Some 30 Arab journalists from east Jerusalem, Nazareth and Ramallah heard President Shimon Peres’s take on the prospect for peace and the Palestinian intended bid for statehood, at a Beit Hanassi reception on Tuesday in honor of the coming Ramadan holiday.

Peres started out by comparing Ramadan to the High Holy Days as a time of introspection, taking stock and praying for better times.

Moving into the turmoil sweeping the Arab world, he said the wave of revolutions was not necessarily against anyone in particular but against a situation, because the common denominator in all cases was a desire for freedom, democracy and an improved quality of life.

The general hope in Israel he said, is that people will not go hungry and that there will be economic stability – and of course, peace.

He has seen surveys which indicated that everyone, including Israel, wants peace.

From this, he drew the conclusion that “we are much closer than ever before to a peace agreement.”

Noting that everyone is anxious about September, when the Palestinians are expected to push for statehood recognition at the UN, Peres advocated that the month transform from being a threat to a September of hope.

Peres said the remaining points of dispute in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict can be overcome “without anyone being afraid of September.”

In his perception, “the Palestinians are closer than anyone else in the region to democracy” and this in itself is cause for optimism.

Looking at Ramallah, Peres said that it was becoming like Tel Aviv – “a city that never stops” and for this, all credit must go to the Palestinians, he said. “This is a fantastic Palestinian achievement.”

Peres did not ignore the fact that “the lights are also on in Gaza,” but made the distinction that while Fatah was largely responsible for development in Ramallah, Hamas relies heavily on Iran for developing Gaza.

Peres said he is optimistic about peace with the Palestinians because “today there is no terror other than which the Iranians try to introduce into Gaza” and the Palestinians have adopted democratic institutions and have held democratic elections. “What has been achieved to date, gives cause for hope,” he said.

In conveying greetings for Ramadan to Muslims throughout the world, Peres included those in Iran, saying that Israel has no quarrel with the Iranian people, only with the Iranian leadership.

Shifting to this region, Peres praised the courage of the Syrian people in rising up against its ruler. “If these people want peace, stability and freedom, it will be relatively easy to make peace with them as we did with Egypt and Jordan,” he said.

As for the Lebanese, “they were always peaceful people” said Peres, “but Hezbollah is trying to turn them into war mongers.” Here again, he cited the negative influence of Iran.

Israel would like to see the whole of the Middle East free of fear and hatred so that it can develop as it should, he said.

Then came the journalists’ questions to the president: Is Israel taking an anti-Palestinian stance by nullifying the Oslo Accords before September, and did Peres concur with such a measure? Does Peres believe in the establishment of a Palestinian state within the pre-1967 lines? How can anyone believe that Israel is interested in peace when it enacts racist legislation?  A year ago Peres brought Israeli business leaders to Nazareth with the aim of providing job opportunities for Arabs; what has happened since then?

He evaded a direct answer on the pre-1967 lines, saying he believed in a two-state solution, but that borders guaranteeing security for both sides have to be agreed upon.

On September, he said it was far better to go to the UN with a completed agreement than to make a unilateral declaration.

To reach that agreement, it is imperative for the Palestinians to reenter into direct negotiations with Israel.

As for differing voices coming out of the government, Peres declared that diverse opinions are part of democracy.

With regards to peace, Peres said the peace process has been relatively short-lived, as it began only after the 1973 Yom Kippur War when Israel and the Arabs realized that more could be achieved through peace than through war. He praised the courage of former Egyptian president Anwar Sadat and Israeli prime minister Menachem Begin, and added that he was very pleased that Egypt wants to preserve the agreement these leaders reached.

Regarding recent laws tinged with racism, the president said the Knesset would not enact legislation that contradicted the protection of minorities in the Declaration of Independence. At this stage, “There is no discrimination in the law. Discrimination exists in the situation,” he said.

On the positive side, there are 40,000 Arabs, mostly women, attending Israeli universities each year, which indicates not only an increase in Arab academics, but also advancement in the status of Arab women.

As an outcome of the Israeli business leaders’ trip to Nazareth, 80 Arabs are now employed in Israeli high tech firms, in addition to which a $150 million hi tech fund of which 50 percent is supplied by the government and 50% by the private hi tech sector has been established and two or three new high tech firms are being created to employ Arabs in the field.

It takes time, said Peres, who was certain the initiative will gain momentum.

Peres, who is used to loud and sustained applause when he enters a room, encountered a very brief and muted reaction from his Arab guests, who at the conclusion of the session, did not applaud him at all, nor did they rush to be photographed with him or shake his hand, though Peres shook the hands of members of the front row when he descended the podium.

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