by Marsha B. Cohen
Presenting Israeli President Shimon Peres with the US Medal of Freedom on Wednesday night, President Barack Obama said:
…in him we see the essence of Israel itself — an indomitable spirit that will not be denied. He’s persevered, serving in virtually every position — in dozens of cabinets, some two dozen ministerial posts, defense minister, finance minister, foreign minister three times.
Peres is one of sixteen foreign leaders — including Margaret Thatcher, Vaclav Havel, Anwar el-Sadat and Nelson Mandela — to have received the Medal. “The criteria for Medal of Freedom recipients is The US Presidential Medal of Freedom is not meant to recognize service to the US, per se, ” explains Peter Greier of the Christian Science Monitor. Under an executive order issued by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, it can be bestowed upon “any person who has made an especially meritorious contribution to (1) the security or national interests of the United States, or (2) world peace, or (3) cultural or other significant public or private endeavors.”
Obama, who has declared nuclear non-proliferation to be the top foreign policy priority of his presidency and called upon Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) two years ago, did not mention that Peres had been a major player in creating — and hiding — Israel’s nuclear weapons program.
As Avner Cohen states in his book Israel and the Bomb, “it is indisputable that Peres played a pivotal role in making the early decisions that determined the character and direction of the [Israeli nuclear] project.” In 1952, four years after the founding of the State of Israel, Peres was the architect of Israel’s Atomic Energy Commission as well as the chief negotiator of a secret agreement with France to build the nuclear reactor at Dimona. Quoting Bruce Riedel:
By 1960, as the declassified SNIE [Special National Intelligence Estimate] shows, the CIA had uncovered the project and was convinced that ‘plutonium production for weapons is at least one major purpose of this effort.’
Cohen’s latest book, The Worst Kept Secret: Israel’s Bargain with the Bomb, says that Peres differed with his boss, David Ben Gurion, about the wisdom of the policy of ambiguity, or, as Cohen calls it, “nuclear opacity” (Hebrew: amimut) concerning Israel’s nuclear weapons program. Nevertheless, once it was adopted, Peres faithfully adhered to it.
A declassified document in the National Security Archives at George Washington University reveals that on April 2, 1963, Peres — then Israel’s Deputy Minister of Defense — was paying a visit to presidential Special Counsel Myer Feldman at the Kennedy White House. Feldman, a renaissance man of many talents best remembered for having founded the Special Olympics but also a pioneer in what is tactfully referred to today as political “opposition research,” served as a behind-the-scenes liaison to Israel. John F. Kennedy unexpectedly invited Peres and Feldman into the Oval Office for a chat. A seven page transcript — in Hebrew — of the seemingly impromptu conversation between President Kennedy and Peres has been preserved that includes the following exchange, in which Kennedy openly asks Peres about Israel’s nuclear progress:
Kennedy: 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: I can tell you most clearly that we will not introduce nuclear weapons to the region, and certainly we will not be the first.
The document summary points out:
Peres did not know…that this meeting with Kennedy was not exactly a matter of sheer chance and improvisation. Peres did not know that in the week prior to his visit in Washington the Israeli nuclear project was discussed at length in a series of presidential meetings, including a special briefing on the subject of Israel’s nuclear activities Kennedy received from CIA Director John McCone. This activity culminated in the drafting of National Security Action Memorandum NSAM 231, entitled “Middle Eastern Nuclear Capabilities,” in which President Kennedy guided his administration to monitor the subject as top priority and to devise a plan to halt a nuclear arms race in the Middle East. It appears that Kennedy knew from those discussions that Shimon Peres was the chief executive of Israel’s nuclear project and he wanted to meet him in person and convey directly his concerns on that subject matter.
Cohen notes that Ben Gurion had used similar wording in evading questions in Israel, particularly when questioned by the media. Peres’ response, however, became a foreign policy tool, a formulaic catechism with which to deflect intrusive American questions about Israel’s nuclear weapons research.
Half a century later, Peres was back at the White House, this time receiving the Medal of Freedom. Basking in the warmth of the American president’s praise, the effulgent octogenarian couldn’t pass up the opportunity to interject a critique of the singular nuclear threat posed by Iran’s nuclear program into his acceptance speech:
… the scientific age has achieved more than the 10,000 years of agriculture. This new age has brought new challenges, new dangers. It generated a global economy but not a global government. It gave birth to horrors of global terrorism without global control.
The danger is today concentrated in Iran. The Iranian people are not our enemies. It is the present leadership that became a threat. It turned Iran into a danger to world peace. It is a leadership that aims to rule the Middle East, spreading terror all over the world. They are trying to build a nuclear bomb. They bring darkness to a world longing for light.
It is our responsibility to our own people, to our friends throughout the world, to posterity, that the Iranian threat must be stopped, and it cannot be delayed.
Mr. President, you worked so hard to build a world coalition to meet this immediate threat. You started, rightly, with economic sanctions. You made it clear — rightly, again — that all options are on the table. Clearly, we support you and your policy.
There’s a certain irony in Peres using his feel-good moment in the American spotlight to inveigh against the sole and singular nuclear threat posed to the world by Iran. Among Peres’ other accomplishments during his long career, as detailed by Trita Parsi, was an operation codenamed “Flower, “ one of six agreements worth a total of $1 billion signed in April 1977 by Peres, Israel’s then-Defense Minister, and Shah Mohammed Reza Pahlavi of Iran. According to the terms of the Flower project, Iran would provide Israel with oil, which Israel’s Arab neighbors refused to allow it to purchase. Israel would partner with Iran in developing surface-to-surface ballistic missiles that the Israelis claimed could be fitted with nuclear warheads.
The Shah was never actually as pro-Israel as Israeli leaders (including Peres) recollect. Nevertheless, the Flower agreement served the interests of both Iran and Israel. The Israelis promised the Shah access to advanced military weaponry with which the US declined to provide him. Working secretly inside Iran, Israel would be able to modify US provided weapons systems, replacing American parts with Israeli adaptations. Israel could then sell and export this high-tech weaponry to whomever it chose, without seeking permission of the US. After the defeat of Yitzhak Rabin’s Labor government, the arrangement apparently was briefly halted, then restarted, by Ezer Weizmann, Israeli Defense Minister in the government of Menachem Begin, and continued until the Islamic Revolution in 1979.
Peres has a reputation of being more dovish than other Israel politicians, one which is not necessarily warranted. His hawkish talons have been manicured by his largely ceremonial position as Israel’s president. Furthermore, as Anshel Pfeffer of Haaretz noted back in March when Peres addressed the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), Peres “remains faithful to Ben-Gurion’s strategy, that Israel must never risk international isolation by going to war without the backing of foreign powers.” This contrasts sharply with the go-it-alone bravado of certain right-wing Israeli politicians like whose mantra is “The whole world is against us.”
The Jewish Telegraphic Agency (JTA) headlined its coverage of the event “Peres Calls for Renewed Peace Talks in Medal Ceremony,” and JTA blogger Ron Kampeas suggested that against the backdrop of Iran, Obama’s agenda in presenting the award to Peres came from a desire “to posit a different U.S.-Israel relationship, one of two nations engaged in end of war and not in its waging.”
But, judging by the words in his acceptance speech, Peres, man of peace, did not seem to be shrinking away from confrontation with Iran. Far from it…