Vice Premier Shimon Peres answered questions submitted by Jpost.com readers this week. Topics included the popularity, or otherwise, of Ehud Olmert; means of confronting Iran; corruption in high places; any Peres regrets on the rehabilitating of Yasser Arafat, and solutions to the Palestinian refugee problem. Peres was candid throughout... except, that is, on the subject of his presidential aspirations. Excerpts:
Malcolm Addlestone, Leeds, England: On what criteria do you base your recent statement that Ehud Olmert is one of the best prime ministers Israel has had? Why do believe then that he is so unpopular among the Israeli public?
Shimon Peres: I've seen the prime minister make hard, brave decisions under pressure during the war. In addition, Israel has, for the first time, achieved economic independence. Exports exceed imports, and growth has increased to the top 5 percent worldwide. Unemployment has dropped from 10% to 7.5%, and is still dropping.
The government has taken a number of social steps: a bill has been proposed to implement income tax refunds, and the Knesset has passed a law making pensions mandatory and reinstated part of the old-age stipend. I don't know how to explain his lack of popularity.
Shai Golan, Beersheba: According to your testimony from the Winograd Committee, you said that if it were up to you, Israel would not have gone to war last summer. Why is it that you - the most veteran figure in the cabinet - did not try to change the decision to go to war?
Peres: The answer is in the committee's announcement: "The concern about possible harm to anyone whose testimony was published partially has come true. Publishing the parts of the testimony authorized for release, as per the [High] Court's instructions, made the publication incomplete and created a warped impression of the entire testimony given by the witness.
"As for Vice Premier Shimon Peres, whose remarks in closed meetings could not - according to the court - be published, the mistaken impression was created that [Peres] had chosen not to air his doubts about taking military action and about the action itself. The impression was also created that he was stating his opposition now as '20/20 hindsight.' This interpretation of the partial testimony published by the committee caused serious an unjust harm to Vice Premier Peres."
Brent Legum Levenson, Washington, DC: Do you believe it is almost certain that Marwan Barghouti would be released in the framework of a any future deal?
Peres: Marwan Barghouti was sentenced by the courts to five life sentences for his part in murder and the possibility of releasing him isn't up for discussion.
Moshe, Istanbul: It's known that in 1991 after the Gulf War, 100 members of the Knesset signed a letter paying tribute to [prime minister] Menachem Begin for his courageous decision to attack the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak. At the time you refused to sign that letter. Nowadays Israel is facing a similar threat from Iran. Do you see the IAF operation as an option against Iran?
Peres: To be accurate historically, I thought that the attack on the Osirak reactor could lead to a move to advanced technology - centrifuges - that can't be located, which is what is happening today in Iran. Maybe the Iraqi nuclear reactor could have been handled differently, with French help - France even notified us of this. But you can't relive the past, since it can't be changed.
As far as Iran's nuclear capability, the matter is in the hands of the international community. The US has managed, via economic leverage, to counter the threat of nuclear weapons in Libya, the Ukraine, South Africa, and now North Korea. It's not impossible that the same could happen in Iran, which is a poor, weakened nation.
Boaz Sharon, Gainesville, Florida: Dear Sir, What would life be like in Israel if Iran were to obtain nuclear weapons? Can there be a situation similar to the MAD (mutually assured destruction) that existed during the Cold War?
Peres: Nuclear weapons capability in the hands of Iran is a danger not only to Israel, but to the entire world. There is concern that Iranian nuclear weapons would find their way to terrorist organizations. The international community must adopt a uniform policy that will stop Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons. In the end, the world cannot live with a nuclear-capable Iran under an insane leadership. Political and economic measures could lead to a change in leadership, and also stop the nuclear weapons.
Shawki El-Zatmah, Los Angeles: I am a Palestinian, and a pragmatic one. I understand that the solution to our conflict entails that the Palestinians should give up the "right of return" to Israel, which I consider to be pre-1967 lands. I also understand the religious question of Jerusalem has to involve a compromise. But is Israel really ready to adjust the separation wall, or the "security fence" as you prefer to call it, to the border of the Green Line, which would provide room for Palestinian refugees to return to a Palestinian state, if they so choose?
Peres: The fence is for security and is meant to prevent suicide attacks, or attacks at all, inside Israel. The route of the fence was determined by security considerations while taking into account most aspects of Palestinian life.
Israel agrees that after a peace agreement is reached, Palestinians can return to the [Palestinian Authority], whose borders will be mapped out in the agreement. In Iraq, there are no barriers, and therefore there are suicide and car bombings.
Yaakov Ben-David, Rehovot: At the time you decided to bring Arafat to Israel, you were, no doubt, aware of his long history of terror in Jordan and Lebanon. When you brought him here, you said "he was a changed man." In light of the terrorist attacks that have occurred since the Oslo Agreements in 1993, especially the suicide bomber war that started in 2000, are you willing to change your assessment that Arafat became a man of peace?
Peres: I have to say that in all fairness, if it hadn't been for Yasser Arafat, it wouldn't have been possible to begin the diplomatic process between us and the Palestinians. It must be said that Arafat was the only Palestinian leader who agreed to abandon the  UN borders that would leave the Palestinians 67% of the land and accept 22-24%, according to the 1967 borders. Today, it's clear that the process couldn't have been concluded with that same Arafat, because of his zigzag behavior.
Alan Block, Menlo Park, California: Under what circumstances, if any, would we give up the Golan? Could we give it up to Syria and remain reasonably secure, or would it have to remain neutral or shared territory in some manner?
Peres: Israel has the Golan Heights because Syria attacked us and lost it. Israel wants to be sure that an attack like this won't happen again.
Toni Manson, London: Can the Palestinian refugee problem be solved by compensation? And should this be linked to compensation to Jews from Arab countries?
Peres: The problems of Palestinian refugees should be solved jointly by the international community, the Arab states and the Palestinian state being formed. Of course, Israel will be prepared to help find additional solutions to the refugee problem. Hundreds of thousands of Jews left Arab countries and left a lot of property behind, and Israel took them in willingly while using its own resources.
Pejman Parhami, Philadelphia: Mr. Peres, is there hope of an official Israeli relationship with the government of Iraq?
Peres: Yes, I hope that stabilizing the situation in Iraq will allow [our] two nations to form official relations. We have nothing against the Iraqi people, and I'm convinced that the Iraqis have nothing against us. The chance for any state to live by the sword is very small in a world that has gone global, almost borderless, with intellectual competition. People have no choice but peace. Iraq, too.
Gedaliah Blum, Efrat: Mr. Vice Premier, there was talk before the Lebanon War regarding settling more Israelis in the Golan, Galilee and the Negev. My wife and I are very interested in moving up north but have no clear idea how to search out these deals. Can you please tell us what is being done to settle the North and South. Where can one look to find information? As a small business owner, I would like to know if there is small business tax relief for a couple of years and/or discounted land prices and real estate tax?
Peres: The Vice Premier's Office, which is responsible for Negev and Galilee development, is working to develop and cultivate employment, education, settlement, tourism, infrastructure and community in these areas. Under my leadership, important projects that will bring a significant economic boost to these areas were approved. Emphasis was placed on creating new jobs, encouraging families to move from central Israel to the Negev and Galilee, and aid to small- and medium-size businesses, as well as offering discounts on residential land in the Galilee.
The VPO will help you in everything related to moving to the Galilee and starting a small business there. Also, the office's Galilee outreach branch (the Galilee Development Authority) will provide you with as much specific assistance as possible.
This week, the government authorized [a plan] to move IDF training bases to the Negev. This is a big project that will change the face of the Negev. We are also working on an "anchor" project for the Galilee - an academic research center to be established outside Safed.
Jay Traugott, Tel Aviv: Mr. Peres, as an oleh hadash from the US, what can I expect from the Israeli government? During my first year in Israel, I've read of nothing but corruption at all levels, unqualified people in important positions, lack of IDF-government cooperation in wartime and, not to mention, a president [about to be] charged with rape. Where's some inspiration and just a sense of confidence the government of Israel is not quickly becoming as pathetic as the PA unity government?
Peres: I'm sorry that you have a mistaken impression of Israel because of the sometimes disproportionate [media] coverage of what is happening in our country. Israel is a strong country with a wonderful, young population that has built the most advanced hi-tech industry in the world.
The hi-tech and technological companies are the real engine of the Israeli economy, and the economy is recovering its rapid rate of growth thanks to the minds of 20,000 young hi-tech workers, who are not afraid to realize dreams and break down boundaries.
The large growth in the Israeli economy and the economy becoming independent (exports exceeding imports) was not the result of magical privatization and organizational changes, but of the younger generation. They brought the most advanced initiatives and developments, which have propelled the field of technology forward. As far as reports of corruption - they can happen in any country. A democratic government fights [corruption] openly, fiercely, without taking into account people's positions. That's what happens in Israel, too.
Daniel Draviv, Johannesburg: Dear Sir, for many years I have been an admirer of yours. Your integrity and the way you think, your intelligence. My question is: Give me a good reason as to why Kadima should survive, as this party was born out of personal need and not from a national need.
Peres: Kadima is the only party that isn't busy with the past, isn't built on past disagreements, but seeks a real solution to Israel's future problems. Kadima isn't bound by the slogans of the Right or the positions of the Left. It offers a realistic position of peace while protecting the security of Israel's citizens.
Arnold Moscisker, Barnet, England: You are a politician with very strong views. Why then do you want to become president when, if elected, you would need to forgo the expression of your opinions in order to adequately represent all the citizens of Israel even if they don't share these views?
Peres: The question of whether I'll run for president is premature.
Meir Cohen, Jerusalem: Isn't it obvious that in the end the Palestinians will give up the right of return and Israel will give back east Jerusalem?
Peres: The right of return will be allowed for Palestinians to a Palestinian state. As far as east Jerusalem goes, there are many [possible] solutions, and they are a subject for negotiations.
Daniel Krygier, Copenhagen: Dear Mr. Peres, There are ample facts proving that Fatah and Hamas are performing the classic good guy/bad guy game. Just like Hamas, Abbas's Fatah incites against the existence of Israel as a Hebrew nation-state in Arabic and hides behind hollow "peace" statements in English. Why do the current Israeli government's ministers, with their vast post-Oslo experience, still insist on talking to Mr Abbas?
Peres: This is not correct. The game keeps them far from establishing a Palestinian state. Abbas is a president elected by an impressive majority. He supports peace and denounces terror.
Joel Kay, Chicago: Looking back on your career in Israeli politics, what is, in your opinion, your greatest accomplishment, and your greatest regret?
Peres: I hope that the most important achievement is yet to come. A lot has been published recently about my mistakes, and I have nothing to add.
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