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.

The liberal West’s ‘secret’ war against ISIS

U.S. airstrike on ISIS
U.S. fighter jet taking off from aircraft carrier for airstrike on ISIS in Syria. (U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 2nd Class Alex King/Released)

Since the slaughter in Nice, there seems to be an argument between Western liberals and conservatives over how to deal with ISIS, with the liberals arguing for democracy and conservatives arguing for war. (Here, here, here and here.) I won’t even go into the specifics of the arguments because anybody who hasn’t heard them should be able to predict them by now; what I will say, though, is that it’s a false argument.

The liberal West, led by Obama and Hollande, is at war with ISIS, and in the wake of Nice, Hollande at least is escalating it.  In the last two years the U.S.-led coalition has launched many thousands of airstrikes against ISIS and other jihadist groups in Iraq, Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen, and they’ve killed many thousands of ISIS members and other jihadists.

I’m not hearing liberals say they want this bombing to slow down, or for France to relax its surveillance of terrorist suspects, so why are they arguing?

Because while the West is at war with ISIS, the Western public – left, right and center – doesn’t know it. There are few Western troops on the ground in the war zones, few are getting killed, there’s no military draft, and nobody has the patience to read about the fighting in the Middle East, so the only time Westerners tune into ISIS is when there’s an ISIS-linked terror attack in a Western city. As far as the man on the Western street can see, ISIS is blasting away at him and his side isn’t doing anything.

Fox's Bill O'Reilly and Donald Trump
Fox’s Bill O’Reilly and Donald Trump, April 28, 2016. Photo: From YouTube, screenshot of Fox News.

So when Donald Trump and Fox’s Bill O’Reilly come out now for war, they sound like they’re really onto something bold and new, while Hillary, reminding Americans that they actually are at war, sounds like she’s on the defensive.

In France you get Marine Le Pen saying, “The war against the scourge of fundamentalism hasn’t started. It must now be declared.” Such absolute bullshit. The French are world-beaters when it comes to fighting Islamic terror. Yes, there is still terror in France. There’s also still terror in Israel – does anyone suggest that Israel isn’t at war with terrorists?

No, because Israelis, being conservatives, are always trumpeting how hard they’re fighting the enemy. (But within Israel, the relative liberals like Rabin and Peres were always accused by conservatives like Netanyahu of doing nothing against terror; same bullshit, and it worked every time.) Same thing when Americans were being taken hostage by Iran and Hezbollah; Reagan never made any military move and even gave the Iranians arms, while Carter at least tried a military assault to free them in Iran – yet Reagan was considered tough on terror and Carter was considered a wimp. Why? Because Reagan, being a conservative, knew how to talk shit about war, while Carter, being a liberal, didn’t.

It’s saber-rattling time 

Same with Obama, same with Hollande, and same with Hillary, at least in comparison to that chickenhawk Trump. They have to start rattling sabers against ISIS, they have to tell the public every day about all the bastards they’re killing in the Middle East. This is what the man on the Western street wants to hear – and rightly so. ISIS and its sympathizers are a force of evil, a menace to the Middle East and the West, they’re horrifying people with their killing and people need to know that their side is fighting back. In the absence of that knowledge, people are becoming demoralized and turning into easy prey for the likes of Trump and Le Pen. And if these two take over in America and France, which seems more likely since Nice, they really will turn the fight against ISIS into a fight against all Muslims, which is not how liberal leaders like Obama and Hollande are fighting it now.

All the more reason for liberals to support the war against ISIS, to support escalating it … if they even know there’s a war on.