As the eternal political survivor who chronically loses in the polls, Shimon Peres has bested all the odds by entering the post of vice premier for the fourth time during his 46 years in politics.
At age 82, as Israel's elder statesman and one of its most eulogized politicians, he clearly knows something about optimism and determination that the rest of us have yet to learn.
So here, on his ninth-floor office in Tel Aviv, on the eve of Israel's 58th Independence Day celebration, Peres is busy mapping out a future of cooperative peace with the Palestinians as if dialogue had not ceased between the two entities when the terrorist group Hamas took over the Palestinian Authority in January.
An architect of the Oslo Accords, Peres has been castigated for never taking a critical view of that process. Yet the Nobel Peace Prize winner is still holding fast to his conviction that dollars, not guns, will win out in the Middle East, despite the rain of rockets from Gaza and the rising number of suicide bombing victims.
Peres may have traded in his long-time membership in Labor for a seat in the new Kadima party and its government, but his ideology is unwaveringly consistent.
Just as he believes that Israel can become wealthy by exporting the world's most common resource, the sun, and Israel's least common one, water, he is certain that economics will destroy Hamas. He is unconcerned that the PA institutions he helped build up might collapse due to a lack of internal and international funds, putting 152,000 Palestinians out of work. "Instead of giving money to the bureaucracies, give jobs to the people," he says. To that end, he is focused on job creation initiatives for Palestinians as the Israeli official charged with managing the country's economic relations with its neighbors.
And as the head of the Ministry for the Development of the Negev and Galilee, an office established in January 2005 that has a 10-year, NIS 17 billion strategic planning budget, he wants to see prosperity and equity for Jewish and Arab Israelis alike in two of Israel's least developed and more fragile regions.
Now that Israel has started to leave the territories, funds and resources that once went to Judea, Samaria and Gaza can now be used for the Galilee and the Negev, he told The Jerusalem Post this week.
"We are leaving the territories and building the country. We are going home," Peres said.
With a boost from the government's designation of 2006 as the "Year of the Development of the Negev and the Galilee," and with the help of private donations, Peres believes that now these regions really will bloom with technological and industrial initiatives, hotels, a Bahai garden in Acco, a science center for children in Beersheba, nano- and biotechnology projects and $100 million to build a new college in Karmiel.
To demonstrate how his vision would work, Peres unfolded a map and laid it across the coffee table in his office. With his pen he marked the border that runs from Eilat in the south to Syria and Lebanon in the north, of which 320 kilometers abuts Jordan and 80 run along Palestinian areas.
"My plan is to convert these 400 kilometers from a border to an economic corridor, run by the three of us, the Jordanians, the Palestinians and us," said Peres.
Along the route of the Red Sea to the Dead Sea, he is hoping to revive the idea of a desalination project, first dreamed of by Theodor Herzl. With the use of a man-made canal or pipes, Israel together with Jordan would pump water from the Red Sea and then separate it into highly concentrated saline water and drinkable water. In a move protested by environmentalists, the saline water would be piped into the Dead Sea to make up for the one meter its water level has been dropping on an annual basis. The hundreds of cubic meters of usable water would be divided among Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians.
As long as he is dreaming big, Peres also told the Post that 15 kilometers outside of Eilat he wants to construct a joint international airport with Jordan.
"You have here two cities, Eilat and Aqaba. Over 58 years no single bullet was fired from one city to another city. No fences, no mine fields, no barriers, no terror. It's totally quiet and open. There is an airport near Aqaba and an airport in Eilat itself. Let's take the Aqaba airport and make it into an international airport, like in Geneva. One terminal will lead to Israel, one will lead to Jordan. I do not see why we have to have twice the noise of two airports, not one. The Jordanians agree in principle. We are now checking into the possibility of doing it together," he said.
Then he asked: "Why not?"
There might be a lot of answers to that question, but Peres moved on quickly to the joint copper mine he wants to build with Jordan in Timne and the shared industrial zone with Israeli, Jordanian and Palestinian workers he envisions along the border.
"In Beit She'an we agreed to have a joint industrial park, the Jordanians and us, [as part of] a free-trade agreement with the US ... When it started six years ago, exports to the US were $25 million. This year, they exported $1.5 billion. It provides employment to 130,000 to 135,000 people. Imagine. Now we want to do it for the Palestinian part, too. It's called a qualified industrial zone, QIZ. We cannot keep the Palestinians without work. They cannot work at home; we do not permit them to work in Israel. But here on the border to have a QIZ like we do with Jordan would be the best solution."
But how are you going to do that with Hamas?
What can Hamas do? It will be under the auspices of the Jordanians, the Palestinians and our army. And it's in the interest of the Palestinians. I want to tell you, the Palestinians consented to this plan, the Jordanians did, the US supports it, Europe supports it. We are already working on it.
Let us negotiate there politically [pointing to Tel Aviv] and here [pointing to the Jordanian border] economically. Maybe the economic negotiations are a better opening for peace than the political one. It's non-controversial. It's a win-win situation for everyone. Now if Hamas will come and destroy it they will destroy the life of the Palestinians. The jobs would go to the Palestinians. I do not believe that they can stop us from doing it.
I had a talk with Abu Mazen. He enthusiastically supported it.
You are talking about Israel negotiating with Abu Mazen as a way of circumventing Hamas?
If we can work with Abu Mazen, let's work with him Why not? He is an honorable man. He means peace.
You have been talking to the US about making a financial contribution to developing the Negev and the Galilee.
They promised. In the letter of President [George] Bush to [former] Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, he said we shall help you. We will have to talk about it with regard to the next American budget, but I do not know what will happen. In the meantime I am trying to mobilize private money ... Last year our ministry got NIS 50 million and we spent NIS 2 billion. We did it in two ways. By convincing other ministries to go with us on projects in the Negev and through private initiatives.
Are you still expecting the same level of commitment from the US? After Hurricane Katrina there was talk of not receiving as much US aid. Where does that stand?
It's inconclusive. There are problems in the US, too. The cost of Iraq. The cost of Afghanistan. I do not want to be overly optimistic. But in the meantime I do believe the money is available in private hands.
I want to make a board of prestigious people, highly qualified, that will guide this project politically. They won't run it financially. They will guide it. Underneath them will be a professional economic group of banks and companies.
I think basically there is more money than ideas in the whole world and my impression is that in the Middle East there are hundreds of billions of dollars to invest in the future.
Governments do not have any effect on global economy. On the other hand, the global economy doesn't have a policy, because it is not a government. Governments are without an economy and economies are without a government.
I think we have to privatize peace ... The locomotives of the major changes in our time are economic rather than strategic. What changed China? What changed India? What is changing Latin America? It's the economy - not government.
In terms of what is happening currently, the economic debate is mainly about how to get aid to Palestinians.
The problem is that everyone is willing to help [the Palestinian people] but not Hamas. I think we have to transition from financial to economic aid. Instead of giving money to the bureaucracies, give jobs to the people.
In the short term, people are talking about setting up mechanisms through the World Bank to transfer aid without the money going to Hamas. Is that something that can be effective?
The problem is that the World Bank needs the money of [international government] donors and the donors cannot give money to a government that opposes peace, isn't committed to agreements and calls for terror. Who can finance that? No parliament in the world.
There will be some consideration, in spite of Hamas, [for] electricity and water and other supplies. The money we have [from tax and customs] will be paid to the suppliers so electricity, water and medical supplies will not be cut off.
Let them decide: If they want to have a bureaucracy for terror, they won't be financed. They do not stand a chance. If they want to be financed, they must work for peace. It's in their hands. They can't accuse anyone.
At some point won't your economic plan have to interact with the Hamas government?
It will be on the border.
As someone who is an architect of the Oslo Accords and the concept of a negotiated solution, how do you feel about current unilateral plans to leave certain West Bank areas?
We have to test the possibility of having bilateral [agreements]. That will be our preference. Unilateralism is not an ideology but a lack of an alternative.
But if the only way to leave certain areas of the West Bank is unilaterally, do you support it?
If we reach an agreement, we can do it bilaterally. We prefer to do it bilaterally.
But if that doesn't happen?
Then we shall seek the other alternatives.
When you say reach an agreement, do you mean with Hamas as well?
Hamas doesn't want to negotiate, so how can you reach an agreement?
So when you speak about a bilateral agreement, who are you talking with?
If Abu Mazen is in power, than with him or other parties.
The problem with Hamas is Hamas cannot be changed. Hamas can be converted. People ask me, 'When will Hamas be changed?' My answer is: When will a religious person become secular? It's a conversion. They are a religious party. There are many differences between religious and secular political parties.
Political parties are based on making compromises; religion is uncompromising. Political parties have a calendar; religious parties have eternity. They can wait 100 years. So unless they [Hamas] convert and come to terms with reality there is little we can do.
Have you seen any signs of conversion since their election in January?
Not really. They are divided within themselves. On top of that, they have individual sheikhs who are giving them advise. This is a group of people that is very provincial and inexperienced. They don't know what the reality is, and they do not know what the globe is. They cannot exist in my judgement. You cannot exist out of the context of the new world.
Do you have a hope that by providing an alternative economic construct along the border you are weakening the power of Hamas?
The power of Hamas will be weakened anyway. They won't be able to pay their salaries.
If Israel unilaterally evacuates parts of the West Bank and then sets its borders, do you see any chance for the US and Europe to recognize them?
If they become convinced that we tried all other ways and there is no other way out, then maybe. For that reason I want to try the other ways first. We shall do it with a great deal of patience. There will be a real conviction that we tried hard.
What is Israel's role vis a vis Iran?
I suggest Israel to take a course which is not typical ... to be modest. Let's not jump the gun. Iran is a world problem. I think the world has to handle it. If Iran has a bomb, it may make the whole world nuclear.
We are talking about the fate of the world. The world can have problems [if bombs] reach the hands of irresponsible terrorists. We are not running the world and we shouldn't. We shouldn't make such an impression. The United States is trying very hard to look for a solution.
As America's ally in the region, don't we have a responsibility to help deal with this crisis?
We have a limited responsibility because we are a limited power.
Are you saying that Israel shouldn't be contemplating military action?
I'm saying that Israel shouldn't jump ahead with anything. [If we make] another declaration and another declaration, all of a sudden we shall discover that this is an Iranian-Israeli conflict, which it is not. It's a conflict between Iran and the responsible world.
Many people say that Iran's drive to have nuclear weapons is because of Israel's perceived nuclear arsenal and the solution is not to have any nuclear weapons in the Middle East.
So for that reason they wanted to kill Jewish people? We are not an enemy of Iran. We never threatened Iran. Israel didn't threaten anyone. Israel is being threatened. Iran doesn't face such a threat.
In this Year of the Negev and Galilee, what are your top priorities for developing the regions?
As I see it, the major change with the new government is to go from investing in the territories to investing in the Galilee and the Negev, without discrimination. In my eyes all citizens are equal, Jews and non-Jews.
The Arab population has a feeling of discrimination, partly justified, but they are also going through a quiet revolution. There are 1.2 million non-Jewish people in Israel. Most of them live in the Galilee and the Negev. A few years ago when I would visit a village in the Negev and the Galilee, the main topic would be land: Why do we confiscate land? Why do we take land? When I visit now, the main topic is education.
Among them you have almost 50,000 university graduates. They have 15,000 students every year attending universities in Israel. More of them are women rather than men. Many of the university graduates are unemployed or employed but not in their capacity as professional people, because the non-Jewish population was based on agriculture. That's why land was so important. Agriculture is going down from 50 percent in the 20th century, to one or two percent.
Unless we build proper employment [opportunities], we shall have a new contradiction between people who are highly qualified and deeply unemployed. Another thing is to create and produce hi-tech jobs in the Arab [sector] so engineers and other highly qualified people can find jobs. In order for a modern family to do well, they have to have two employed people in the family, which means we have to create jobs for women as well. We want to introduce tourism in the Galilee, because tourism gives work to all people without ethnic and gender discrimination.The Galilee is blessed with natural beauty. You can easily compare the Galilee, with its natural basis, to Tuscany. We can make it as beautiful and charming as Tuscany. But it has something more than Tuscany. It has many holy places for all religions. For the Christians, for the Muslims, for the Druze, for the Jews. So it can be a mix of a beautiful place and a religious site.
Also we want to emphasize transportation. There is no reason why traveling to the Galilee takes so much time. We want the highways and railways to be extended, because today the problem is never distances it is always time. Speed is overcoming distance,. If you have proper communication so it's not far away,
Like in the Galilee, the main thing in the Negev is jobs. One of the major problems will be to transfer the army to the Negev. We are talking about training centers and the hi-tech department of the army. In the different institutions of the army there are thousands and thousands of soldiers who until now were working in the heart of Israel. We want them and their families to go [to the Negev]. In order to do so, we are rebuilding an airport in Nevatim. It's under way, and in the coming years we hope we will see thousands of officers going there ...
In the Negev we want to become one of the countries, maybe the first country that can produce energy without oil, coal and gas - solar energy. It would be [our source of power]. Better to depend on the sun than the Saudis; it looks like the sun is more permanent than the Saudis are. We want to keep our place in the production of water, which is among the most advanced.
The Middle East is divided into two sorts of countries: the holy and the oily. We are totally holy because we don't have oil or water or other sources of energy. We want to be holy, but also make a living by the production of energy and water, the two most demanding and necessary [things] for the future.
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