'Land for peace, but not land for rocket fire'

Despite pro-Palestinian hecklers, Oxford University staff and students give Peres a standing ovation.

shimon peres at oxford (photo credit: GPO)
shimon peres at oxford
(photo credit: GPO)
President Shimon Peres received a standing ovation from students and staff at the University of Oxford following his keynote speech to an audience of 1,000 on Tuesday night. The 85-year-old president delivered a speech on globalization of peace at the Sheldonian Theatre at Balliol College, where Education Minister Yuli Tamir studied for her doctorate. Peres was introduced by the master of Balliol College, Prof. Andrew Graham, who paid homage to the man and his contribution to peace and announced a series of lectures in the president's name. Peres was heckled intermittently by pro-Palestinian activists. "Sometimes it's not a terrible thing to open the eyes and ears and keep the mouth for a later occasion," he told one activist. At one stage a protester ran toward Peres and was bundled out by security staff. Around 100 activists protested after the Oxford branch of the Palestine Solidarity Campaign fringe group sent e-mails to student unions across Britain. Calling the president a "war criminal" they asked students to turn up in Oxford to protest against the "apartheid state that has committed human rights abuses on such a large scale." Outside the hall, they chanted slogans and handed out flyers claiming the president had been part of the Hagana that performed the "ethnic cleansing of Palestine in 1948" and that he was responsible for Israel's "nuclear arsenal" and the deaths of 106 Lebanese at Kana in 1996. "These people have no interest in peace and little understanding of the conflict. They are a small, radical minority," said a student who did not wish to be named. Before the event, The Jerusalem Post spoke to other students. "I have lived in the West Bank, and worked in a refugee camp just outside Ramallah, so I'm interested [in] what the enemy has to say," said Stella Bratt-Smith, a Ballilol graduate student. "Considering the policies Israel is pursuing, in Gaza and settlement building, I think it is a shame to our university to invite Peres, and naming a lecture series in his name is going too far," said Karli Memet, a student from Oxford's Lincoln College. "I really believe in his message, so to have the president can only be good thing for the college and for students to hear Israel's perspective," said Adam Vallance from Oxford's Regent's Park College. "I'm here because I love Israel and am very excited that he has come to speak here. I think the man has done fantastic things for peace in the region," said James Fox, also from Regent's Park College. On Wednesday morning, Peres laid a wreath at the Tomb of the Unknown Warrior at Westminster Abbey. He then made the short journey to Parliament, where he addressed both houses. In his speech, the president said he had been moved by Prime Minister Gordon Brown's speech to the Knesset in July, and that it had invoked memories of his own father. "His remarks invoked a distant memory within me. Today, in your Parliament, I feel like your home is my home as well. Gordon Brown's father cherished the Bible; my father experienced an attempt to kill the people of the Bible," Peres said. He paid tribute to the leadership of Winston Churchill, who "saved the world from the Nazi threat," and British leaders who stood by Israel, "even in hard times." "Israel would not have a vibrant democracy if it hadn't been for the British legacy," Peres said. "The way in which Britain ran the Mandate, and its courageous fight against the Nazis, inspired the State of Israel." He spoke of Israel's quest for peace and normalization. "In its 60 years of existence, Israel fought seven wars. Defeat would have ended our existence. However, victory did not necessarily yield peace," he said. "We insisted that a day of war shall never postpone a day of freedom, that the glory of victory shall never weaken our desire for peace. As a matter of fact, the peace we have won, though incomplete, was achieved through negotiations." The president shared his optimism for the future. "We reached peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan. Though at times imperfect, peace prevails as all sides prefer it to the alternative. We started to negotiate with the Palestinians and have made some progress. Eventually we will accomplish our goal. "We left Lebanon [in 2000], we left Gaza [in 2005] and are weighing the Syrian option, whether it's a clear cut turn for peace. We now explore the Saudi initiative - contrary to their past policy of the 'Three Nays' of Khartoum [as laid out by the Arab League in 1968 - no recognition, no negotiation and no peace with Israel] - the Arab initiative calls for a comprehensive regional peace." Israel would continue negotiations with the Palestinians through the upcoming election campaign, with a two-state solution as the fundamental premise, he said. Peres was unequivocal about Hamas, Hizbullah and Iran's intransigence. "Hamas violently rejects compromise. It continues to fire rockets at Israeli civilians. We can understand land for peace but will not accept land in return for rocket fire. He called on the international community to stand up to Iran, to "answer fear with hope" and said that Israel is not at war with the Iranian people. "The international community should prevent Iran from shattering the already fragile stability in the region," he said. "The Middle East requires international support to make change possible, Israel will do its utmost to support the moderates." Ending to a standing ovation, Peres said: "I am grateful for the privilege to address you in this distinguished chamber. You represent two great institutions, the front line in a fortress of democracy. "Your call to the world carries enormous political and moral weight, the region needs your spirit, your voice and firm support as it marches ahead towards a new dawn of peace."