Peres looks forward to tomorrow

In Independence Day interview, president recalls 60 years of public life.

peres head shot 224 88 (photo credit: AP [file])
peres head shot 224 88
(photo credit: AP [file])
No one more than President Shimon Peres symbolizes the living history of the State of Israel. He was involved in its creation, and from the very beginning has played an integral role in its political, defense, economic and cultural development. Of the public figures of his generation, none has been as continuously active for so long a period of time - and none has a comparable capacity to look back on Israel's past 60 years from a key insider's perspective. A renaissance man despite his age, Peres prefers to face forward rather than backward, but when asked by The Jerusalem Post to make an exception for the sake of this interview and list his greatest achievements and if not his worst failures, at least the decisions wrongly made, Peres retorted, "I'm alive. Why should I tell you my mistakes? Let others do it." In reviewing his past, nonetheless, Peres acknowledged there may have been tactical errors. But as for the big decisions, "I have no regrets." The creation of Israel Aircraft Industries was certainly a correct decision, he said, beginning his traverse through the decades, as were the establishment of Israel Military Industries and the Dimona reactor. Reaching an agreement with Germany for the supply of armaments without having to pay for them was definitely not a foolhardy decision. The establishment of Upper Nazareth was also a correct decision. Getting rid of inflation was the right thing to do. Operation Entebbe and the creation of the Good Fence were also wise decisions. And Peres still believes that prime minister Yitzhak Shamir should not have torpedoed the London agreement he had reached with Jordan's King Hussein for a UN-hosted international peace conference that might have led to a solution to the Israeli Arab conflict and paved the way for Jordanian sovereignty over the West Bank. Abrogating that agreement, he said, made it impossible to live with the Palestinians. "One of our greatest mistakes was in not exploiting the Jordanian option," the president said. Had it been exploited, the Jordanians rather than the Israelis would have been saddled with the Palestinian problem, and King Hussein would have taken care of Palestinian insurgents in the same way as when he dealt with them in "Black September" in 1970. Peres still argues that the Oslo Accords were a good idea, too, and said that they generated two highly significant concessions: Yasser Arafat agreed to the borders of 1967, instead of insisting that Israel retreat to the borders of 1947, and somewhat later, prime minister Ariel Sharon agreed to the establishment of a Palestinian state. Whatever most Israelis' attitude to Arafat today, Peres insisted that without him there would have been no chance of starting peace negotiations with the Palestinians. "He publicly recognized Israel. He made difficult decisions. He was a leader of a non-existent nation, and he was able to maintain his position for 30 years," Peres said. Looking back at the country's history and its relations with other nations, Peres recalled the two-faced attitude of the UN and much of the international community. "They voted for us on November 29, 1947, and then they imposed an immigration embargo against us. When ships of Holocaust survivors arrived in Haifa, they were shot at. The countries that voted in our favor refused to supply us with arms with which to defend ourselves against seven Arab armies. To this day I can't understand why [US] president [Harry] Truman wouldn't give us guns." On a more positive note, Peres remembered accompanying prime minister David Ben-Gurion to development towns such as Ashdod, which were little more than shanty towns offering little promise at the time, and which have since blossomed into a source of such pride. Finally, in reviewing his personal triumphs and failures, Peres asserted defiantly: "I may have lost elections, but I never lost a real campaign." THE PRESIDENT has an enormous capacity for perseverance, which even his strongest critics would not deny him. And when he wants to promote an idea, he leaves no stone unturned. One of the prime examples is his current vision of a peace valley - a series of industrial zones along the Israeli-Palestinian-Jordanian border which would provide thousands of jobs for Palestinians, improve their quality of life and hopefully dull or preferably eliminate their hostility. Not a single visiting dignitary who meets with Peres fails to hear about the peace valley and its win-win potential. He has already persuaded several governments and business enterprises from abroad to invest heavily in this vision. While not discounting the importance of diplomacy, Peres is convinced that economic security can play a most significant role in the peace process, and that this option should be explored and exploited to the utmost so that Palestinians will have the opportunity to use their talents, skills and educational qualifications for their national and personal benefit. This includes establishing hi-tech centers in the West Bank. He has frequently said, as he did again in our conversation, that he does not want Israeli Jews to be thought of as hi-tech and Arabs as low-tech. Many Palestinians and Israeli Arabs are frustrated by their inability to use the hi-tech knowledge they have acquired at university, he lamented, because job opportunities in this field are rare in the Palestinian Authority, and few Israeli hi-tech companies are willing to employ Arabs in sensitive positions. "We didn't pay sufficient attention to the economic factor," said Peres, adding that since World War II, economics has played a greater role than diplomacy in fostering relations between nations. Peres believes in the efficacy of an economic solution to the conflict with the Palestinians particularly since he does not see any political solution in the immediate future because of the divisions among the Palestinians. "They haven't established a proper government and they don't have an army. We can't unite them and we can't divide them. We can't help them politically. We can only help them economically. Today, it's possible to coordinate economic aid with both the Jordanians and the Palestinians." There are also common problems which force the Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians to work together, said Peres, citing as one of the most crucial examples the depletion of the Dead Sea and the pollution of the Jordan River. "There cannot be three separate solutions to this problem," he said. "We have to work together to save the Dead Sea and to turn the desert area surrounding it into a flourishing landscape." Just as he believes that economic investment will lead to a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he also believes that economic sanctions can dilute the nuclear threat posed by Iran. He is convinced that if such united measures are taken by the international community, Iran will have no choice but to back down. "[Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is a greater danger to the world at large than he is to Israel," said Peres. LONG BEFORE Peres left Labor to join Ariel Sharon in founding Kadima, he was seen by many as a political vacillator. This characterization, indeed, was once part of a Likud election campaign TV ad when Peres, as head of Labor, was running for prime minister. Comedian Sefi Rivlin, who is also a good mimic, was made up to resemble Peres and came on screen with a memorable "Yes and No" skit. Reminded of past actions which contradict his more recent stances, Peres said that when he joined the long defunct Rafi party, he had no choice but to shift somewhat, because wherever Ben-Gurion led, he followed. But while now an advocate for relinquishing much of the West Bank to the Palestinians, Peres - who as defense minister in the Rabin government, in 1975, authorized the founding of Ofra and other settlements - said that his earlier support for settlement was appropriate at the time, in the wake of the 1967 and 1973 wars, when it had been vital to strengthen Jerusalem. Asked about the evacuation of Gush Katif and its aftermath, including Hamas's rise to power and the ongoing rocket attacks, Peres said Israel had erred in not coordinating enough with the Palestinian Authority and its leaders. If this had been done, he said, much of the negative result of the disengagement might have been avoided. Pressed about the country's lack of preparedness for disengagement in terms of relocating the evacuees and providing the means for them to quickly rehabilitate themselves and get on with their lives, Peres said that the population of Gush Katif had refused to believe that evacuation would take place and therefore had been uncooperative about its own future. LIKE MANY others of his generation, Peres is proud of what Israel has accomplished in 60 years, but distressed and concerned about the internecine fighting which threatens the fabric of the nation. He is troubled by demoralization, the loss of traditional Jewish values and the absence of mutual respect, he said. There is too much begrudging, he told The Jerusalem Post, and not enough tolerance and propriety. It bothers him that the religious are intolerant of the secular and that the secular are intolerant of the religious; that Jews have problems understanding Arabs, and Arabs have problems understanding Jews; that Ashkenazim find fault with Sephardim and vice versa. Peres was not suggesting a homogeneous society. In fact, he is a great believer in the right to be different. However what he did suggest was that the diverse elements in society, despite their differences, find a way to harmonize rather than to keep on sowing discord and discontent. Peres was also unhappy that elderly, impoverished Holocaust survivors are being deprived of the opportunity to live out the twilight of their lives in dignity due to a series of broken promises by the government to remedy their financial plight. A WORKOHOLIC whose day begins at dawn, and often continues till well after midnight, Peres is putting in a lot of overtime at this time of year. While Independence Day is a holiday for the rest of the nation, it is a busy workday for the president whose duties include hosting a reception for past and present presidents, prime ministers, defense ministers and military commanders; an awards ceremony for 120 outstanding young members of the IDF, and a reception for diplomats, after which he has to rush to the Jerusalem International Conference Center for the annual Israel Prize ceremony. Next week Peres will host a three-day conference headlined "Tomorrow" in which some of the brightest minds in the world will participate. The mega-event with past and present presidents, prime ministers and senior government officials from 27 countries, as well as leading global figures in economics, technology, medicine, science, philosophy and the arts, will open on May 13. Some of the participants, such as former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, are of a certain vintage and many of the subjects tabled for discussion are the familiar subjects that have been debated for decades by the World Zionist Organization, the GA and other august bodies. But Peres countered that there were plenty of fresh faces and fresh ideas, and noted that Kissinger's recently published article on the three revolutions occurring around the globe was outstanding and showed him to be completely up-to-date. Peres, like Kissinger, has frequently been talking about the transformation of the traditional state system of Europe, the radical Islamist challenge to historic notions of sovereignty and the drift of the center of gravity of international affairs from the Atlantic to the Pacific and Indian Oceans. As far as Peres is concerned, age is not a criterion. He knows young people whose views are so conservative as to make them old before their time, while Kissinger, who this month will celebrate his 85th birthday, is as modern as tomorrow, he said. Responding to years of criticism that he is a dreamer who comes up with unworkable propositions, he said his CV over the past 60 years is filled with examples of proposals that initially encountered a cool if not entirely negative reception, but have since become a reality. "The Americans say there are two kinds of people - lazy and crazy," he summed up. "To do great things you have to be crazy." As president he has become much more popular than he often was as a politician. But he said he would "rather be controversial than popular. You have to fight for what you believe in, but it's worth it."