On the wall outside Shimon Peres’s private office at Beit Hanassi hang a series
of photographs from various landmark Israeli-Arab diplomatic events. Prominent
among them is a picture from the White House Oslo ceremony of 1993 – showing the
signing of the accords with Yasser Arafat. This was the unforgettable occasion
when prime minister Yitzhak Rabin hesitated that telling fraction of a second
before going through with the handshake that symbolically legitimized the PLO
leader as Israel’s peace partner.
For all that Peres is said to have a
very good working relationship with Binyamin Netanyahu, it is doubtful, to put
it mildly, that the current prime minister would share the president’s taste in
Netanyahu always had the most profound misgivings
about dealing with Arafat.
Notwithstanding the subsequent terrorist
onslaught of the second intifada, Peres evidently believes that Arafat continues
to merit a place in the pantheon of peace partners. In our interview,
conducted to mark Independence Day, indeed, he offered the unbidden assertion
that Arafat truly did abandon terrorism. “I remember that they said of
Arafat, ‘He’s a terrorist and he won’t change.’ He changed,” Peres
The 87-year-old president is plainly reluctant to give up on
those he considers his peace associates. He spoke up for Egypt’s president Hosni
Mubarak in the early stages of the revolt that saw him ousted. And, in
this interview, he said he considered the Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas still to be a peace partner for Israel – “absolutely” – despite
the freshly signed Fatah-Hamas reconciliation deal that saw Abbas bring the
Islamists into the heart of his government.
In sharp contrast with
Netanyahu, he played down the significance of this new Palestinian partnership
as “a temporary bridge.” And while stressing the imperative for the
international community to hold Hamas to its longstanding conditions for
legitimization – recognition of Israel and of past accords, and the renunciation
of terrorism – he emphatically did not rule out the possibility of Hamas
“But they interpret Islam as requiring the destruction of
Israel,” I pointed out.
“And there’s a younger generation that thinks
differently,” Peres responded.
“Within Hamas?” I persisted.
don’t know where it’s within,” the president fired back. “Do you?”
do you regard the reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas? Do you see
it as an opportunity or the end of the road? Is it a betrayal by Abbas of
everything that he has obligated himself to in the past?
It’s neither one thing
nor the other. It’s a Bailey bridge. A temporary bridge. Abbas claims
that the fact that we are criticizing the reconciliation is an intervention in
their internal affairs. I’m not interested in intervening in internal
Palestinian affairs. In my opinion, [in principle] it’s good for the
Palestinians to be unified.
But we’re opposed not because of their
internal issues but because of our security issues. If it was an internal
security issue for them, we wouldn’t intervene. But Hamas has security
implications for us. It has weaponry directed against us.
what we demand is that they should respect the Quartet’s
conditions...And going to the UN, solely with a declaration of
statehood, without giving an answer to Israel’s security concerns, that will
mean a continuation of the conflict, not an end to the conflict.Do you
still see Abbas as a partner?
Absolutely.Even though he has brought a
partner into his government that seeks our elimination?
He’s a partner because
he wants to hold negotiations for peace with Israel... He opposes violence and
he wants peace. That doesn’t mean I agree with him about everything. But those
two positions are the main thing.
The fact that he’s done something now
that you can criticize him for, and that he should be criticized for, and that I
have criticized him for, doesn’t free me of the need to talk with
Oslo gave us two things. It gave us a peace camp among the
Palestinians. And without Oslo, all the Palestinians would be Hamas. And second,
the basis for peace changed from 1947 to 1967. I have no intention of turning my
back on the Palestinian peace camp, even if I criticize it.The prime
minister has been in Europe. He’ll soon be in the US. What should he say in his
speeches and meetings there?
The key is to stress that those who wrote the
Quartet’s reservations should insist upon those conditions being
honored.He shouldn’t put more flesh on the two-state framework –
spelling out Israel’s needs? Security requirements, areas that need to stay
under Israeli control? Isn’t there a risk that, with no Israeli plan, we’ll have
Certainly he needs to do that. But everything in its time. In a
negotiation you have opening positions and closing positions. Opening positions,
neither side wants to blink... After that, you get into the nitty
gritty. We’re still at the stage of opening positions. We need to think
about how to move from the opening positions to the operating
Anyone leading a move like this has to decide at the start
where he wants to get to in the end.
There are those who say they don’t
want a Palestinian state. So what’s the alternative? That there be one state and
the majority will determine its nature? The Israeli consensus is already
supportive of a Palestinian state, because people believe it’s a Jewish
Excellent. But if you’ve decided on a Palestinian
state, then you have to make that decision happen.But you need a
But there is one, even with all the disagreements.Abbas
doesn’t even come to the negotiations; he demands a complete settlement freeze;
now he’s entered a partnership with Hamas. The Israeli middle ground has grave
doubts about him...
“Doubt” is not a policy. Doubts are a
riddle. If you want to do crossword puzzles, go ahead. You need to take
positions. Let’s say you’re right. So, what? Despair? What’s the alternative?
The alternative of halting the negotiations is not an alternative. If we stop
the negotiations, they’ll go on without us, without our voice being heard. There
are things we don’t agree to. Okay, we don’t agree.Where are the
Americans in this? You were just with President Obama.
The Americans want
to see peace between us and the Palestinians. They support a Palestinian state,
but no less they insist on security for Israel. There’s symmetry. The president
has said, including to me several times, that “as long as I’m the president the
security of Israel will be at the top of my agenda.”
The president also
says that he doesn’t intend to impose peace. Peace can’t be imposed. Peace has
to be the outcome of an agreement. If you can reach joint opening positions, and
then hold serious negotiations, he says, “I’m a partner.”Can you state
unequivocally that this president is a true friend of Israel?
Yes. First of all,
support for Israel is bipartisan. Look at some of the things he’s done
which were quite difficult for him. For example, his veto at the Security
Council on the issue of settlements – which went against his own opinion [of
settlements]. The Security Council wanted to issue a condemnation, and he
opposed it.Does he empathize with an Israel expanded beyond its 1967
There’s a difference between the 1967 lines and the 1967 territory. If
you’re talking about territory, the Arabs have agreed that you can take
sections, to include the settlement blocs [in an expanded Israel], and
compensate them in other places. He doesn’t oppose that.Perhaps we
should recognize a Palestinian state at the UN General Assembly in September?
I’m in favor of recognizing them provided they recognize Israel’s security
needs. There are two components: A Palestinian state and Israel’s
security needs. If we only talk about Israel’s security needs, that’s only half
of it. If they only talk about a Palestinian state, that would only be half of
it. And if only half the work is done, that will mean a continuation of the
I’ve also said this to the UN Secretary- General [Ban Ki-moon].
I said to him, “Sir, you want to take a decision for a Palestinian state? Can
you stop the terrorism? Can you stop the gunfire? Can you stop the incitement?
So there’ll be a Palestinian state and all of that will continue? And that will
be peace? Is that what you want?” When you look around us at all the changes in
the Arab world, do you see something positive for Israel and the free world?
didn’t create this [upheaval]. Let’s keep a sense of perspective. It erupted
from within, not because of us. I had anticipated it for a long time and it will
last a long time. This rebellion knows what it doesn’t want, but it doesn’t yet
know what it does want. This is the first rebellion in the world that has no
ideology, has no leadership. It is so spontaneous. It does stem from correct
reasons – it is born out of repression and corruption and disillusion in the
Arab world. The younger generation, with the new communications possibilities,
There are big people who make revolutions and small people who
try to suppress them. We don’t want the Egyptian people to live in poverty and
humiliation.Have you been in contact with Hosni Mubarak since his fall?
No.Even though you initially supported him?
I expressed my opinion... I
don’t think it would help Mubarak if I telephoned him in the current sensitive
situation.How do you see all this ending?
Two possibilities. Either [the
Arab world] will return into tribalism and poverty. Or the Arab world will enter
the 21st century. There’s no middle option. I don’t know how long it will
take.And from the Israeli point of view?
They should democratize. They
should enter the 21st century, of course. We’re not idiots. All of Judaism is
built on the basis that all men are created in the image of God.
values must be stronger even than our policies. There are fundamental
values.When you look at Syria...?
The same thing. The Assads turned
Syria into a family colony. They built an Alawite army. It’s a poor country,
with high unemployment, no water. Growing population.
Falling income. I’m
sad to see it. You can’t thrive in the 21st century with outdated agriculture
and outdated modes of life...There and elsewhere in the Arab world,
women living as virtual slaves...Do you see a double standard being used
against Israel? America kills Osama bin Laden and everyone applauds; Israel
killed Sheikh Yassin and got slammed.
There are different standards.
America runs the world and we are buffeted by the world. America has an entirely
different role. If you look at America, not only in the context of bin Laden, it
is the world’s prime superpower, and it has built its power on what it has
given, not what it has taken. The American contribution is
And it has responsibilities. Now, 4,000 Americans were
killed [in the 9/11 attacks]. This is not a child’s game. They did what
they had to do. We’ve also done things like that.And been slammed for
Not always. For Entebbe, we got waves of support. We killed all the
terrorists.What about Operation Cast Lead?
There are pro-Arab components
[in the international community]. Pro-Muslim components...But overall,
you consider that the “responsible” part of the international community is fair
to Israel? Europe?
In Europe today, the most powerful factor is the Vatican. We
never had a better relationship with the Vatican than we do today. It’s a new
world. Asia – vast numbers. The Chinese... America is with Israel. Canada is
with Israel. Okay, a few Scandinavians are against us. What can you do? I’m not
sure Sweden is more important than India. Overall, Israel’s position is
glorious. We made peace with two enemy states.That will hold?
hope so. There are good reasons for it. The revolution is still
ongoing.Do you see it reaching Iran?
Iran is a good candidate. They
certainly deserve it.I want to come back to the Fatah- Hamas deal again.
I assume you don’t want to tell me whether you spoke to Abbas before he took
Correct. I don’t want to go into that.But you seem quite
sanguine. Is it a misreading to regard Hamas as part of the Palestinian
leadership now and thus to be...?
We’re not reading this wrong. But it is
incorrect to think that this is forever.
I remember that they said of
Arafat, “He’s a terrorist and he won’t change.” He changed.You
see a chance that Hamas will change, abandon terror, come to terms with Israel?
Even though, with Hamas, there is the religious imperative?
But even religion
isn’t always what it used to be. Is today’s Catholic world the same as it was
900 years ago? But they interpret Islam as requiring the destruction of
And there’s a younger generation that thinks
I don’t know where it’s within. Do you? Let’s
be modest. The Arabs have no choice – either poverty and repression or enter the
21st century. There’s no choice. I understand that there are enough Arabs
– mainly women and young people – who’ve had enough. They may be
Muslims. They may be enlightened Muslims.You’re not concerned at
the vast numbers in the Arab world who, whatever their other demands for
freedom, want our country eliminated from this region?
Let me comfort you. For a
thousand years, the Europeans loathed each other. There were wars. After
Hitler was brought down, a new Europe rose.
Everything is open now.
Everything is global. There are no borders. You can’t hide the truth. I said to
Mark Zuckerberg recently, we used to be the people of the book, now we’re the
people of the Facebook.We in Israel are wrong to feel threatened?
threatened. Practically, prepare as best as you can for the worst, and prepare
to change the situation for the better. I do not suggest that Israel
reduce its strength. I also don’t suggest that Israel reduce its desire for
peace.(This interview was conducted along with my colleague Greer Fay