Shimon Peres, who has died aged 93 lived through it all. The Holocaust, the founding of Israel, the wars, the politics, the triumphs and disasters.
He was twice Prime Minister, he became President, but ironically what is probably his greatest achievement is the one his country cannot acknowledge as to this day it will neither confirm or deny if it possesses nuclear weapons.
However, if it does, then Israel’s nuclear deterrent has several parents – and Peres is one of them.
He was a confidant of the first Prime Minister, David Ben-Gurion. He shared Ben-Gurion’s determination that one of the ways the state would ensure that ‘never again’ would the Jews face annihilation was through the ultimate military deterrent. As he put it, “Ben Gurion believed that Science could compensate us for what Nature has denied us”.
In a 1993 book titled The New Middle East Peres recalled his strategic thinking of 4 decades earlier – “What Israel really needs, I thought, is the strategic capability to deter or intimidate the enemy – to rid him of his desire for war.”
Peres never served in uniform, but as early as 1947, aged just 23, he was in charge of arms procurement at the Haganah and as a wily operator quickly learned the tricks of the trade.
In the mid 1950s he persuaded Ben Gurion that the time was right to begin the project. With the Prime Minister’s full backing he set about raising the vast sums of money required to get Israel’s nuclear industry up and running. Given international and domestic opposition to the very idea of the project he hit many roadblocks, but either bulldozed through, or worked around them, all the time staying out of the limelight.
Peres kept the Americans out of the loop and, using his extensive network of political, scientific, and military contacts, went to the French for the technology. This led to the Franco/Israeli alliance which allowed the Dimona nuclear reactor to be built in the Negev desert.
He followed this up in 1962 by persuading the French to sell Israel ballistic missiles but in such secrecy that the Americans were still unaware that the nuclear programme was rapidly advancing.
When General de Gaulle came to power he ordered the joint programme to be halted, but Peres used his considerable powers of persuasion, and network of contacts, to ensure that cooperation continued at various levels for another two years.
It is thought that by at least 1970 Israel had built nuclear weapons. Its arsenal is now thought to be anywhere between 80 and 200 warheads.
They have given Israelis the answer to the question which has gnawed away at their collective conscience since the country’s birth in 1948 – what if the Arab nations attacked collectively and overran them with the intention of annihilation? In the 1950s this was known in Hebrew as the ‘mikre ha’kol’ or the ‘everything scenario’ but is perhaps better translated as the ‘apocalypse scenario’. After the 1973 Yom Kippur war Israel’s enemies became increasingly concerned that it had developed the capacity to destroy them if they sought to destroy it. They knew the annihilation option would ensure their own demise.
Shimon Peres’s unsung legacy will be as one of the men who ensured that, for the rest of his long life, the ‘mikre ha’kol’ was taken off the table.