Notwithstanding the stream of revelations about alleged misdemeanors by public figures, growing internal violence and other negative aspects of life in Israel, President Shimon Peres continues to view the country from a thoroughly idealistic and upbeat perspective.
Our Rosh Hashana interview took place just before he left for the first overseas state visit of his presidency, to Italy, and we asked Peres how he would present Israel to the Jewish community of Rome. Positively, was the essence of his response, and with immense enthusiasm and confidence.
First of all, Peres took pains to assert that Israel is not corrupt, whatever embattled Accountant-General Yaron Zelekha might have to say. "A corrupt state is one which does not fight corruption," Peres said.
He added that in most of the corruption cases involving well-known figures, no charges had been filed. "When I hear the commotion and see the outcome, there's a big discrepancy," he said.
And he implied that the media might be exaggerating the purported blight. "There's a lot of publicity about crime, but we don't have more crime than anyone else," he declared. "Israel does not have an Italian Mafia."
A Russian mafia, then?
The president wouldn't hear of it. The aliya from the Former Soviet Union was an extraordinary blessing. Although Communism was not an intelligent movement, he said, "We got the most intelligent people."
JUST A few weeks into this culminating position for Israel's elder-statesman, Shimon Peres seems thoroughly at home at Beit Hanassi, even though wife Sonia is resolutely not living here with him.
His schedule is packed, and he couldn't be happier about it, rejoicing that along with routine presidential duties, the government calls on him to use his contacts and good offices to open doors and resolve crises.
He has had the furniture rearranged in the presidential office - and conducts interviews from armchairs and sofas around a coffee table, rather than across the desk his predecessor favored. And he has replaced many of the paintings and the photographs that used to enjoy prominence. At the entrance to his offices are several black-and-white shots featuring first prime minister David Ben-Gurion in the company of the then-youthful protege Peres and others, and a color snap of Peres and his perpetual rival-partner, Yitzhak Rabin. These were not here in the Moshe Katsav era.
Set back from the hustle and bustle of the Jerusalem streets outside, Beit Hanassi has always exuded a rarefied atmosphere of well-ordered calm - even when, as with his predecessor's final weeks, the incumbent's daily routine is anything but. With Peres ensconced here, the distance from day-to-day strains and complexities seems particularly wide: For this president, the extremists of Iran are bound to fail; peacemaking with the Palestinians really might work this time; and Israel has the unique brainpower and potential to serve as a light unto the nations in countering everything from terrorism to global warming.
He speaks quietly, apparently conserving energy, but his mind darts rapidly from issue to issue, and on most subjects he has an anecdote, an aphorism, or both, to illustrate the point.
"I don't say that Jews are the most talented people in the world, but Jews do have extraordinary talent," he enthused, apropos his vision of Israel as a global laboratory - what he called "a pilot plant" - for world technology in the realms of ecology, alternate energy, and countering water and air pollution. The foundations have already been laid, he reasoned, at the Volcani Agricultural Research Institute, the IDF and in the booming local hi-tech industry.
Given how much constructive input the Jews have made down the generations, he then mused, it was plain illogical for Jews to be faulted by anti-Semites for the evils of the world. "We're just a small people. Why do they blame us?"
And then he answered his own question, with a gentle smile: "Because we want to change the world," he said. "We've never been a satisfied people."
Last time we heard you speak, at the Jewish People Policy Planning Institute's recent conference, we came away with the impression that you weren't sure Iran's drive to a nuclear capability would be thwarted.
I'm not sure that it is possible to prevent them from attaining nuclear weapons. But that doesn't mean they will prevail. Hitler also won, and broke his head... Whoever threatens the future of humanity has no future of his own.
It's just a matter of time [until this Iranian regime] fails. It will fail for three simple reasons: It foments terrorism; it seeks nuclear weapons; and it takes extreme religious positions. And if those three come together, the world becomes ungovernable. So in the end, they will be brought down. There's no escaping this. I'm just not sure [the nuclear drive] can be prevented now, because of the divisions in the international community.
But Israel is on the front line. If it takes too long...
The world believes there are still two or three years. And it has started taking economic sanctions, which are pretty effective. And there are some things happening [in the right direction], such as the election of [French President Nicolas] Sarkozy. So now at the heart of Europe you have Sarkozy and [German Chancellor Angela] Merkel who have determined positions on this. That's good news.
There have been several instances of nuclear weapons drives being prevented or removed. In the Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Belarus, for instance. In Libya with [Muammar] Gaddafi, there was a very subtle negotiation. South Africa was prevented - through a combination of sanctions and Nelson Mandela. And lately with North Korea.
As in those cases, I believe Iran will create such circumstances as to galvanize a united position against it. I've spoken with [Russian President Vladimir] Putin about this. He, too, is adamant that he is not prepared to see Iran go nuclear.
What do you make of the new effort at progress with the Palestinians? After all the years of a lack of Palestinian Authority action against terrorism, of [PA Chairman] Mahmoud Abbas's weakness, why should this time be different?
First of all, I don't accept that Abu Mazen [Abbas] has proved not to be strong. He has demonstrated strength. Look at the starting point and where he is now. He wasn't outsmarted. But the Palestinians didn't demonstrate enough talent to establish a state - the talent to establish unity, the talent to establish a single army.
There are two movements, one political, one religious. The first, Fatah, understands that in politics you make compromises, you make agreements. For the second, the religious, there can be no compromises. Quite the reverse.
Why is Hamas firing Kassams from Gaza? We left Gaza. We took out the settlements. We took the army out. There is no Israeli presence. What do they want? What do they want to achieve? They don't want to achieve anything. They want to destroy. Their ideology is the ideology of destruction - to destroy everything modern and to establish religious hegemony in the Middle East. More than they are fighting for a Palestinian state, they are working for religious hegemony, for the hegemony of a single religion.
But they have no chance, because they don't offer a future to anyone. Not even to their own people. And in Gaza you can now see people asking, "What does Hamas want from us?" You can't feed the children Kassams for breakfast.
They thought that they'd fire [on Israel], the world would pay, and the Palestinian public would support them. But the world won't fund terrorism, and the Palestinians, even if they wanted to, can't live like this.
So that leaves the [option of dealing with the Fatah] political movement. There is someone to talk to. Until now, Hamas had essentially prevented dialogue.
How is this dialogue process with the Palestinians now playing out, and what's your role?
The drive to peace must follow two tracks - political and economic. The political track must be bilateral, and only bilateral - between the Israeli leadership and the Palestinian leadership - because that negotiation has to be carried out simultaneously with the other side and at home. Olmert has to check each morning how far he can go without losing his majority. He can't only look at the other side. It has to be held in two directions. It's not simple. War unites people, but the price of peace divides them.
And these [political] negotiations also have to be secret. There is an opening position and a fallback position. You can't bring an agreement to the people [for approval] until it is finalized.
That does not apply to the economic track. Those talks should be open and transparent.
There's been no important development in the world since World War II that has not been achieved through economic change. Economics does not recognize frontiers or distances, nor differences between men and women, or black, white and yellow.
At the heart of this economic dialogue must be Jordan, the Palestinians and us. Global warming is coming at us all. Look at the Dead Sea erosion. Look at the water and air pollution. there's no choice but to work together.
On this, as I've told the prime minister, there is a win-win solution. All three peoples agree [on the need for concerted action]. All the parties in Israel agree.
So hold the diplomatic contacts on a secret channel, and present the results to the public when you reach agreement. And the economic negotiations hold globally - open to all. Bring global input and capital.
This [economic progress] has political impact. People think that "peace" is a summit meeting, a photo opportunity. But the ordinary man feels nothing. Economics is felt; this is peace between people. If we establish two economic parks in the West Bank, for instance, people will find work.
[In the past,] the Palestinian Authority got financial support, but ... they built an administration of 160,000 people, which created the sense of corruption, as a consequence of which Fatah lost out. You have to bolster economic growth without this being dependent on the political process.
How is progress on the secret political track?
I don't expect [ongoing reports] on the progress of the secret talks, because otherwise it becomes a media argument, a public relations argument, and this kind of negotiation doesn't need public relations.
But my impression, to be very cautious, is that there is chemistry between Abu Mazen and Ehud Olmert. They are making progress. How far are they progressing? ... In my opinion, there is a chance to reach a declaration of principles [with regard to a Palestinian state]. Because the distances [between the sides] are not so wide any more. The distances have narrowed so much since Oslo.
Israel formally agrees to the solution of two states for two peoples. There is agreement to a Palestinian state. Both sides know full well that the right of return [for Palestinian refugees to Israel] is out of the question. There is not a single Israeli who would agree to absorb three million Arab refugees into Israel and transform Israel from a country with a Jewish majority to one with a Jewish minority. As for territory, the differences have been reduced to a matter of a few percent.
And what of Jerusalem?
What Clinton said: Jewish parts of Jerusalem for Israel, and the Arab parts for the Arabs. And there has to be an arrangement whereby all of the faiths can pray in the places that are holy to them.
You mean some kind of non-sovereign arrangement in the Old City?
I don't want to get into that
Do you think this government, or any government, would have the capacity to remove or relocate settlers affected by such an agreement?
The question is whether this is the only option. There could be relocation within Judea and Samaria... We'll have to see.
Look, you can't correct the past. What is possible is to correct the future. I don't think the settlers are unaware of the problems that exist.
Remember all the noise prior to the evacuation of the Gaza settlements.
You mean that the pessimistic scenarios proved unfounded?
Here, too, you have to work through agreement.
For instance, what happened to the Gaza evacuees has to be corrected, in terms of housing and compensation.
You yourself established some of the settlements that would have to be dismantled under such an agreement. Was that a mistake?
At the time of the establishment of Ofra, for instance, we were worried about the protection of Jerusalem. I couldn't think about the demographic issues 20 years hence; I had to to think about how to protect Jerusalem there and then.
You said when you took up this position that your partisan political career was over. How do you define inappropriate political activism for a president? Lots of people would argue that the nature of your peace efforts is partisan.
[Laughs] To be in favor of peace is political? To be in favor of security is political?
In principle, of course not. But define for us how you distinguish between the permissible and the forbidden for you as president.
I, as, president am committed to respect all people, all opinions and all religions. But the president is neither empty-headed nor soulless. I want to be the president of everybody, not the president of nobody. How can I explain Israel [internationally] if I don't have a point of view? I look at the consensus ... I explain the view of the majority.
Many people would argue that seeking an accommodation with Abbas is partisan, advancing the interest of only some of the people.
It's the majority view, and you can say that there is a minority that thinks differently. It's the official Israeli position, approved by the Knesset. It's not my private position...
If Abbas invited you to Ramallah, would you go?
Do another interview if I get an invitation.
Do you have contacts with other regional leaders?
Yes. The government asks me to. There was just now a crisis with Turkey [over the definition of the Armenian Genocide]. The Foreign Ministry asked me to speak to the Turkish prime minister. I did, and the crisis passed. I don't do anything without government approval.
And what of contacts with those who don't have relations with us?
We wish that they did.
What would you tell them, ahead of Rosh Hashana?
That relations are not merely rhetoric. They need to be expressed in deeds. I greatly respect what the Saudis have said [a presumed reference to the Saudi peace initiative], but this is music without an orchestra.
The Syrians sometimes say some correct things. But they're sending weapons to Hizbullah; they are hosting Islamic extremist leaders; and they won't speak directly to us. What do they expect us to do?
How worried are you by the sense that the positive momentum towards Israel's normalization in the Middle East - post-[the late Egyptian president] Anwar Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1997 - is being reversed by Iran?
There's something in that concern. But as I said, those who don't believe in the future have no future. The Iranian regime is trying to return its people to the past. They can't just offer their own people nuclear arms... The world has changed. If they don't move forward, if they don't allow their own people to become educated, they will disappear from the world.
The Stone Age didn't end because they ran out of stones. The age was over. What's important is that the era of openness [in Iran] arrives before the more dangerous [nuclear] era.