Lawrence of Poland
Shimon Peres: Portrait of a Shin Beth Agent
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On the surface, there is possibly nothing to add about Shimon Peres – now Israel’s President – but, as I’ll try to show towards the end of this article, his long political career can throw a lot of light about Israel. Not only because his long term influence on the system – practically during the entire existence of the state – but also because much of the state was built in his image. I’ll skip many of the details because they are well known, or easy to find, and concentrate on several points of his outstanding career.
Born in Poland in 1923, Szymon Perski arrived with his parents at Palestine in 1934. As it is customary they adopted a new name, in this case bearing a very close resemblance to the original. The new name is completely Hebrew, with the last one meaning Bearded Vulture, a bird typical of the area. This is a scavenger, living on a diet that is mostly bone marrow. It drops large bones from a height to crack them into smaller pieces. Seldom can we witness a better choice for a prophetic name, a Pygmalion type of prophecy.
His speech capabilities at Hanoar Haoved Vehalomed, a Labor Zionist youth movement, caught David Ben Gurion’s attention and since 1947, he worked with David Ben Gurion and Levi Eshkol (two future Prime Ministers) at the Hagana Headquarters. When the state was created the Hagana became the IDF, its position was classified as belonging to the Ministry of Defense and not to the IDF. As a result of that, Peres never served in the army, a thing that in Israel creates automatic mistrust toward the person. In the following years, he kept working next to Ben Gurion; in October 1956 he was part of the meetings where the secret Protocol of Sèvres was signed between the governments of Israel, France and the UK. The protocol was a plot to topple Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser, by invading and occupying parts of Egypt in response to Nasser's nationalization of the Suez Canal on July 26 of that year. After two days of negotiations a seven point’s agreement was signed by Ben-Gurion, Pineau and Dean. The protocol directly led to the Suez War in October 1956, which is of no interest to this article, but also to a close cooperation between the French and Israeli administrations. This included the creation of the Negev Nuclear Research Center in Dimona. Since then, Peres is considered to have played a key role in the Israeli nuclear program. His involvement in security issues but beyond the army gave him an unusual status. He is widely considered – at least among army officers – as enjoying a wide support in the Shin Beth; support that apparently helped him in following years.
In 1959 he entered the Israeli Parliament – the Knesset – a place he kept (with a very short pause) until he was elected president in 2007. At the parliament he was given the role of Deputy Defense Minister by Ben Gurion one day before the last renounced his position as Prime Minister. Peres kept the job until 1965, when he and Moshe Dayan left Mapai with David Ben-Gurion to form a new party, Rafi which reconciled with Mapai and joined the Alignment (a left-wing alliance) in 1968. This political acrobatics and “landing” into top jobs due to his special relation with Ben Gurion didn’t give Peres a solid image. Moreover, in 1954 there was an early – and failed – attempt to use Egyptian Jews to sabotage the evacuation of the Suez Canal by the British. At the committee investigating the fiasco, Peres gave a very bad testimony against Labon – the Minister of Defense and Peres direct boss – and Labon was fired. He said about Peres something that could be translated “I repudiate him completely;” the first sack of bones had been thrown by the vulture and Labon’s career was shattered. The Labon Affair and Labon’s saying accompanied Peres since then. In 1980, Yitzhak Rabin (that lost his government in 1977 to Begin, beginning the drift rightwards of the Israeli society) published a biography in which Peres was described as “indefatigable conspirator.”
Many intrigues afterwards, the Likud and Menahem Begin were about to lose the elections of 1981 due to the economy’s bad situation. I have already described the racist comment of a comedian named Dudu Topaz and its results; but there was a second racist comment performed by Peres himself. After an Oriental Jew voter showed him the finger during a rally, Peres called it an “obscene Oriental move,” giving to the public the impression that the racist remark of Topaz was not said in a vacuum, that the Labor was a racist movement. The ongoing discrimination of Oriental Jews in the general society and in political parties like the Labor only strengthened this perception. More events contributed to this perception, including the fact that the positions within the party were given by an “organizing committee” and not by internal elections. His handshake with Rabin before the elections showed Rabin mistrusted him deeply; further weakening his position. In a dramatic event, Likud won the elections for a second consecutive time and the drift rightwards was sealed.
However, more than that was sealed. Peres lost the trust of the people. A comedian working for the Likud and named Sefy (nickname for Yosef) Rivlin was invited to run the television campaign for that party. He began a very successful personal campaign against Peres. Its motto was “Ken Velo,” namely “Yes and No” in Hebrew. Peres was presented as giving an answer “yes and no” to everything he was asked. In combination with his past reputation, that transformed Peres into a clown. Effectively, he never won – before or after the “ken velo” campaign – a political campaign; at his best he shared the government in a rotation agreement with the Likud after the 1984 election.
In the Israeli minds he is the classical “politruk” – Soviet Political Officer (the Israeli society shares many terms and organizational techniques with the now “kaput” Soviets), an officer working selfishly for obscure personal or party goals. Yet, he is always there, always with the silent support of the Shin Beth. In 2005 he made another political transition, this time from the Labor to the new Kadima party led by Sharon (both shared a past in Mapai) and this opened the road to his being elected president in 2007.
Moreover, his contacts with the security services are the source of a conspiracy theory against him. I have already commented that it is pretty obvious the Shin Beth played a key role in the assassination of Rabin; they have admitted that even in court and left free without punishment. At that moment Peres became the star of a conspiracy theory claiming he gave the political OK to the illegal event. Rabin’s words defining Peres as an “indefatigable conspirator,” didn’t help Peres reputation on this issue.
After so many years in the Ministry of Defense, the Knesset, the Government and the Presidency, these institutions had all been heavily influenced by Peres. What kind of influence? “Ken velo,” “yes and no,” a Talmudic Pharisee leaving all the options open – regardless what is moral – in order to chose an answer fitting his convenience at the last moment. No matter what. No matter the sound of shattered bones at the bottom of the cliff. The sound of the State of Israel.
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