The ruthless pragmatism of Israel’s foreign alliances

Israel's former president Shimon Peres designed a form of statecraft that allowed Tel Aviv to partner with brutal governments around the world, writes Joseph Dana

Israel's former president Shimon Peres crafted a form of pragmatic statecraft that allowed Israel to forge alliances with brutal governments. Shannon Stapleton / Reuters
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By now, most of the accolades and obituaries for the Israeli politician Shimon Peres, who died last week at 93, have been written. Many publications mourned the loss of the so-called peacemaker, a primary architect of the failed 1993 Oslo Accords. Of the four leaders responsible for Oslo – Yitzhaq Rabin, Shimon Peres, Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas – only Mr Abbas is still alive and fighting for the two-state solution as envisioned by the accords.

Palestinians remembered Peres as a brutal leader who encouraged the West Bank settlement movement in the early 1970s and was responsible for massacres of Arabs including the assault on Qana, in which the Israeli army shelled a United Nations compound in southern Lebanon under Peres’s orders and killed 106 people. For all of the debate about Peres’s legacy in the region, one critical aspect has been overlooked. His policy ideas and military decisions embodied the ruthless pragmatism that all Israeli politicians share, and which enables Tel Aviv to forge alliances with brutal governments across the world.

Unlike David Ben Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister and a close political ally, Peres argued early in the country’s history for a diverse foreign policy. Peres believed that a constellation of smaller countries across the world would serve Israel’s early needs better than the backing of one superpower. As a young politician in the 1950s, he believed that a network of European countries including France and Germany would be better allies than one major power such as the Soviet Union or the United States. Israel’s budding military prowess and military exports were seen to be the ingredient for prospective relationships.

Before Israel’s attack on the Sinai Peninsula in 1956, Peres even insisted that the French could provide Tel Aviv with a nuclear reactor for "research purposes". He went on to become closely identified with the country’s clandestine nuclear weapons programme and the spread of Israeli nuclear intelligence around the world.

Peres’s dream of a broad international alliance of countries was never fully realised, but its legacy still typifies Israel’s foreign relations strategy. While Tel Aviv claims that Israeli tech expertise has spread around the world, it is the country’s military exports that define its alliances with other countries. Back in the 1960s, Ben Gurion and other leaders sought deep connections with the United States that were entrenched to a remarkable degree after the 1967 war. On the African continent, however, Peres’s multilateral vision was put to the test.

As many African countries were declaring independence from their colonial overlords in the 1950s, they found themselves in need of agricultural and military assistance. Tel Aviv saw an opening. In exchange for agricultural technology, military assistance and infrastructure development, Tel Aviv found itself with new allies that could counter Arab votes at the United Nations.

While Peres was instrumental in the development of this foreign policy strategy, he eventually changed Israel’s trajectory when, as defence ministry in the 1970s, he made a secret alliance with apartheid South Africa.

Peres signed a far-reaching memorandum of understanding with his South African counterpart P W Botha in 1975. The two countries agreed to extensive military cooperation, Israeli arms sales to the apartheid regime (in contravention of an international embargo) and the start of work on South African chemical and nuclear weapons that could be attached to Israeli-made Jericho missiles. The South African government released the secret documents in 2006 despite strong protests from Israel that their publication would endanger state security.

Other documents reveal that Peres made several secret trips to South Africa and to Europe to meet South African officials throughout the 1970s. According to Sasha Polakow-Suransky’s 2010 book, The Unspoken Alliance: Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa, Peres wrote fondly of Tel Aviv’s relationship with Pretoria. After one trip to meet P W Botha in 1974, Peres wrote: "This cooperation is based not only on common interests and on the determination to resist equally our enemies, but also on the unshakeable foundations of our common hatred of injustice and our refusal to submit to it." Polakow-Suransky goes on to note that Peres predicted that "the new links which you have helped to forge between our two countries will develop into a close identity of aspirations and interests which will turn out to be of long standing benefit to both our countries".

Peres was publicly against apartheid, but privately he did much to ensure the survival of the South African regime. In so doing, Peres laid the foundation for many of Israel’s unsavoury alliances including many in Africa. From South America to Central Asia, Israel has maintained secret but close relationships with horrific regimes around the world. As in the case with apartheid South Africa, these relationships centre on Israel’s military industry and the export of weapons that are combat tested in the occupied Palestinian territories.

At Peres’s funeral last week, American president Barack Obama said the consummate Israeli politician showed that “justice and hope are at the heart of the Zionist ideal”. In fact, what Peres’s political life demonstrates is the ruthless and brutal pragmatism that has always defined Zionism.

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