On the morning of Oct. 9, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu opened his weekly Cabinet meeting by announcing to his ministers that the nuclear research facility in Dimona would be named after Israel’s ninth president, the late Shimon Peres. “He was very active in establishing this important project for Israel’s security for generations, and I think that it’s appropriate and right to name the compound after him,” said Netanyahu in explaining his decision. Its implementation is already underway.
As director general of the Defense Ministry at only 29 year of age, Peres was the motivating force leading to the construction of the Dimona reactor in the 1950s. The facility was shrouded in mystery for years. Under the watchful eye of the military censor, it was referred to as a “textile factory.” As Netanyahu noted, the reactor has in fact been an important component in Israel’s security for generations. According to foreign sources, it has given Israel nuclear weapons capabilities. It is, therefore, an important component of the country’s approach to security and its ability to defend itself.
As the years passed and Peres became an international icon of peace, his connection to the reactor and other issues related to defense moved from the spotlight. It is doubtful whether the younger generation even knows about his activities in this arena. The choice of the Dimona nuclear reactor as the first national installation to commemorate Peres moves his legacy as a security hawk to the forefront and ignores that the former prime minister and president devoted the last two decades of his life to resolving the conflict with the Palestinians and was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in brokering the Oslo Accord.
As the son of a historian, Netanyahu understands how powerful the act of commemoration can be. The idea of naming the reactor after Peres should therefore be understood in the context of promoting a particular narrative. Netanyahu could, for instance, have decided to rename the “Peace Road” highway from Givatayim to Tel Aviv the Shimon Peres Peace Road. That would have been an obvious choice. On the other hand, it is no coincidence that Netanyahu would prefer that Peres instead be remembered as the “Father of the Dimona Nuclear Reactor.”
Netanyahu knows that a commemorative initiative of this proportion will have far-reaching implications on memories, from the actual name change to the ceremonies that will remind people in Israel and around the world why Peres received the honor. The story of how Peres got the French government to support the construction of the reactor will be told repeatedly, along with tales of how he managed to raise funds for it from external sources despite opposition from many government ministers. It is the stuff of which legacies are made.
In contrast, Netanyahu seems uninterested in making the peace process the most prominent part of Peres’ legacy, even though he was best known for that during his lifetime. For Netanyahu, avoiding the peace process is his way of playing down his own inaction in this area. Had Netanyahu glorified Peres’ legacy of peace, he would have also been showing support for the Oslo Accord, which he opposed. It is obviously much easier for Netanyahu to position himself vis-a-vis Peres in the security field. He himself often says that he wants to be remembered for having protected Israel.
Netanyahu is not the only one traveling in this direction. As early as Peres’ funeral, a lengthy text read by a presenter referred to Peres as “Mr. Security.” It went on to tell the story of the Dimona reactor as well as Peres’ role as defense minister in approving the 1976 Entebbe rescue mission. On the other hand, there was no mention whatsoever of the Oslo Accord. Since Peres’ family and inner circle participated in determining the content of the funeral, it is obvious that they did not want to bring the legacy of Oslo and Peres’ vision for a “new Middle East” to the forefront either.
Just last June, the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa was renamed the Peres Center for Innovation and Peace. Behind this move was a desire to give the center a facelift. Although it was once identified with Peres’ vision of peace, with the diplomatic stalemate and the Netanyahu government’s policy, that same peace has become irrelevant in recent years. The goal of the renaming was to transform the Peres Center into a showcase for Israel as a start-up nation, another aspect of Israel near and dear to Peres.
Peres and the people around him had highly honed senses when it came to being relevant, and they realized over the last few years that the business of making peace along the lines of the Oslo Accord was no longer relevant, especially with the current instability in the Middle East. The decision to change the center’s name highlights other aspects of the legacy that Peres wanted to leave. In the same way, Peres’ vision of peace became an economic vision most of all, as Ben Caspit described in an Al-Monitor article on his last peace plan.
It is ironic that while Peres worked behind the scenes to bring about the Oslo Accord and encouraged Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin to adopt it once an agreement was reached with the Palestinians, Peres would, over time, become much less identified with it than Rabin. Rabin's assassination in the wake of Oslo, in 1995, determined the legacy of the murdered prime minister, whereas Peres, who died 20 years later, has had his own legacy shaped by the mood of the times.
During Netanyahu’s long and ongoing years in office, Israel’s national agenda has focused on security more than anything else. He first set this agenda when he returned to the prime minister’s office in 2009, by focusing on ways to block the Iranian nuclear project and by putting the diplomatic process on hold. In the ensuing years, his security agenda overshadowed the various peace initiatives, not least because of the turbulent events that shook the region, beginning with the Arab Spring.
In his later days, Peres realized that his vision for peace had no clients on either side of the divide. It was obvious that he was trying to revise his plans, and this had no less to do with him looking ahead to the future of his legacy and how he would eventually be commemorated. The process was riveting.
Just a few years ago, it was obvious that the Peres legacy would be, first and foremost, a legacy of peace and all of his creative struggles to bring an end to the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Now, however, in the spirit of the times, the first few decades of his public career — a period when Peres was a security hawk with countless projects to his credit — have been pulled out. Memories of this blur the legacy of Oslo, which won him the Nobel Peace Prize.