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.

Too bad Tzipi Livni didn’t have to answer to Scotland Yard about war crimes

Tzipi Livni

When I read this week that Knesset member Tzipi Livni had been summoned by Scotland Yard for questioning on suspicion of war crimes (the summons was canceled after Israel complained to the British Foreign Office), I felt uncomfortable. I immediately tried to think of reasons why she shouldn’t be treated this way. After awhile, I decided there were no good reasons, and I was just afraid of thinking what seemed a disloyal thought, a traitorous thought, and when I considered it logically, without fear, I conceded that justice would have been served had Livni been questioned over her role as foreign minister during Operation Cast Lead, the onslaught in Gaza at the turn of 2009. Indeed, justice would have been served even better if she’d also been indicted, convicted and imprisoned.

You won’t agree with this, of course, if you don’t also agree that 1) the occupation is a historic injustice and 2) nothing is being done to stop it. But if you do go along with those two points – and any number of liberals worldwide, notably Jewish ones, do – then why shouldn’t Livni be held accountable for one of the occupation’s worst excesses? (About 1,400 Palestinians dead compared to 13 Israelis dead, awesome devastation in Gaza, all in the name of punishing Gazans for fighting back against Israel’s suffocating blockade of the Strip and military rule over the West Bank. Here’s the Goldstone report on Operation Cast Lead, the Amnesty International report on it, the Human Rights Watch report, the B’Tselem report and Breaking the Silence’s report.)

Livni, by the way, wasn’t just some apparatchik during the war; she was its enlightened, charismatic saleswoman in the West. When the French proposed a “humanitarian cease-fire” a few days after the bombing began, Livni said in Paris, “There is no humanitarian crisis [in Gaza] and therefore there is no need for a humanitarian truce.”

Unfair?

The only arguable point to be made against imprisoning Livni for war crimes is that it would be unfair because so many worse war criminals are walking around free. That’s true – but that doesn’t mean she doesn’t deserve punishment. And the thing that legitimately makes her a prime candidate to be held culpable is that she is Israeli – because Israel gets away with abuses of other people like no other country in the world except maybe Saudi Arabia – and nobody in the West defends the Saudis like they do Israel.

The West imposes harsh economic sanctions on Russia because of its conquest of Crimea – which most Crimeans welcomed – but gives billions upon billions of dollars in aid along with free trade agreements to Israel, whose occupation is welcomed by no Palestinian. There are 146 countries under various sanctions – including sanctions against individual government officials in many of those countries – imposed by the U.S., EU, individual European countries and/or the UN Security Council. On that list of 146, Israel does not appear.

So hauling in Tzipi Livni in London would have made a modest start to leveling the playing field. And it would have had a powerful effect on Israelis, top to bottom, showing them that the West might finally be ready to start treating Israel like it does the world’s other malefactor countries, many of which are guilty of far lesser crimes than the occupation. If Scotland Yard had questioned Livni on the matter of war crimes, it would have been some teachable moment.

But of course it was missed; all it took was probably one well-placed phone call from Jerusalem. The point, though, is for people who lament the occupation and its durability to ask themselves: What is so terrible about holding Israel’s leaders accountable for it? What is so terrible about “radical” actions like that, or like BDS, or like fighting Israel in the UN? Is it better to stick with the current methods and tone of the “opposition,” or the “peace camp,” or the “international community,” which don’t lay a glove on the status quo? For the Palestinians’ sake, for Israel’s sake, is it better to watch this shit go on forever?