Although the tone of the conversation was cordial, and voices were not raised, President Shimon Peres did not mince words when he received a delegation of the British Labor Friends of Israel at Beit Hanassi on Thursday.
Members of the delegation headed by MP Andrew Gwynne asked questions about the peace process, the Arab peace initiative, British-Israeli relations, Iran, the Israel economy and the Peres Peace Center.
Regarding British-Israeli relations, a member of the delegation observed that while Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a good friend of Israel's, relations between the two governments have been strained since Operation Cast Lead.
"We are outraged by the criticism of British universities," said Peres. "What do they want us to do - allow our children to be killed? Who are the criminals of war - the aggressors or the defenders?"
Peres acknowledged that for many years Israel had enjoyed "the profound and stable support of the Labor Party."
"But," he added, "I am afraid that this is no longer the case."
Throughout the conversation he kept returning to the hypocrisy of the international community which criticizes Israel for defending itself against terrorist attacks, but condones incitement and threats against Israel.
Peres was also fed up with constant charges by the Palestinians that Israel occupied Palestinian land. His response to Palestinian leaders on this issue is: "We did not set out to occupy you - but you attacked us, we defended ourselves and we won."
His attitude to criticism about settlements is similar. Sharing with the BLFI delegation some of the snippets of his meetings with Palestinian leaders, Peres said: "I told the Palestinians, we have settlements because of you, and because of your terrorist attacks."
The story of settlements was extremely difficult for Israel, he said. "The settlements were our answer to terrorism."
Referring to the post-'67 pioneer settlers, Peres noted that they had left their homes in different parts of the country to establish settlements. Now the settlers are agitated, thinking about the different scenarios that could affect their lives.
"We don't want to repeat the mistakes of Gaza," said Peres, recalling the crisis that the $2.5 billion unilateral withdrawal from Gaza had caused in Israel, and the 1200-plus rockets that had been fired at Israel in the interim.
Since the famed speech of US President Barack Obama and the recent Palestinian conference in Bethlehem, the Palestinians think that they are entitled to more than was offered, and have raised their demands, said Peres. "They want permanent borders with land swaps, and they want Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, as part of their land."
It doesn't make sense that the Palestinians should raise their demands at every meeting with the Israelis, he continued. Echoing Prime Minister Netanyahu, Peres said: "We can't be givers all the time."
Commenting that Likud had always been opposed to the two-state solution, Peres lauded Netanyahu for accepting a two-state solution, agreeing not to build new settlements, not to confiscate land, not to provide funding for settlements and to tearing down those settlements that are illegal.
After frequently praising the Saudi initiative, Peres said that he would like to see a little action to support the talk.
He was critical of the Arab League, which has lashed out against Israeli nuclear capability.
As far as the economy goes, Peres said that even though several major Israeli business people had suffered substantial losses within the framework of the global economic crisis, 22 percent of investments in the first two-thirds of 2009 came from abroad. Israel probably enjoyed more foreign investment than most other countries, he surmised.
Acutely conscious that Israel's Arab population considers itself to be the victim of discrimination, Peres made the point that the Arabs would live better if they had fewer children. Parents of ten or more children cannot necessarily give them the education they deserve. Cutting down on the Arab birth rate, he suggested, would raise the standard of living of each Arab family, and would make education for all the children in each family much more affordable.
As it is, he said, there are currently 22,000 Arab students in Israeli universities.
As for the Peres Peace Center, Peres raised a laugh when he told his guests that he had been fired from that institution following his election to the presidency.
When the Peace Center was established, he said, he didn't want to make it a think tank. "I thought that was a waste of money."
Instead, the Peace Center initiated a number of projects, most of which are involved with children and youth.
On learning that there were several thousand dangerously ill children in the Palestinian Authority, the Peace Center brought many of them with their mothers to Israel at the expense of $10,000 per child. So far, 5,500 Palestinian children have been treated in Israel.
Word apparently spread, and parents with children suffering from cancer approached the Peace Center for help.
Caring for a cancer-stricken child costs around $70,000, so it was thought that it would be more effective to bring Palestinian doctors to Israel for training in pediatric oncology. Some 40 Palestinian doctors came to Israel for this purpose. The Peace center also provided equipment for cancer wards in Palestinian hospitals.
The Peace Center also introduced sports competitions between Israeli and Palestinian youth teams. "Sport is a good preparation for peace," said Peres.
Though no longer at the helm of the Center, Peres remains aware of what it is doing, and was happy to report that it is enlarging its activities to include Projects for Israeli Arabs - especially in areas of high-tech.
As the British delegation left the building, European Union ambassador Ramiro Cibrian Uzal, who is winding up his period of tenure, arrived to say good-bye.
Peres later traveled to Ramat Gan to pay a condolence call on Rona Ramon and her children.
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