‘I won’t turn my back on the Palestinian peace camp’

In emphatic contrast to the prime minister, President Shimon Peres does not regard the Fatah-Hamas pact as potentially marking the end of the Israeli-Palestinian diplomatic road.

Shimon Peres 311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
Shimon Peres 311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem/The Jerusalem Post)
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 decorative photographs.
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 declared.
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 reforming.
“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.
“I don’t know where it’s within,” the president fired back. “Do you?”
How 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.
And therefore, 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?
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 him.
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 one imposed?
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 positions...
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 imperative, but...
Excellent. But if you’ve decided on a Palestinian state, then you have to make that decision happen.
But you need a partner.
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 lines?
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 conflict.
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?
We 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, rose up.
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?
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.
Our 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 extraordinary.
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 it.
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?
I would 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 this step?
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 Israel.
And there’s a younger generation that thinks differently.
Within Hamas?
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?
Feel 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 Cashman.)