Peres, Nuclear Weapons, and Avoiding Responsibility

One of the arguments put forward by those criticizing Shimon Peres’ legacy as well as excusing Arab leaders’ decision not to attend his funeral focuses on Peres’ critical role in developing Israel’s nuclear arsenal. This includes the leader of the Joint List, Ayman Odeh, who gave as one of his reasons for not paying his respects to Peres as, among other things, “strong opposition in Arab society to the architect of the occupation who introduced nukes to the Middle East.”

The argument is at best tendentious, and dismisses the context in which Peres operated at the time.

Along with David Ben-Gurion and Ernst Bergmann, Peres was the primary architect of Israel’s nuclear program. He was also the main driver of the French-Israeli alliance in the 1950s and 1960s. He also launched the creation of the country’s defense industry, promoted the development of Israeli technology, and laid the foundation for the shift from a socialist to a free market economy, which contributed to further developments in defense and high tech.

All of this makes Peres one of the giants in Israeli history; he developed and strengthened the country, making it the secure and prosperous state it is today. But I don’t see how it makes him unfit to be remembered and grieved.

For Israeli leaders in the 1950s and 1960s, the Holocaust was a real event. By the 1967 war Israel had engaged in 2 major wars with its neighbors (1948 and 1956), and was under constant attack from Palestinian guerillas and terrorists. Israeli reprisal raids and efforts to undermine the capacity of its enemies to attack broadened the scope of the violence. In addition, Arab leaders were consistently threatening Israel not only with attack but with destruction.

To claim that Israeli leaders at the time should have dismissed these attacks and threats as un-implementable or easily fended off is to apply today’s conditions to that period. It also assumes Israeli leaders had perfect information, could accurately assess the outcomes of their actions all the time, and could predict whether nuclear weapons would or would not come to the region without Israel’s own nuclear program. In fact, Israeli leaders and others did debate amongst themselves many of these issues; but the decision to move forward with a nuclear program was ultimately made as the safest course of action.

In addition, the claim that Peres’ introduction of nuclear weapons to the Middle East means he should be remembered poorly also assumes, without evidence, that the decision to do so was made with malicious intent.

One can certainly criticize the decision, and consider what did in fact occur in the wake of the nuclear program. But to contend that it was, without qualification, the wrong decision is ahistorical and decontextualized and therefore any conclusions drawn from that decision are skewed and misleading.

Finally, to also claim that Peres’ efforts to protect his people, which did not involve attacking or repressing other people, mean he is undeserving of last respects is just an excuse to avoid making hard choices about coexistence. That, of course, says much more about those making the excuse than it does about Peres.