Israel's Last Founding Father

Israel's President Shimon Peres goes over his speech for the swearing-in ceremony of the new President, in his bureau at the presidential residence in Jerusalem, on his last day in office, July 24, 2014. REUTERS/Ronen Zvulun/File Photo

Shimon Peres spent the first half of his career helping develop the Israeli military and the country's settlements, but spent the remainder of his days advocating peace and reconciliation.

January-February 2018

YOUNG SHIMON Peres, as he was now called, was eleven years old when he first set foot in the Promised Land. Within a few years the family he left behind in Poland, including his beloved grandfather, like the rest of the Jews in the village, were all murdered by the Nazis. Shamir’s family suffered a similar fate: as he told me, and related to many others, when his father sought refuge at the home of a neighbor he had known from childhood, the man responded by killing him with a shotgun blast. Yet Peres never seemed to harbor the same bitterness against Poles that ate at Shamir for the rest of his life. As he told the Polish senate in 2008, “The remnants of the death camps on Poland’s land will serve as a pillar of fire in our collective historical memory,” but “the new Poland will bear no resemblance to the occupied one.”

Peres quickly rose to prominence as one of David Ben-Gurion’s blue-eyed boys. He became active in socialist politics as a teenager, and it was then that he caught the eye of the man would become Israel’s first and (until Benjamin Netanyahu) longest-serving prime minister. Peres, whose political reputation always suffered because he never served in the military, Israel’s most respected profession, was recruited by Ben-Gurion to the Haganah, the precursor to the Israel Defense Force (IDF), in 1947, a year before the state came into being. Then and thereafter, however, whenever he worked within the military establishment, it was from behind a desk, not on the battlefield. Only twenty-four when he was assigned to the Haganah, his rise under Ben-Gurion’s tutelage was meteoric: head of the naval service in 1948–49, director general of Israel’s defense mission to the United States for the following three years and then, at the tender age of thirty, director general of the Ministry of Defense.

Never a shrinking violet, and resented by older colleagues such as Levi Eshkol and Golda Meir, both future Labor prime ministers, Peres was nevertheless especially adept at keeping secrets and conducting secret negotiations, at times without the knowledge of his colleagues and superiors. His work for the Haganah consisted of acquiring weapons for its fighters from anywhere they might be located, and to do so in haste and, if necessary, in secrecy. He describes his task in rather grandiloquent terms: “Days earlier,” he wrote in his final memoir,

“I had been milking cows on a kibbutz. Now I was being thrown into one of the most dramatic periods of my life. I would build friendships with arms dealers and partnerships with arms smugglers. I would undertake secret missions using fake passports, working in the shadows to purchase as much as I could.”

Peres reveled in his mission, and he was good at it. It was his success at obtaining sorely needed weapons and ammunition from Czechoslovakia in 1947–48, as well as his desire to complete an education that had ended before receiving his high-school diploma, that led Ben-Gurion to approve his transfer to New York to lead Israel’s defense mission in the United States. Peres’s primary task was to evade the American embargo on weapons sales to Israel, and he succeeded in doing so with the help of a former U.S. Army Air Force pilot named Al Schwimmer. Schwimmer, who had piloted Israeli aircraft during the new country’s War of Independence, had returned to his native California, where he rented a hangar and secretly ran a maintenance facility for Israeli aircraft. Peres would direct to Schwimmer whatever aircraft, or parts of aircraft, he was able to get his hands on. The American would then reconstruct the planes and secretly fly them to Israel.

But Peres had grander ideas. He envisaged the creation of a domestic Israeli military industry that would not only support the needs of the fledgling state, but ultimately export its products worldwide. Peres recognized that he needed Schwimmer to realize his dream, and that however useful the American was in the United States, he would be of far greater service to the Jewish state if he moved there. Peres, by now director general of the defense ministry, confronted opposition to his plan from Israel’s military establishment, ministers, economists and outside experts—he recalls that one shouted at him, “Our only industry is bicycles!” He went ahead anyway, raising money for his project from private sources when he could not obtain sufficient funds from the finance ministry. He then ensconced Schwimmer as president of Israel’s new domestic military maintenance facility, called Bedek, the forerunner of what has since become the powerhouse known as Israel Aircraft Industries.

Peres always had a soft spot for the French; he was known to be more comfortable in Paris than Washington. His love affair with France began in secret, when in the face of government opposition—a recurring theme in Peres’s account of his exploits—he set off to Paris with the objective of establishing France as Israel’s primary arms supplier. The Fourth Republic was best known for its short-lived governments, so Peres had to forge relationships with politicians from across its political spectrum. That he managed to do so, without knowing a word of French when he first arrived in Paris, was indeed no small feat.

Even more remarkable was his success at persuading the French to finance and build a nuclear facility at Dimona. He claims that France was “Europe’s most advanced country in the nuclear field,” which it was not; the British were equally if not more advanced, particularly in the strategic nuclear realm. Be that as it may, Peres recognized that he had no hope of seeking support from the British, whose relations with Israel had remained uneasy ever since the state came into being.

Pages