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The other, darker legacy of Shimon Peres

Shimon Peres, the last member of Israel’s founding generation, was feted internationally as a visionary man of peace. His legacy is in fact far more complex, and often nefarious

President Shimon Peres visits an Israeli police counter-terrorism unit in 2011. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

President Shimon Peres visits an Israeli police counter-terrorism unit in 2011. (Amos Ben Gershom/GPO)

The passing of Shimon Peres, at the venerable age of 93, precipitated an outpouring of elaborate obituaries and eulogies around the world, with news outlets noting that his political life spanned the entire history of the state of Israel from its founding in 1948. Peres was, in fact, the last member of the founding generation — the men and women who settled for ideological reasons in British mandatory Palestine and dedicated their lives to building the state of Israel. But while in his later life he came to be known on the international stage as a visionary statesman and a pursuer of peace, his legacy is in fact much more complex, and often quite dark.

As an early protege of David Ben Gurion’s, Peres was appointed at the very young age of 29 to director-general of Israel’s Defense Ministry. In that position Peres built and grew Israel’s arms trade with France. He also helped to establish the reactor in Dimona. Due to Israeli censorship, journalists are not allowed to acknowledge that the nuclear reactor exists. But “foreign sources” (and Colin Powell) say that the Dimona reactor marked the introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

With Peres at the defense ministry, Israel took a lead role in the 1956 Sinai Campaign. He exploited his French connections to position Israel as a client state of the European powers, and to embark on a war whose primary goals were to: establish Israeli control over the Sinai Peninsula; seize the Suez Canal from Egyptian sovereign control and hand the reins back to the French and British; and weaken anti-colonial forces in the region. The United States and Russia, then the world’s two new superpowers, ultimately forced Israel into a full withdrawal from the Sinai, but the message Israel sent to its neighbors was clear: we’re with the other guys — the Europeans.

Peres later served as a junior minister in the governments that followed the 1967 war, and which kicked off the settlement enterprise — an ongoing project of land theft and oppression, which the government knew violated international law from day one. But in those early days, Israel’s settlements in the West Bank, Gaza and Sinai were presented as the continuation of the same settlement movement that established dozens of kibbutzim across Israel in the 1930s, 40s and 50s.

In 1975, it was Peres who lent government support to the first iteration of the “Hilltop Youth,” and actively supported the establishment of Kedumim and the Gush Emunim movement, which Rabin described as the settlers’ Trojan horse. As defense minister, Peres kept up the settlement movement’s momentum and opposed the return of territory (the West Bank) as part of a peace deal with Jordan. Today, the Hilltop Youth are the most violent, radicalized settlers in the West Bank.

These were also the years that Peres, who would go on to win the Nobel Peace Prize, promoted arms sales to various countries across the world. An investigative report by The Guardian found documentation that Peres helped sell nuclear warheads to South Africa when it was governed by the apartheid regime. The Office of the President denied the claims.

Dozens of years later, as president, arms dealers remained among Peres’ friends, and often funded his extravagant celebrations.

Shortly after he was elected to head the national unity government in 1985, Peres — along with Likud’s Yitzhak Moda’i — advanced the largest plan to privatize state assets ever seen in Israeli history at that point. Along with steps to reduce the national debt and state expenditures, they essentially did away with the very idea of a welfare state. They laid the groundwork for the neoliberal economic s that has guided Israeli policy ever since. And while Peres’s economic plan was a response to the massive crisis created by the Likud government, but he plucked his remedies from capitalist schools of economics instead of socialist economic thought, the latter of which Labor professed to subscribe.

Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Shimon Peres, July 20, 1981. (Herman Chanania/GPO)

Prime Minister Menahem Begin and Shimon Peres, July 20, 1981. (Herman Chanania/GPO)

In 1984, during his first, short term as prime minister, Peres tried to whitewash the murder of Palestinian hijackers in the Bus 300 Affair. The Affair, which involved revelations that the hijackers were beaten to death during interrogation after they were photographed alive and in custody at the scene of the hijacking, was at the time a major scandal in Israel. Peres later helped to secure pardons for the interrogators who had murdered the Palestinian prisoners.

But he refused to pardon nuclear whistleblower Mordechai Vanunu, who revealed to the world only a bit of what was taking place in Dimona. In fact, it was Peres who ordered the Mossad to abduct Vanunu from Europe and bring him to Israel, where he was sentenced to 18 years in prison following a closed trial.

It was only in 1992, when Yitzhak Rabin was prime minister, that some bright spots start to appear in Peres’ political career. As Ron Gerlitz and Nidal Othman wrote here, relations between the state and its Arab citizens reached an all-time high when his government, for the first and last time in Israeli history, relied on a partnership with Arab members of Knesset to form a ruling coalition. Peres also helped build public support for a peace based on two states, a proposal that still enjoys the support of a majority of Israelis and Palestinians.

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Arafat, Rabin and Peres 1994 (GPO/BY NC SA 2.0)

Nobel Peace Prize Laureates Arafat, Rabin and Peres 1994 (GPO)

And yet, the deal for which he was ultimately responsible, the Oslo Accords, was a disaster. Without actually ending the occupation, Peres managed to free Israel from its responsibility for Palestinians’ welfare and day-to-day lives by creating the Palestinian Authority. Thus, while Israel still maintains control over almost every aspect of life in the occupied territories, the Palestinian Authority is saddled with all of the responsibility, without any authority to act independently of Israel.

The Oslo Accords preserved Israeli supremacy in the territory west of the Jordan River, with military force and control over natural resources like water, but also led to the creation of burgeoning class of people with vested interests — from PA bureaucrats to private entrepreneurs — whose livelihoods are entirely dependent on Israel’s good graces. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg (read more here).

Yet despite all of that, after the Rabin assassination, Peres could have chosen to leverage the nation’s anger and shock in order to seriously advance the peace process. Instead, a month before national elections he decided to embark on a devastating military campaign in Lebanon, “Operation Grapes of Wrath,” which killed 113 Lebanese civilians (along with three Israeli soldiers, and 21 combatants from Hezbollah and the Syrian army). Most of the dead were killed in the “Qana massacre,” when Israel shelled a UN compound where hundreds of civilians had taken cover. (And yes, responsibility for the Qana massacre rests on Peres’s shoulders, too.) Peres never got the security cred he was looking for from that military operation. At the same time, he missed an opportunity to cast himself as the only leader committed to pushing for peace and finishing the process Rabin started.

After losing the premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu in 1996, Peres eventually returned to government in 1999-2002, the start of the Second Intifada and subsequent violent suppression dubbed Operation Defensive Shield. At the end of that year he again left the government. But a few years later Peres was back in the coalition, in order to support Ariel Sharon’s disengagement from Gaza. The disengagement was a unilateral withdrawal that rewarded Hamas instead of resting on a negotiated agreement with the PLO. This was a mistake to which he later admitted.

Simon Peres with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. (Mark Nayman/GPO)

Simon Peres with Sheldon and Miriam Adelson. (Mark Nayman/GPO)

In the largely ceremonial office of president (2007-14), Peres demonstrated his detachment from the social needs of ordinary Israelis. The operating budget for the President’s Residence doubled during his term in office (it has since been reduced under President Rivlin). The luxurious “President’s Conference” he organized every year was funded by industrialists, Wall Street types and arms dealers, some of whom have ties to tyrannical and murderous regimes. It is no coincidence that Peres was awarded the “Spirit of Davos” award from the World Economic Forum, a group dedicated to advancing neoliberal economics globally.

After his term as president, Shimon Peres became a lobbyist for Israel’s largest bank, Bank Hapoalim, and for international pharmaceutical giant Teva. He also remained involved with the Peres Center for Peace, which he humbly founded in his own name.

The Peres Center aptly sums up the legacy of the Nobel laureate, former prime minister and president. The Center, which itself has become a forum of extravagance for the wealthy, was built in one of the poorest areas of Jaffa’s Ajami neighborhood. It overlooks the sea, but has its back to Jaffa and its Palestinian residents. Behind the decadent palace of peace, just across the poorly paved road, are impoverished and crumbling tenement blocs. In three directions the Center resembles a fortified monstrosity; only on one side, the one facing the sea, a telling westward gaze, is its glass facade magical and inviting. It is, perhaps, the perfect metaphor for Shimon Peres’s legacy.

The side of the Peres Center for Peace facing the sea. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

The side of the Peres Center for Peace facing the sea. (Lior Mizrahi/Flash90)

Thanks to my brother, Oren Matar, for help researching this article. A version article was first posted in Hebrew on Local Call. Read it here. The English version has been revised since it was first published.

For additional original analysis and breaking news, visit +972 Magazine's Facebook page or follow us on Twitter. Our newsletter features a comprehensive round-up of the week's events. Sign up here.

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    1. i_like_ike52

      The Judea/Samaria settlements are NOT illegal. Jimmy Carter, as President tried, to claim they were, the US State Department International Law department told him they are NOT illegal. Since then no President, including Obama has said they are illegal, rather that they are “unhelpful” or as Obama has stated “illegitimate” which doesn’t mean anything. The Israeli Supreme Court also had not ruled that they are illegal.
      In the end, the question is political, not judicial.

      Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Theodor Meron, Legal Adviser, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, 18 September, 1967:

        My conclusion is that civilian settlement in the administered territories contravenes the explicit provisions of the Fourth Geneva Convention. . . . “Even if we settle an army and not civilians, we must, from the point of view of international law, have regard to the question of ownership of the land that we are settling. Article 46 of the Hague Regulations concerning the Laws and Customs of War on Land (Annexes to the Hague Convention (IV) of 1907), regulations that are regarded as a true expression of customary international law that is binding on all countries, states in relation to occupied territory that: “private property … must be respected. Private property cannot be confiscated.”

        https://www.soas.ac.uk/lawpeacemideast/resources/file48485.pdf

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Israel Knew All Along That Settlements, Home Demolitions Were Illegal
        http://www.haaretz.com/opinion/.premium-1.657167

        “It was March 1968. Yaakov Herzog, director-general of the Prime Minister’s Office, received a memo marked “Top Secret” from the Foreign Ministry’s legal adviser, Theodor Meron. As the government’s authority on international law, Meron was responding to questions put to him about the legality of demolishing the homes of terror suspects in East Jerusalem and the West Bank and of deporting residents on security grounds.

        His answer: Both measures violated the 1949 Fourth Geneva Convention on the protection of civilians in war. The government’s justifications of the measures – that they were permitted under British emergency regulations still in force, or that the West Bank wasn’t occupied territory – might have value for hasbara, public diplomacy, but were legally unconvincing.

        The legal adviser’s stance in 1968 is important today precisely because it is unexceptional. It’s the view of nearly all scholars of international law, including prominent Israeli experts. The memo shows that from the very start of the occupation, central figures in the Israeli government knew that deportations and demolitions violated Israel’s international commitments, and not just in the eyes of outside critics. Yet both measures have been used ever since…”

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        Geshom Gorenberg: “About Theodor Meron: Born in Poland, he spent his early teens in a Nazi labor camp. After he arrived in Palestine, he made up for his lost school years, then completed a law degree at Hebrew University, a doctorate at Harvard and a fellowship at Cambridge, both in international law.

        Then he joined Israel’s foreign service. A decade after writing the legal opinions described here, he returned to academia to teach international law at New York University. In 2001, as a U.S. citizen, he was appointed a judge on the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia. Today he is president of that court and one of the world’s leading authorities on humanitarian law in war.

        After his 1967 opinion on settlement became public, he told The Independent that he “would have given the same opinion today.” The reason is clear from his 1968 opinion on demolitions, in which he dismissed “narrow, literal” interpretations of the Geneva Convention. The convention, he said, “is a humanitarian convention that aims to protect the rights of a civilian population.”

        Put differently, the convention can’t be interpreted by splitting hairs and forgetting real human beings. Its point isn’t to protect states. It is to protect people from a state whose army has conquered the land where they live and before whose power they are otherwise defenseless. If it is ignored, their basic rights will be trampled.

        The discovery of Meron’s memo on demolitions and deportations is additional evidence that the regime under which the West Bank is governed began in deception and has been maintained by self-deception – by the government, by the hasbara machine and sometimes by our Supreme Court.”

        Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        A point Meron made clear once and for all but that hasbara purveyors ever since have nevertheless tried to obfuscate:

        From the point of view of international law, the key provision is the one that appears in the last paragraph of Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention. Israel, of course, is a party to this Convention. The paragraph stipulates as follows:

        “The occupying power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies”.

        The Commentary on the Fourth Geneva Convention prepared by the International
        Committee of the Red Cross in 1958 states:

        This clause was adopted after some hesitation, by the XVIIth International Red
        Cross Conference. It is intended to prevent a practice adopted during the Second World War by certain Powers, which transferred portions of their own population to occupied territory for political and racial reasons or in order, as they claimed, to colonize those territories. Such transfers worsened the economic situation of the native population and endangered their separate existence as a race.
        The paragraph provides protected persons with a valuable safeguard. It should
        be noted, however, that in this paragraph the meaning of the words “transfer” and
        “deport” is rather different from that in which they are used in the other paragraphs of Article 49, since they do not refer to the movement of protected persons but to that of nationals of the occupying Power.

        Reply to Comment
        • i_like_ike52

          Meron’s opinion is one man’s opinion. So what?
          The 1949 armistice lines (the “Green Line”) is not recognized by anyone in the world as an international border except by the old-line Israeli MAPAI Left. The Palestinians certainly don’t recognize it as a border which is why they insist on the so-called “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees. They do not recognize Israel as having sovereign rights within the pre-67 borders. So why should Israel recognize it as a legitimate border?

          Reply to Comment
          • Ben

            You started out claiming on a “some people say” basis that the settlements are not illegal. You got proven wrong. Now you’re shifting in retreat to two lines of evasion.
            1. Meron is merely “one man.” But he was and is far from it. Could not be farther from it, in terms of person, place and time. This is self evident factually and historically, and also in terms of internal logic. (If he were merely “one man” then everyone is merely “one man” and nobody’s judgment matters more than anyone else’s and there are no rational standards of excellence and nobody can decide anything and a supremely expert and expertly placed and authoritative decision is worth no more than the opinion of the guy who pumps gas at the local 7-11 and civilization is a waste of time and life is meaningless.) So that simply won’t fly.
            2. Changing the subject to some odd statement of the obvious about an armistice line not being a recognized permanent border. No kidding? You don’t say? And? This means that all the foregoing, that dispensed with your blithe assertion about the legal status of the settlements, is somehow nullified? Not one whit. If the green line were an internationally recognized national border then Israel would not be illegally transferring its own nationals into belligerently occupied territory, it would be illegally invading a sovereign country. Either way it’s illegal.
            You are simply obfuscating.

            Reply to Comment
          • “The 1949 armistice lines (the “Green Line”) is not recognized by anyone in the world as an international border”

            How odd. The majority of the International Comity of Nations have recognized the State of Palestine by the 1967 border, it’s the basis on which Palestine became an Observer “STATE” at the UN

            “The Palestinians certainly don’t recognize it as a border”

            They declared the State of Palestine 1988 (now internationally recognized) by that border

            ” … which is why they insist on the so-called “right of return” of the Palestinian refugees”

            Weird. Their demand for RoR is under UNGA res 194 of 1948, which included non-Jewish Israelis who were dispossessed from within the borders of Israel proclaimed in the Israeli Government’s official plea for recognition http://www.trumanlibrary.org/whistlestop/study_collections/israel/large/documents/newPDF/49.pdf

            “They do not recognize Israel as having sovereign rights within the pre-67 borders”

            Odd, the Palestinians in 1988 declared the State of Palestine by the 1967 border

            “So why should Israel recognize it as a legitimate border?”

            Oh OK. So what actual border does Israel have other than the borders it proclaimed and was recognized by effective 00:01 May 15th 1948 (ME time)? http://wp.me/pDB7k-Xk

            Reply to Comment
      • Ben

        “U.S. Policy toward the establishment of Israeli settlements in the occupied territories is unequivocal and has long been a matter of public record. We consider it to be contrary to international law and an impediment to the successful conclusion of the Middle East peace process, Article 49, paragraph 6, of the Fourth Geneva Convention is, in my judgment, and has been in judgment of each of the legal advisors of the State Department for many, many years, to be. . .that [settlements] are illegal and that [the Convention] applies to the territories.” Secretary of State Cyrus Vance before House Committee. on Foreign Affairs — March 21, 1980

        Reply to Comment
        • Nasdaq7

          Well Ben the Arab completely cleansed the Jews from that territory, you so conveniently forget after 1948. Plus technically the territory belongs to Israel via Mandate for Palestine.

          Reply to Comment
          • “… the Arab completely cleansed the Jews from that territory, you so conveniently forget after 1948”

            It’s NORMAL for countries at war to intern or expel potential allies of their enemies. The US, UK, Australia interned and expelled their own Japanese, German and Italian citizens in WW2. It’s also NORMAL to allow their return and unfreeze their assets at the end of war, unless of course they have taken citizenship in a country other than that of return, whereby they are no longer refugees

            “Plus technically the territory belongs to Israel via Mandate for Palestine”

            Nonsense. Read Article 7 of the Mandate http://wp.me/PDB7k-Q#Mandate

            Reply to Comment
          • Bernie X

            @talknic

            The number of Japanese, German and Italian U.S. citizens interned and released, is dwarfed by the millions and millions of people ethnically cleansed during World War 2.

            So, what is normal?

            Reply to Comment
          • “The number of Japanese, German and Italian U.S. citizens interned and released, is dwarfed by the millions and millions of people ethnically cleansed during World War 2.

            So, what is normal?”

            It’s NORMAL for countries at war to intern or expel potential allies of their enemies. The US, UK, Australia interned and expelled their own Japanese, German and Italian citizens in WW2. It’s also NORMAL to allow their return and unfreeze their assets at the end of war, unless of course they have taken citizenship in a country other than that of return, whereby they are no longer refugees

            Reply to Comment
      • How strange. The UNSC is quite clear the Israeli settlements ARE illegal in Territories Occupied by Israel http://wp.me/pDB7k-W8

        Your in-ability to show otherwise will I have no doubt, be very amusing

        Reply to Comment
    2. In 1986, Shimon Peres ordered Mossad to kidnap Mordechai Vanunu which they did and after a close-door trial Vanunu was sentenced to 18 years in prison. Since his release from behind bars on 21 April 2004, Vanunu has been arrested several times for violating the draconian restrictions placed upon him, including speaking to foreigners who happen to be journalists.

      In 2007, after Bishop Tutu nominated Vanunu for that year’s Nobel, Vanunu told this American writer he did NOT want the Peace Prize if Israel would not allow him the freedom to go and accept it.

      When he was nominated in 2009, Vanunu wrote the Nobel Committee:

      “I am asking the committee to remove my name from the nominations. I cannot be part of a list of laureates that includes Simon Peres. Peres established and developed the atomic weapon program in Dimona in Israel. Peres was the man who ordered [my] kidnapping and he continues to oppose my freedom and release. WHAT I WANT IS FREEDOM AND ONLY FREEDOM I NEED NOW.”

      In 1963, when Vanunu was nine years old the Zionists came to his home town of Marrakech, Morocco and convinced his Orthodox father to abandon his general store and pack up the first seven of his eleven children for the land of milk and honey. Instead, the Vanunu’s were banished to the ethnically cleansed Palestinian village of Beersheba.

      A few months later, Shimon Peres, then Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense met with President John Kennedy, at the White House.

      Kennedy told Peres, “You know that we follow very closely the discovery of any nuclear development in the region. This could create a very dangerous situation. For this reason we monitor your nuclear effort. What could you tell me about this?”

      Peres replied, “I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.”- “Beyond Nuclear: Mordechai Vanunu’s Freedom of Speech Trial and My Life as a Muckraker 2005-2010” by Eileen Fleming

      Please view “30 Minutes with Vanunu” which did NOT go through Israeli Military Censors:

      https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ncQ-mheucoI

      Reply to Comment
    3. Ray Gan

      Written to defame an Israeli hero. He had help build the foundation to a strong Israel today. He will be well remembered.

      Reply to Comment
    4. Bernie X

      Haggai.
      Can you at least wait for the guy’s corpse to cool?

      Reply to Comment
      • Carmen

        What purpose would that serve?

        Reply to Comment
        • Bernie X

          Uhh…maybe to show that Haggai has the slightest sense of decorum.

          Reply to Comment
          • Carmen

            Thanks for the confirmation and please, feel free to weep and wail the night away, you’ll have some company possibly. However, there is a very large number of people who won’t be sharing anyone’s grief over the death of this criminal and there are thousands whose mourning was silent and unwitnessed because of the actions of this so-called ‘warrior for peace’. Zionists have a sense of humor after all.

            Reply to Comment
      • I doubt corpses cool in hell, ’cause if there is such a place, that’s where Peres belongs

        Reply to Comment
    5. Larry Snider

      I have a comment to make. I know that former President Shimon Peres was involved in the entire modern history of Israel from its founding in 1948 to almost the present day. I believe there is a difference between being a leader in its formative years and the economic and military powerhouse that it has become. There are many times in Israel’s modern history when events could have gone another way and it’s future would have been destroyed by warfare without the actions of a few men and women including Shimon Peres. In the past 25 years he has been the one irresistible voice for peace and the belief in the past 10 years that there is a real Palestinian partner. That is his legacy Even here in +972.

      Reply to Comment
      • Eliza

        Well Larry, clearly the Peres voice is eminently resistible within Israel.

        Did Peres ever apologize or even acknowledge his own role in the settlement process within EJ and the W/B? You do realize that according to B’Tselem there has been an upsurge in the demolition of Palestinian homes within the occupied territories with over 1,000 non-Jewish homes demolished, mainly in Area C and EJ.

        Oh yes, the demographic threat is being addressed with Palestinians being removed from the coveted Area C and EJ and being herded into their little bantustans; and all under the benevolent gaze of Peres as he spent his last few miserable days rattling on about his ‘dreams’.

        Reply to Comment
    6. Bruce Gould

      The Middle East Monitor reports on the darker side of Peres:

      https://www.middleeastmonitor.com/20160928-shimon-peres-israeli-war-criminal-whose-victims-the-west-ignored/

      “Yet for Palestinians and their neighbours in the Middle East, Peres’ track record is very different from his reputation in the West as a tireless “dove”. The following is by no means a comprehensive summary of Peres’ record in the service of colonialism and apartheid….”

      Reply to Comment
    7. As a journalist myself — one who has had the pleasure of spending time with Shimon Peres discussing many topics (including his work with corporations after he left public office) — I’m very interested to hear what evidence this reporter has that Peres personally pocketed a shekel from Teva and Hapoalim (as your story suggests). Or did the money go instead to his highly-admirable social welfare projects? I would think many of your other readers might also like to know. Thanks.

      Reply to Comment
    8. Don’t forget the 1985 market liberalising… The Israeli shock doctrine

      Reply to Comment
    9. Sarah Collins

      Only in Israel can a citizen write and publish an honest, ‘warts and all’ portrait of one of the leading politicians of that country. This is something which Israelis can be proud of! Israel has free speech, and a lively and critical press.

      I hope Israel forever remains a free country, and that this type of investigative journalism, honest analysis and assessment of Israeli leaders continues.

      It was, after all, intended to be a free land for a free people!

      Reply to Comment
      • Bernie X

        Amen.
        And I hope that Haggai stays in Israel and continues his activism. So many of his colleagues are so hyposensitive that they are fleeing Israel to US, Canada and Europe.

        Reply to Comment
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