That’s just a fact. And an obviously important one. Without appreciating it, how can you try to understand the Middle East and the West today, how can you make an honest judgment today on matters of war and peace?

Ask the Kurds their opinion

There’s one other historic achievement of the war, also overlooked by Blair’s and Bush’s fiercest opponents: freedom and independence for over 5 million long-suffering Kurds. Iraqi Kurdistan has become a model for the Middle East. And the Kurds are the most deserving people in the world, as the Peshmerga forces are reminding everyone with their incredible bravery against ISIS.

Tom Robinson, head of an NGO that aids refugees in Kurdistan, just wrote this in the International Business Times:

As an old Kurdish Peshmerga fighter on the Bashiqa front line overlooking Mosul told me recently: “Amrika good, Britania good!” On any front line of the current war against Islamic State (Isis) these are often the only words, complimented with a strong thumbs up, that a Brit such as myself may hear in English. For those that serve in the Peshmerga, the UK has been a source of strength and support. Over the years I have made many friends, from privates to generals who have only ever had a positive reaction to my own admission to being British.

Why do the Left and the isolationist Right put the creation of Iraqi Kurdistan and the ouster of Saddam out of their minds when judging the war, Bush and Blair?

The question of motive

Also, why do they find it impossible to believe that Bush and Blair, as misguided as they were, as blind and reckless as they were, had a decent motive for fighting the war: the desire to protect their countries from jihadists? Here’s one of the things Blair said in his press conference on Wednesday; what’s so improbable about it?

I ask people to put themselves in my shoes as Prime Minister – back then barely a year from 9/11, in late 2002 and early 2003 you’re seeing the intelligence mount up on WMD, you’re doing so in the changed context of mass casualties . . . you have at least to consider the possibility of a 9/11 where in Britain and your primary responsibility is to protect your country. These were my considerations at the time . . .

The Iraq War never should have been fought, the human cost has been far too great – but it was a mistake, a mistake born of excessive fear followed by excessive self-confidence; it was not an immoral war. Masses of Iraqis really did cheer the American soldiers when Saddam fell. Why wouldn’t they? Millions upon millions of Iraqis had been his victims.

Saddam was not Ho Chi Minh or Mohammed Mossadegh or Salvador Allende. Multitudes of decent Iraqis supported the war to get rid of their tormentor. Many of course turned against it when just about everything – as widely predicted – went wrong. But that doesn’t mean the war was evil. And it doesn’t mean that nothing good came out of it. Acknowledging that may get in the way of a good hate fix off of Bush and Blair, but it still should be acknowledged.

Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Clinton’s, but irks me so much more

Sanders-Clinton debate.
Sanders and Clinton debate on MSNBC, February 4, 2016.

The Western left in general is wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics.

On foreign policy, especially in the Middle East, I lean closer to Bernie Sanders’ hands-off instincts than to Hillary Clinton’s interventionist ones. Americans do not have the will to fight another Iraqi or Afghan war in Syria, or Libya, or Yemen or anyplace else around here, and I don’t blame them. These wars tend to be futile, bloody, and cause more harm than good. And because Americans so clearly do not want to get stuck in another long-term Mideast war, it becomes very dangerous for U.S. leaders, like Hillary, to think they can intervene “surgically” and safely, that they can drop a few bombs, get rid of the bad guys and go home, mission accomplished. If that’s all you’re willing to do – and that is all America is willing to do – it’s generally safer all around to do nothing. So Sanders’ foreign policy worries me less than Hillary’s.

But it irks me so much more. This week Sanders said of the Hillary-Trump exchange of accusations over foreign policy:

I think frankly they both make a point. I think that her support for the war in Iraq was not just an aberration. I think that her willingness to push President Obama to overthrow [Libya’s Muammar] Qadhafi and lead to the kind of instability we’re seeing now in Libya, not inconsistent with her views on Syria, where she wants a no-fly zone. … Bush’s era, Clinton’s era has caused us incalculable harm.

Sanders implied Hillary was no better than Trump on foreign policy, and explicitly lumped her policies together with those of the George W. Bush administration. The comparison to Trump is beyond ridiculous, while the Hillary-W. equation is just crude, especially since she’s publicly regretted her support for the Iraq War over and over.

But beyond distorting Clinton’s policies, Sanders’ remark shows the kind of automatic rejection of any use of American military power abroad, and the self-righteousness that goes with it, that plagues the Sanders campaign and the Western left in general. They’re wrong about America, wrong about the world, and wrong about the morality of their politics – again, in an irksome way.

Cold War is over

America has changed since the end of the Cold War. It doesn’t support leaders like Augusto Pinochet against those like Salvador Allende anymore, it doesn’t kill masses of Vietnamese fighting for their independence because it wants to lick the Commies. America’s enemies are no longer people like Ho Chi Minh or Mohammed Mossadegh, popular left-wing figures trying to throw off foreign domination.

No, since the Cold War ended, America’s enemies have been people like Saddam Hussein, Muammar Qadhafi and Bashar Assad. Leaders whom the locals, or most of them anyway, experience as monsters. So America’s involvements in Syria, Libya and yes, Iraq, have been on a whole different, much higher moral level than the policy of supporting fascists against Communists and socialists that the U.S. pursued during the Cold War. But the Western left doesn’t recognize this.

For months I’ve been debating Sanders supporters on Facebook, most recently about foreign policy, and the most common view of Hillary is that she’s simply a war-monger. Few of them seem to see any respectable argument for fighting the Middle East’s monsters, few are ready to say that Hillary’s approach, while mistaken, is honorable – no, it’s rotten, not to say evil. She can’t be motivated by any desire to save innocent people, it’s just power, glory, American triumphalism (some also mention oil and arms sales), she’s no better than the worst Muslim-hating GOP hawk.

I have a hard time getting these people to acknowledge that as terrible as the Iraq war has turned out, ousting Saddam was a historic achievement, as was the Kurdish autonomous zone in the north. I get the same resistance when I suggest that no matter how bad the situation in Libya has gotten, helping get rid of Qadhafi before he could take his revenge on his opponents  was not an immoral act, certainly not at the time. It’s the same story in the debate over Hillary’s support for a no-fly zone in Syria. And these are obviously not fringe views in the Sanders camp – they’re endorsed by the candidate himself.

Not good vs. evil

I don’t see what is so morally superior about watching passively while the likes of Saddam, Qadhafi and Assad slaughter hundreds of thousands of people. I agree that for America to intervene militarily to stop them is probably a bad idea – but it should not automatically be ruled out, which is the instinct of the left. American military power is not always futile; for instance, it got Saddam out of Kuwait in the first Iraq war and cut him down to size, another historic achievement. (Even though the postwar sanctions were a humanitarian catastrophe, American power at its worst.)

American military intervention in places where people are under attack by genocidal dictators is not immoral. It may well be a bad decision, even a reckless one, but evil it’s not. Immoral is when you’re fighting on the side of the bad guys against the good guys. America used to do that a lot; it doesn’t anymore.

Unlike what the Western left in general and the Sanders campaign in particular thinks, the foreign policy challenges facing America are no longer  about good vs. evil, like they were in Vietnam and Latin America; they’re about the lesser evil vs. the greater one, like in Iraq, Libya and Syria. I prefer Sanders’ choices to Hillary’s. But they’re nothing to cheer about, and Hillary’s are nothing to boo. The left should learn a little humility, especially in the face of the Middle East’s tragedies.