Interview with the president

The president doesn’t regret Oslo, believes in religious pluralism at the Kotel and plans to play matchmaker between global corporations and impoverished countries once his term finishes.

President Shimon Peres in his office 521 (photo credit: Rachel Marder)
President Shimon Peres in his office 521
(photo credit: Rachel Marder)
Prospective candidates for the position of the tenth president of the State of Israel can rest easy.
President Shimon Peres has no intention of asking for an extension when his seven-year term concludes in July 2014. Unlike Israel’s fifth president, Yitzhak Navon, Peres, who will turn 90 this summer, has no plans for returning to politics. After all, he’s already held the most important ministerial portfolios. He’s been there, done that, and doesn’t feel the need to do it again. But he has no desire to buy a dog and spend his time walking along the Tel Aviv beach front getting a suntan.
Instead, he’s going to turn his hand to global matchmaking, bringing together global corporations and impoverished countries to find solutions to poverty.
“Israel is being called a start-up nation,” Peres tells The Jerusalem Post in an interview at his residence in Jerusalem ahead of the 65th anniversary of independence.
“My ambition in the future is to see a start-up region. And that will be my main effort.”
He has set his sights on the Middle East and Africa, and has already made moves in this direction during meetings with leading European figures during his recent visit to the European Parliament. Peres has spoken to politicians and industry leaders at the annual gathering of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and most recently he discussed it with US President Barack Obama during the latter’s visit to Israel last month.
Reactions have been positive and encouraging, he says, as he has realized the significant role global corporations can play in relieving poverty that governments cannot.
“Governments have budgets but they don’t have money. Those corporations have money and they’re not dependent on the political procedure,” says Peres.
They need neither a government nor an army to get things done.
Israel is certainly willing to be the catalyst for such a development, and Peres is convinced that with the support and goodwill of these companies it can happen.
He wants to do all that he can to mobilize that goodwill.
“Israel can be a matchmaker on many occasions,” he says.
Oslo Accords: 20 years later
In September, nations engaged in the Middle East peace process will mark the 20th anniversary of the Oslo Accords, which in 1993 were welcomed with great fanfare, hope and anticipation, particularly by left-of-center Israelis and Palestinians. The aspirations of neither came to fruition, yet for all that, Peres, who played a key role in bringing about the Oslo Accords, does not regard them as a failure. Without the Oslo Accords, he notes, there would be just one Palestinian camp – a camp of terrorists.
“Today at least you have two camps,” he says, one of which is a negotiating partner. “There is a camp for peace among the Palestinians and that’s what was created in Oslo.”
People also forget about the first intifada and other bouts of violence that occurred before Oslo, as if the accord created violence between Israelis and Palestinians, he says.
“The PLO was united as a terrorist organization,” says Peres. “Before [Oslo] people were not killed?...One may think until then we had peace. Nonsense.”
He makes the point that without the Oslo Accords, Israel would be totally responsible for the well-being of three to four million Palestinians, with a cost factor in the range of NIS 10 billion to NIS 12b. a year, “and all the world would say you are sheer occupiers.”
When his interviewer interjects with a comment that the world does that anyway, Peres points out that such an attitude is not valid because Israel agreed to the road map and unilaterally withdrew from Gaza.
In fact, because of Oslo, Peres argues we are still on the road to peace.
“We are in a situation where we are not being considered occupiers, [and] people are ready to negotiate the two-state solution, so we cannot complain.”
Peres points to his previous attempts at peacemaking.
When he was foreign minister, he entered into a secret agreement with Jordan’s King Hussein. The agreement signed in London on April 11, 1987, in the presence of Jordanian prime minister Zaid al-Rifai and Yossi Beilin, who was then director-general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, outlined a framework for a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict based on United Nations resolutions 224 and 338. However there were aspects of the agreement that did not meet with the approval of prime minister Yitzhak Shamir and he torpedoed the whole idea.
“The fact that this was rejected makes me responsible?” Peres asks.
Though prepared for setbacks and intervention, Peres is still pained over what could have been and has not yet eventuated. This is one of the reasons that he urges the resumption of peace negotiations as soon as possible.
“I don’t belong to this philosophy that you can’t find a solution. I saw in my life many problems that people say are unsolvable and we solved them. I’m not impressed by the ones who say [you can’t].”
Now that both sides have agreed to a two-state solution, Peres says he’s ready for the world to tell the Palestinians: “You agreed to a two-state solution, why aren’t you implementing it?
“The purpose of negotiations is to overcome disagreements,” he says. “We can and should bring an end to the conflict – and we have to be the initiators. Contrary to other experiences, hard to get is maybe a romantic proposal but not a political plan.”
Religious pluralism
In the latest battle waged by Women of the Wall to pray freely, read from the Torah and wear prayer garments at the Western Wall, police informed the group last week that they are not allowed to recite the Kaddish mourner’s prayer or Kedusha during their monthly Rosh Hodesh services at the Wall. These prayers traditionally require a minyan, a prayer quorum, and the police’s letter stated the women are barred from praying as such, since in Orthodoxy women are not counted in a minyan. They cited the 2005 Supreme Court ruling which prohibited the group from changing the “traditional practice,” or haredi nature, of the site.
Peres, however, disagrees with the latest pronouncement, and stepped in personally.
“I think it’s wrong and I spoke with the rabbi of the Kotel,” he says, referring to Shmuel Rabinowitz, chairman of the Western Wall Heritage Foundation.
“He is going to suggest a solution which will be a special place for women.”
Several days later, Jewish Agency chairman Natan Sharansky, who was assigned to draft a compromise on the issue, said he intends to recommend an egalitarian section at the Wall.
“The problem is that some of the religious people want the separation [mehitza],” says Peres. “A volunteered separation is okay but we cannot discriminate against anyone, so he promised me he will find a solution.”
In broader terms, Peres believes religious pluralism is possible in the State of Israel, but it cannot be done coercively.
“There are people for pluralism and there are people who are against pluralism. We have to not impose upon the religious to be secular and not impose upon the secular to be religious. We have to coexist. We have to find a way. Because if you like to side just with one view you have to use force.”
Global views of Israel
Israeli Apartheid Week on US college campuses and around the world do not worry Peres. He views them as minority voices, and is confident that most countries support Israel and its making peace with the Palestinians.
“They don’t support the Palestinians,” he says.
“They support a two-state solution.”
Peres proudly cites a Pew Research poll released in March ahead of Obama’s visit to Israel, which shows that 64 percent of Americans support the Jewish state.
“American friendship is deep in meaning,” says the president. “It starts with the president and you can see it in the 64% in the United States of people who support us. It’s a great achievement.”
He also notes that in Latin America and Africa support is varied.
Peres disagrees that Israel is to blame for anti-Semitism around the world, nor is it the state’s job to combat it.
“Can anybody justify [that] there is a Nazi party in Greece? Is that a problem for Israel or for Greece? You have a Nazi party in Denmark. It’s their problem. I don’t feel that we are responsible for the anti-Semitic sickness. Anti-Semitism is not a Jewish sickness. It is a non-Jewish sickness and it’s for them to cure.”
US friendship
Peres is very pleased that he had the opportunity to host Obama and accompany him to some of the places on the US president’s itinerary. Peres has advocated all along that Obama is a staunch friend of Israel, and surveys taken after the visit indicate that many Israelis who thought differently changed their minds when they saw and heard the extent to which Obama was demonstrating that friendship.
According to a Smith Research poll taken for The Jerusalem Post in the aftermath of the visit, the percentage of Israelis who consider the Obama administration more pro-Palestinian than pro-Israel fell by a whopping 20% since before the visit.
“He didn’t do it by denying or covering anything,” says Peres. “Obama did not deviate from his policies, but he told his truth in a very friendly way because he’s a friend.
“A nation should be careful not to nominate its enemies – particularly when there is no reason.”
Quoting his mentor, Israel’s founding prime minister David Ben-Gurion, Peres says that a person should be judged on his record, not on rumors about him.
“And the record of Obama is a record of profound friendship.”
Iranian threat
Peres would like to hear voices raised louder in protest at Iran’s violations of human rights. He cites jailing and hanging without cause and use of live bullets to quell riots. But what disturbs him most is that so many voices remain silent when one nation calls for the destruction of another.
“It’s a moral issue, not just a military issue. I think while we have to take the physical means to stop it, we should never ignore the moral meaning,” he says.
He also wants to call what he terms “the Iranian bluff.” The ayatollahs who determine policy in Iran claim to be against nuclear power because it contradicts the tenets of their faith. If that’s the case, argues Peres, why is Iran enriching uranium and why is it building missiles with nuclear warheads?
Treatment of survivors
Peres does not always see eye-to-eye with the government on a number of issues. While he respects the government, he reserves the right to speak out on its flaws – one of which is the mistreatment of Holocaust survivors by a succession of Israeli governments.
“It’s a scandal!” Peres declares, but admits that he has no explanation for this or the callous way that families of victims of terrorism have been treated. He has spoken out against these phenomena, he says, and will continue to do so in the hope that something will change.
“I am checking what can I do. I am talking with the people. I am raising my voice. I really can’t understand. I can’t explain all the mistakes we are doing. And I am not trying to. I don’t claim that we are infallible. I never said that. What I am saying is that if we make mistakes what we have to do is to correct them, not judge them for it.”
Independence Day wish
His ardent wish on the occasion of the 65th anniversary of Israel’s independence is to bring an end to the conflict so that all children in the region can live in freedom and friendship. He hopes that neither Israel nor the Jewish People as a whole will see more wars or another Holocaust. He would like to see Jewish unity with adherence to a moral code and a greater pursuit of knowledge and science.
Peres longs for a day when the IDF will be made up of soldiers for peace.
“My main message to [the soldiers] is that the story of Israel is not a story of the rich land that has enriched the people, but a story of rich people that enriched the land. Our natural source is the human vein. Everybody can be as great as the cause he serves.”
He remains confident that peace is not impossible if people can rid themselves of preconceived notions.
“Impossibility is a product of our prejudice,” he says.