THE DEATH of Shimon Peres, the 9th state president, a former prime minister, defense minister and architect of the stealth and clandestine Israel nuclear program and defense industries, last month fell a month short of the 60th anniversary of the 1956 Sinai Campaign against Egypt. That war, and the subsequent purchase from France of the nuclear reactor built near the city of Dimona in the Negev Desert, are among Peres’s greatest achievements in a long and remarkable life that was full of ups and downs.
Peres, only 33 at the time, was director-general of the Defense Ministry and one of the few trusted confidants of the country’s first prime minister and defense minister, David Ben-Gurion.
Fearing his country would find itself isolated in the event of another world war, Ben-Gurion in the early 1950s took a pro-Western stance in the Cold War, thus ending Israel’s short love affair with the Soviet Union. Israel’s future, he concluded, would be best secured by identifying with the West, benefiting from the support of American Jewry and building a mixed economy rather than one based on pure socialism.
At the heart of Ben-Gurion’s perception was the hope of forming a strategic alliance with at least one Western power, preferably the United States. As early as 1950, during the Korean War, Ben-Gurion entertained the dream of Israel becoming a member of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), but his vision stood no chance.
Throughout the 1950s and early 1960s NATO’s leading members, the United States and Britain, feared that by supporting Israel it would drive Arab states into the arms of the Soviets, so it not only rejected any idea of permitting Israel to join the organization but adopted a rather anti-Israeli policy.
Yet, Ben-Gurion and Peres, as his loyal aide and interpreter of his master’s vision, never gave up the dream. Peres, especially, sought every minor opportunity to find Israel a Western power as its patron and benefactor. He eventually got his break in 1954-1955 in Paris.
The unstable socialist governments of the postwar 4th Republic were falling one after another as a result of foreign policy crises. France was losing its colonies in Southeast Asia, but an even bigger challenge and threat to its stability was the bloody revolt in Algeria that split French society.
The French army and security forces supported by French settlers were bogged down in a bloody war declared by Algeria’s National Liberation Front (FLN), which was assisted by Egypt.
Led by its charismatic leader Gamal Abdul Nasser, Egypt provided weapons, diplomatic support and shelter to the FLN guerrillas. The French government wanted to get rid of Nasser by any means and plotted to declare war on Egypt and/or assassinate its leader. But France needed a pretext and ally, which is where Israel entered the picture.
SENSING THAT Israel and France may have a shared interest ‒ to defeat Egypt – Peres put his foot in the French door. He worked hard to create what would be dubbed by historian Michael Bar-Zohar as the “Bridge over the Mediterranean.” Traveling dozens of times to France, rubbing shoulders with its leaders, falling in love with the music, food and chicness of the “City of Light,” Peres was the architect who built the bridge.
As in French novels, the patron loved his mistress (or so he claimed) and showered her with gifts. France secretly began shipping modern weapons – tanks, jet planes and missiles – that later would serve as a basis for the home-built Israeli defense industries. For example, a shortrange French rocket would, a decade and a half later be upgraded and its range extended and be called “Jericho.” Nowadays, it is considered by the foreign media to be the main delivery system for Israeli nuclear bombs.
What really worried Israel was the fear that Nasser would prepare a “second round” to avenge the Arab world’s defeat in 1948, and destroy the Jewish state. The fear turned into almost hysteria when, in September 1955, Nasser surprised the world by signing the “Czech arms deal.” In a mirror image of Israel, after flirting for a few years with the US and the West, Nasser turned to the Soviet Union and asked for modern weapons. Moscow approved, and the supplier was communist Czechoslovakia.
Life imitates art, and the French generosity was not for free. The master sought favors in return.
France wanted Israel to attack Egypt. The conspiracy was secretly designed in two days in October 1956 in a secluded villa in the Parisian suburb of Sèvres.
There, the leaders of Israel (Ben-Gurion, IDF Chief of Staff Moshe Dayan, Peres and others), France and senior British officials convened on October 21, 1956. Over the two days of discussions, they planned the operational details and political cover for their plot against Nasser’s Egypt. About a week later, they launched the plan known by many names: Operation Musketeer; the Suez War; the Kadesh Operation; or the Sinai War.
A week after the Sèvres conference, Israel dropped its paratroopers deep inside the Sinai Peninsula and the war seemed to roll out according to the secret plan. But it ended unexpectedly.
By sending an ultimatum to Ben-Gurion, US president Dwight D. Eisenhower joined with Soviet head of state Nikita Khrushchev to force France and Britain to stop their military intervention and Israel to give up the Sinai Peninsula shortly after overrunning it.
It was a diplomatic and propaganda victory for Nasser and diplomatic defeats for France and Britain, which witnessed the beginning of the end of their reigns as colonial powers.
Yet, Israel marked a number of diplomatic and military achievements during the war. It routed the Egyptian Army; opened the blockade of Eilat; and gained esteem in the eyes of the West. However, the war was also seen as carrying the rotten stench of Western colonialism.
Israel began to be depicted as a “puppet” of Western colonial powers and interests.
Nevertheless, most important from the Israeli perspective, less than a year after the war, France, whose 4th Republic era was drawing to a close, agreed to sell Israel a nuclear reactor and provide the Jewish state with all of the know-how, equipment, material and manpower required for the project.
The seeds of that agreement were sown during the prewar meeting in Sèvres when the Israelis and French (alone after the British delegates left) raised a toast to the coming operation and Peres expressed hope that France would provide Israel with a nuclear reactor. No agreement was signed at the time, and it is doubtful there was even an informal deal, but the seed had been planted.
SOME 11 months later, in September 1957, Peres found himself back in his much-loved Paris where he signed two agreements, which, according to foreign sources, turned Israel into the world’s sixth nuclear power.
Peres not only signed these agreements, he “pulled a fast one” together with his friend, former French prime minister Maurice Bourgès- Maunoury.
The previous day, Bourgès-Maunoury’s government had fallen in a National Assembly vote of no confidence and he was no longer authorized to sign the agreements to provide Israel with the nuclear reactor. But Peres convinced him to falsely write the previous day’s date.
Peres would later say with a smile, “What’s 24 hours between friends?” Some three years later, Peres was the proud father as hundreds of French technicians and engineers completed construction of the reactor.
Five years later, prior to the Six Day War, Israel had, according to foreign reports, its first nuclear bomb.
According to foreign reports, Israel produces fissile materials ‒uranium and plutonium ‒ for its arsenal of nuclear weapons at the reactor.
According to these reports, these weapons were, and remain, the central factor deterring Arab states and Iran from fulfilling their fantasies of eliminating Israel on the battlefield. If he had been a copywriter, Peres could have summed it up proudly in one spot-on sentence, paraphrased from Herzl: In Sèvres, I established Dimona and ensured the future of the State of Israel.
Since then, Israel’s enemies have seen Peres as the architect of the program that, in their view, gave Israel the ultimate strategic deterrence and a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East.
In 1960, Peres was promoted to serve as Ben-Gurion’s deputy in the Defense Ministry, but three years later he followed his boss and resigned over domestic issues and moved over to the opposition, only to return to the government after the Six Day War.
In the years to follow, on top of his vision, ideas and optimism, he also manifested other skills. He was obsessed with public relations, leaked information to the media and was a manipulative politician, plotting against his arch rival in the Labor Party, Yitzhak Rabin. Whether he changed his political outlook and became a right-winger, or maybe always was such, as defense minister in the 70s he was the guardian angel of the Jewish settlers’ movement – then at its inception – in its unstoppable rush to colonize the Palestinian West Bank.
It was only in the 90s that Peres gained the image that followed him ever since ‒ a supporter of peace ready to trade land, an internationally recognized and admired statesman and man of the world. But it should not be forgotten that he was among the very few who made Israel a military power. Yossi Melman is an Israeli security commentator and co-author of ‘Spies Against Armageddon.’ He blogs at www.israelspy.com and tweets at yossi_melman