Heads of foreign missions in Israel convened at Beit Hanassi on Tuesday to wish President Shimon Peres a happy new year, and through him to wish the people of Israel a year of peace.
"Permit me to address you not as Your Excellencies but as dear friends," Peres responded, adding that Israel owed a lot to the members of the diplomatic corps stationed in the country for their contribution to peace in the Middle East.
Peres observed that the diplomats did not always express the attitudes of their respective countries, but spoke from the perspective of responsible people who saw what was happening around them.
"The diplomatic community in Israel is a real peace corps," he said.
The president was hopeful that peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians would resume on September 23 at the UN General Assembly in New York. Peres praised the Netanyahu government for developing economic peace in the West Bank as an aid to political peace, and noted that even in a time of economic crisis, economic growth in the West Bank had risen by seven percent. He attributed this in part to the dismantling of checkpoints, which enabled a free flow of goods and people.
While Palestinians in Gaza were digging tunnels, he observed, those in the West Bank were building a city.
Although Israel would like to bring an end to the conflict as quickly as possible, said Peres, it was not easy, because Israel was subject to constant criticism, hatred and incitement.
"When we see the hatred for Israel in Arab countries, we are shocked, because we are giving back tangible things and getting no reciprocity," he said, citing the return of land to Egypt, the return of land and water to Jordan and Lebanon and the dismantling of settlements in Gaza.
He conceded that the Palestinians had relatively nothing to give, but in the same breath chastised the Arab countries, which, he said, could have helped the Palestinians.
There was reluctance on Israel's part to begin negotiations all over again, he said. There were road map issues on which both Israel and the Palestinians had agreed, and therefore there was no purpose in starting again from scratch and changing the wording.
"Once we've agreed, we don't have to agree again," he said.