Still grasping the hand of history

Former president Shimon Peres is settling into his new life as Citizen Peres, but he’s still intent on making his voice heard.

December 11, 2014 07:58
Shimon Peres


There’s a proverb that says that people who are always looking down have never discovered a star in the sky.

So I don’t look only at the Earth, I look up.”

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At the age of 91, former president Shimon Peres is still looking for the proverbial star. Only a few months after completing his term as Israel’s ninth president, the tireless legend still gets up and goes to work every morning – only now, instead of the Knesset, the Prime Minister’s Office or the President’s Residence, it’s at the Peres Center for Peace, the organization he founded in 1996 to build peace through regional cooperation via people to people interaction.

Arguably the most well-known Israeli in the world, and a name synonymous with the growth of the country from a fledgling Jewish refuge into a thriving global powerhouse, citizen Peres is still sharp and alert as he begins the next phase of his storied career – and he’s still Israel’s eternal optimist.

Dressed smart-casual in a flattering knit sweater over a button-down shirt, he seemed comfortable in his post-presidency elder statesman role as he greeted The Jerusalem Post at his airy, beach-front offices and good-naturedly posed for photographs on the spacious terrace.

“What a good-looking guy,” gushed one of his female staffers, part of a close-knit team held over from his presidency that protects, provides for and promotes Peres like he was still in public office.

Despite his age, he still holds himself with the stature of omeone who has rubbed shoulders with Nelson Mandela, King Hussein and the Dalai Lama. Shaking hands with the man who stood with prime minister David Ben-Gurion during the fateful early decades of the nation is akin to momentarily grasping a slice of that history.

Building on the breadth and scope of his decades close to the center of the country’s monumental developments as well as his insider’s view of some of the last 60 years’ most influential leaders and cataclysmic events, Peres likes to bring in a broad world historical perspective into any analysis of current events, especially those involving Israel and the Middle East.

And after seven years of existing in a politically neutral vacuum of diplomacy, Peres is intent on making his views known. At last month’s annual memorial ceremony for slain prime minister Yitzhak Rabin, he broke his silence, criticizing the strategies of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s government.

“We have all sorts of so-called smart people who talk about ‘managing the conflict’ instead of peace. Take a look at what happened in Gaza over the summer and what is happening in Jerusalem as of late. That is what ‘managing the conflict’ looks like,” he told the crowd.

“There are those who have turned the word ‘peace’ into a derogatory term, and there are those who consider ‘peace supporters’ as delusional people. I say clearly today: Those who have given up on peace are the delusional ones. Those who gave up and stopped looking for peace, they’re the naive ones, the ones who are not patriots.”

Sitting down with the Post a day after last month’s horrific Har Nof terrorist attack that left four rabbis butchered, he returned to those themes, and a dozen others, in a broad-ranging 45-minute interview. Here are some excerpts.

You were critical last month of those whose policy is to “manage the conflict.” What would you suggest to bring about an end to the conflict with the Palestinians?

We have to execute what we say. We cannot declare that we are for two states and not act accordingly – it’s as simple as that.

Clearly you cannot have a two-state solution without a territorial compromise. The argument is only over the percentage of land swap – 2%, 3%, 4%. And remember, this is after [former PLO chairman Yasser] Arafat gave up 22%. If you compare the map of United Nations that was published in 1947 with the map that Arafat and Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] agreed to based on 1967 borders, the difference is 22%.

So look, I don’t think that power is so powerful. I still believe that justice is more important that power, that justice is the real power.

Is President Abbas part of the solution or part of the problem?

We heard two different views recently, with Shin Bet head Yoram Cohen stating that Abbas is not behind Palestinian incitement, and the prime minister fingering him directly for setting the scene that is encouraging the current round of terror in Jerusalem.

Look, I can say one thing clearly. Yoram Cohen doesn’t have any other interest but to tell the truth. He is not in politics. He doesn’t have alliances. He doesn’t have to go work for competition. He’s an honest to God man.

I trust him. Bibi [Netanyahu] trusts him, and even said he’s right. Bibi yesterday said that Yoram described it precisely. So I agree with Bibi. [“There is no gulf between me and the head of the Shin Bet,” said Netanyahu at a press conference after the Har Nof attack.] Abbas has said some things which have been provoking, and he is mistaken. On the other hand, he has constantly fought against terror. He has a force and he gave them an order to prevent terror and to cooperate with us.

So, okay, he is also in politics. But on the basic issues, I do believe that we could have achieved peace with him, and I still believe that we can achieve peace with him. I know maybe I am a minority. That doesn’t change my mind.

Between being a majority and being right, all my life I preferred to be right even if it puts me in the minority. 

There has been talk recently about either forming a national unity government or calling new elections. Do you think there needs to be a change?

In order to have a national unity government, you must have a united policy. With all due respect to the prime minister, asking other parties to enter his government and accept his ideas is not going to happen.

On that basis, you cannot make a national unity government, you need a national policy. But you cannot build a national unity government based on the policy of one party when there are different views.

Regarding those policies, do you remember the slogan that Bibi used in the past [in the 1996 elections versus then prime minister Peres] that said something like “since Peres does not deliver peace, does not deliver security, and brings us fear... we have to change Peres.” I suggest he reread what he said back then.

I want to turn to Iran. Surrounding the talks and the deadline extension, do you agree with the state - ment that no deal with Iran is better than a bad deal?

No deal means to let Iran continue what they do. Is it better? You’ve got your answer. We are for the continuation of what’s being called the negotiations with Iran, but negotiations with sanctions. Iran came to the table not because we convinced them by our intellect. They were convinced by the impact of the sanctions.

If only Israel had declared sanctions, I’m not so sure it would have succeeded. So if there is a world coalition that, for reasons of their own, are intent on not allowing the Iranians to obtain a nuclear bomb, let’s be part of this coalition.

There’s not only one way to face this problem, there are many ways. One of the wisest men of our time, Henry Kissinger, said that in order to more effectively exert influence on Iran, there needs to be an understanding with the Russians.

It’s an interesting point and it comes from somebody who belongs to the super elite of the wisdom, a man who knows what he’s talking about.

Officially the Russians are in, because the 5+1 [global powers] includes the Russians. But now the relations between Russia and America are poor, due to their own reasons, but it also affects Iran. And it weakens the effect of the sanctions.

You’ve witnessed a multitude of changes in the world, especially in our region. You once touted the “new Middle East.” What do you think about the Middle East today?

People talk about there being 100 years of terror in the region. I say it’s not precise. For example, as far as two major Arab countries are concerned – Egypt and Jordan – they are not initiators of terror. And we could have stopped Palestinian terror also if Israel had accepted the London Agreement – terror from the Palestinians would be finished.

[The 1987 London Agreement between foreign minister Peres and Jordan’s King Hussein outlined the framework for an international peace conference hosted by the United Nations, whose purpose would be “the peaceful solution of the Arab-Israeli conflict based on resolutions 242 and 338 and a peaceful solution of the Palestinian problem in all its aspects.” Prime minister Yitzhak Shamir ultimately rejected the proposal.] I know that some people say the world is not changing, but I beg to differ. Maybe it takes more time than we want, because we are basically an impatient people. Compare us with the Chinese. For the Chinese, 100 or 200 years is nothing.

There are processes in Israel that take longer, but I want to demonstrate that the drama of the changes that have occurred in history. Look at the Russian and French revolutions.

The age we also call civilization started with the guillotine.

We forget that the French Revolution was run by [Maximilien de] Robespierre, who in order to expedite the head-cutting introduced the guillotine. Then what was the call of the French Revolution? Liberté, égalité, fraternité . All this is true, when Paris is not burning. So what is the difference if you kill somebody by cutting off their head by guillotine or cutting it off by knife? The Russians, who were stronger than the French, said we cannot achieve all the three, liberté, égalité, frater - nité, so we will choose one over the other. And they say the most important is égalité. We shall sacrifice liberty in order to introduce equality. Look how they achieved equality, the communists, it was the most terrible hierar - chical system. It was a cult of personality.

So the French Revolution went bankrupt. The Russian Revolution went bankrupt.

Now in this century there was another revolution. A young boy by the name of Mark Zuckerberg introduced the revolution which was called Facebook. Now, he didn’t kill anybody. He didn’t terrorize anybody. He didn’t have a party. He didn’t have an ideology. I’m not sure that he read even Karl Marx. And this revolution goes on and on and on. Can you tell me there has been no change? States are not as important as they once were. The world is not divid - ed any longer just by states or just by religion. It’s a global world. Facebook belongs to a state – the state of mind.

So how has the Arab world changed?

First of all, they recognize that terror is a greater danger to them. The terror that’s supposed to hurt us in Israel is actually dismantling them. They kill country after country. Today the wars in the Arab world are not about ideologies, like democracy against dictatorship. It’s a fight among different groups that don’t have ideologies – only survival.

Today there are 400 million Arabs in the Middle East.

They grew times five in the last 50 years, and 60% are below the age of 25. The Arab Spring started, but it was interrupted because they didn’t have the political training how to do it. But it’s not over, don’t be mistaken.

So the whole world is in transition, and you know, if we would have had a clear policy, we could have asked our neighbors to join to fight terror. If you ask Arabs if they prefer us to the Palestinians, they wouldn’t choose us. But if we ask them to fight terror instead of choosing between us, they will do it. But that’s a policy that cannot be made on one leg only, the military leg. You must make a policy which is based on wisdom.

Was it difficult for you as president keeping your own views to yourself?

No, first of all I spoke openly – politely, but openly. You cannot say that there is somebody in Israel who didn’t know what I thought.

However, instead of having the authority of the government, I had the sympathy of the people. So I didn’t have to give any orders. I called for volunteering, and people volunteered. I have had more yeses as a president than yeses as a prime minister. I should say when I was a prime minister I had more noes. As a president I didn’t hear a no at all.

What do you say to young Israelis who for economic reasons may be thinking of leaving the country?

No. 1, I would say that your potential is greater than you think. You have to express it, and it’s better to express it by serving great things instead of being submitted to small things.

The smallest thing in life is the ego. The greatest thing in life is a cause that serves other people. If you want to be great, go for great causes. Don’t fall victim. And don’t take politics as a sort of a corruption. If you think politics is corrupt, come in and purify it. Don’t stand aside.

What happened during the last war [Operation Protective Edge] was a discovery to our people of how deep and serious the young generation is. I’m talking now about the soldiers and commanders. They were ready to sacrifice their lives. They fought voluntarily, fought like lions. And we didn’t know. We thought they wouldn’t be up to it, but no. They are serious. They are deep. They are courageous.

What are the challenges you see Israel facing in the next decade?

The challenge that Israel faces is to understand that peace will not come to us. We have to go to peace. Muhammad did not come to the mountain. The mountains will not come to Muhammad. We have to be the initiator of peace and not say “since they don’t do, I shall not do.”

What do you think Ben-Gurion today would be most proud of if he came back to Israel?

Ben-Gurion didn’t look for pride, he looked for challenges. I once accompanied him to an elementary school, and the young girls and boys asked him questions. A dark-eyed, beautiful girl stood up and said, “Mr. Ben-Gurion, what was the most satisfying day in your life?” Ben-Gurion looked at her and said, “Satisfaction, what is that? I never had any satisfaction.”

So Ben-Gurion thought that the task wasn’t complete.

We’re still building our state. When you’re building, are you satisfied before you’ve completed it?

Since you left the presidency you’ve been still very busy with the Peres Center, and you went to India recently.

Yes, I’m busier than ever, because I think today the most relevant part in decision-making in the world belongs to the globality and not to the nationality. I think the global economy affects the national economy more than the other way around, and globality has brought an end to many differences.

You cannot be global and racist, and I’m trying to do, with the aid of global factors, to bring the whole Middle East into a global age. I know some people will laugh.

Okay, I know some people did laugh. I hope they had a good time. They thought I had a bad time, but no – all my life I thought it was better to look ahead.

• Jordyn Schwersky contributed to this report

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