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Making History

Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive

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Shimon Peres in his Jerusalem residence earlier this year. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

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At one point in my recent interviews with Israeli President Shimon Peres, I ask him why his mentor David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, in choosing among many promising young men of his circle, selected Peres as his aide. Perhaps motivated by modesty, the 87-year-old Peres doesn’t offer a clear explanation. But without doubt, the “old man,” as Ben-Gurion was often called, had spotted the youngster’s oratorical and intellectual brilliance, which has entranced world leaders, though not always the Israeli public.

At home, Peres’ persona was shrouded for decades in a pall of popular distrust. He lacked credibility among many Israelis—which explains, in part, his inability to win general and internal Labor Party elections. Rabin repeatedly beat him, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in contests for the Labor leadership. One result of the bad blood between the two was that Rabin called Peres an “indefatigable underminer” (hatran bilti nil’eh), a description Peres thought unjustified. But the charge stuck and thereafter shadowed his political career. Though the two men apparently worked well together during Rabin’s second premiership, in 1992-1995, when Peres served as foreign minister, Peres proved unable to shake off their troubled history. Rabin’s martyrdom reinforced what he had left behind as his legacy. Peres eventually, only on his second try, won the presidency—not by popular majority but by Knesset vote.

How deeply he believes in his oft-proclaimed vision of a “new Middle East” after a decade of disappointment and terror is anyone’s guess. The hard core of “Mr. Security” surely remains: Hamas rocketeers and Turkish “peace flotillas,” and, possibly, Iranian nuclear madmen need to be forcibly contained and faced down. Beneath his polished, world-weary exterior, he is still the ex-defense minister who believes that for a stable Israel, security concerns must take the highest priority and that any chance of peace is ultimately contingent on Israel’s strength, and he seems to carry considerable clout as adviser and elder statesman with the current brood of politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite his repeated failures to win election as prime minister, Peres is now a highly popular president, distanced from the daily toil of politics in the largely ceremonial head-of-state role, with a steady 78 percent public approval rating.

I interview Peres in his office, seated around a coffee table. He wears a suit and tie, about which he complains (“I meet diplomats all day”). His media adviser, Ayelet Frish, and her assistant sit with us throughout the two interviews, which were conducted in the Presidential Mansion in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh quarter in early July and lasted for approximately 80 minutes each. Ayelet occasionally interjects, “That’s off the record,” when she feels her boss has said something excessively revealing. I’m not sure he remembers that I had interviewed him in the past, when I worked at the Jerusalem Post in the 1980s and he was Israel’s foreign minister. I can clearly picture a briefing he gave to journalists accompanying him to Alexandria, where he was to visit Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Peres had sat in an armchair in the center of his hotel room, and the journalists were draped over assorted chairs or seated on the carpet. I remember that he was brilliant. A quarter of a century on, he appears more tired, his voice weaker; perhaps altogether not quite as sharp.

I ask him about the 1948 war, in which some 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of the area that became the Jewish state. (Over the past three decades, I have written extensively about the war, devoting three books to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1947-1949. Peres, as far as I know, has never publicly commented on my books—though I have sensed, over the years, a certain displeasure on his part with my findings, which many viewed as critical of Israel and Ben-Gurion.)

A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a handwritten letter from him praising a highly critical review I had written of a book by an anti-Israeli British historian. (At the start of our first interview earlier this month, Peres commented on my recent book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, saying it highlighted for him the failings of personal memory. But he did not elaborate.) The war ended with Israel having an Arab minority of some 160,000, representing 15-20 percent of its citizenry. Today, Israel’s Arab minority, 1.3 million strong, identify themselves as Palestinians, occasionally riot, and support Israel’s enemies during bouts of hostilities (as when Israel fought Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009).

Morris: Perhaps ending the 1948 war with this demographic was a mistake?

Peres: No, moral considerations took priority over demographic considerations. Ben-Gurion knew that every war and conflict takes place twice—once on the battlefield and then in the history books. He didn’t want things to be written in the history books that were in dissonance with the foundations of Judaism. He really believed that without a moral priority there is no existence for the Jewish people. To expel he saw as contrary to his moral values.

But in 1948 he sometimes gave orders to expel.

He did not give orders to expel.

I suggest that Ben-Gurion did in fact give such orders, as when, on July 12, 1948, he authorized the expulsion of Arab inhabitants of the towns of Lydda and Ramleh on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Peres shakes his head. “I remember sitting in the room, when the matter of the expulsion of the Arabs from Haifa began, when Ben-Gurion telephoned [Labor Party strongman, later Haifa mayor] Abba Khoushi and told him to do all he could to get the Arabs to stay [in Haifa]. I heard this myself. I was there.” (It is worth noting that the Arabs of Haifa were not expelled but fled the city at the end of April 1948, due in part to a decision of the local Arab leadership.)

Next: The first decade of the Jewish state
Peres revered “the old man” and continuously quotes him and refers to him. His book-lined office contains a collection of photos of the old man in various prime-ministerial and leisurely poses, a few of them with a much-younger Peres at his side. Ben-Gurion and his legacy have been preoccupying Peres lately. He has just completed a biography of Ben-Gurion that will be published by Shocken Books next year as part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series.

Inducted at 24 into Ben-Gurion’s personal staff in 1947, Peres served as deputy director general and then director general of the Defense Ministry from 1952 to 1959; as a member of the Knesset, starting in 1959, for about four decades; and, on and off, as a cabinet minister. He was acting prime minister and prime minister three times: briefly in 1977 (after Yitzhak Rabin resigned because of a financial misdemeanor), in 1984-1986, and in 1995-1996 (after Rabin’s assassination).

For decades regarded as a “Ben-Gurionist” hard-liner or hawk, in the 1990s Peres orchestrated the Oslo negotiations with the PLO and emerged as Israel’s leading dove. For his role in those negotiations, the first between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.

I ask Peres about Ben-Gurion’s agreement to waive the conscription to military service of the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, and to subsidize their Torah studies in yeshivas. Was this not a mistake, given today’s reality of massive exemptions from military service and the social crisis caused by massive government subsidies of the haredi tendency to have disproportionately large families and not work?

Peres: Ben-Gurion appointed me to negotiate the [exemption from service] with them. I think it was in 1951. I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer. At the time, we were talking about 100-150 yeshiva students altogether. The ultra-orthodox leaders said: If there is no exemption, the yeshivot will be established in other countries. [I thought:] Israel without yeshivot?

Peres implies that he is averse to today’s mass exemptions. He adds that he—and perhaps Ben-Gurion—expected the haredim to change over time and become productive members of society.

Peres: To be a haredi is not eternal.

It seems to be.

Haredi women are beginning to go to work; haredim are going to the army.

We’re still talking very small numbers.

We move on to Israeli-Arab relations during the first decade of the Jewish state. The 1948 war had formally ended with armistice agreements between Israel and each of its four neighbors, signed between February and July 1949. But the Arab states were deeply traumatized by their defeat, by the public spectacle of their ineptitude, and by the establishment of a Jewish state in the very heartland of Araby—indeed, physically severing the Arab West, the Maghreb (Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara), from the Arab East, the Mashreq (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq). They refused to acquiesce in Israel’s existence and, at least in their rhetoric, promised a “second round,” in which they would vanquish Israel. At the same time, some in Israel, including the revisionist right and Moshe Dayan, often or occasionally sought a second round in order to move Israel’s eastern frontier to the more defensible line of the Jordan River and to incorporate the historic heartland of the Jewish people: Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem.

During the years 1949-1956, a state of low-level belligerency persisted between Israel and its neighbors: Arabs, mostly refugees of the 1948 war, infiltrated Israel and occasionally launched terrorist attacks; Israel retaliated with strikes. Periodic clashes, especially from 1953 on, occurred between the armies of Israel and the Arab states along its frontiers. This cycle of violence culminated in the Israeli attack, joined by Britain and France, on Egypt in October-November 1956, known as the Sinai Campaign or Suez War. For Israel, this was the second Arab-Israeli war.

In the 1950s there was terrorism and Israeli reprisal attacks. The policy of reprisals didn’t work, and we ended up going to war in Sinai. And Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett thought the reprisal policy rendered the prospect of peace only more distant.

Look, I supported [the reprisal policy] today and supported it then. There were terrorist organizations. We couldn’t run after each terrorist. So, the policy was to hit the Arab states that hosted them.

But it didn’t succeed.

But we had to pressure [the neighboring] countries [to reduce infiltration]. So, we launched reprisals. [But] terror can’t be beaten. It can be only be stymied or reduced.

Perhaps we could have reached peace if we had offered greater concessions?

Our history with the Arabs is also my personal history. And I divide the history into two. So long as the Arabs thought that they could destroy us, they refused to make peace. They weren’t ready. During this period I was a hawk. Once they showed readiness to make peace, the picture changed. This happened between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Before then, [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, with his allies Syria and Jordan, thought he could destroy us. They received a lot of weapons from Russia. To this day, I don’t know why Truman refused to sell us rifles—even rifles. Britain, France, and Canada joined them [in the embargo]. Until Kennedy, they [the United States] sold us no arms. Ben-Gurion was fearful the [Arabs] would destroy us.

Next: The 1967 Six-Day War
We move on to the 1967 Six-Day War, which, like the wars of 1948 and 1956, was not immediately followed by Israeli-Arab peace. Peres tells me that in May 1967 he tried to avert war by proposing “a certain measure”—foreign press reports, which he would not confirm, have stated over the years that Peres had proposed Israel explode a nuclear bomb in the Negev, as a warning to Nasser not to start a war. But the Israeli Cabinet rejected Peres’ idea, and Israel embarked on a preemptive attack, crushing the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and conquering East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.

A few days after the war ended, there was a secret Israeli Cabinet decision, on June 19, 1967, to give back Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace, with a demilitarization of these territories.

[The decision was to withdraw back to] the international frontier [in exchange for peace], yes. [A similar proposal was not made vis-à-vis the West Bank] as Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank [in 1948-1950] wasn’t [internationally] recognized, except by Pakistan [and Britain]. The offer to Egypt and Syria was also made publicly. In a Knesset speech. They knew about it.

Why didn’t Israel immediately after the war offer to give back to Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

We—Rabin, [Foreign minister Yigal] Allon, and I—met [Jordan’s King] Hussein in 1974 on the Red Sea, and each of us proposed [something]. Allon [proposed] the Allon Plan [in exchange for peace to withdraw from and give back to Jordan the hilly, populated crests of the West Bank while retaining the almost unpopulated Jordan Valley]. I asked Rabin permission to present my plan, and Rabin agreed.

What did you propose?

This was the [thrust of the 1986 Hussein-Peres] London Agreement, the first time it was proposed. There would be three entities: Jordan and Israel and the West Bank (which would be jointly ruled; each West Banker would be able to vote for his own parliament). And a local [West Bank] parliament would handle matters other than foreign and defense affairs. [The 1986 agreement was vetoed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.] Hussein agreed to this. He agreed that this would be “a basis for negotiation.”

But this isn’t the same as giving back the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordanian sovereignty. What if we had offered to give back all the West Bank and East Jerusalem?

[Hussein] wouldn’t have agreed. He would have been alone and charged with treachery. Egypt and Syria would have prevented this.

Or what if we had withdrawn from the West and East Jerusalem, unilaterally, without agreement [and avoided Palestinian nationalism and the current imbroglio]?

And who would have guaranteed our safety, with a distance of only 10 miles from the West Bank’s western edge to the Mediterranean coast? … There was an exaggerated enthusiasm after [the victory of] 1967.

I try to draw him out on the Israeli atomic bomb, which, he prefers to call “the Israeli nuclear option.” It was the young Peres who, in the mid- and late-1950s, successfully negotiated with France for assistance with the construction of the Dimona nuclear plant, where, according to foreign press reports and Israeli spy Mordechai Vanunu, Israel produced and produces its nuclear weapons. And it was Peres who, apparently as Ben-Gurion’s agent, oversaw the whole program.

You are sometimes called the father of the Israeli nuclear bomb, but somehow, in Israeli public consciousness, it was not chalked up to your credit, for example at election-time. [Peres lost elections in 1977, 1981, and 1996; in 1984, under Peres, Labor won more seats in the Knesset than any other party but proved unable to form a left-wing coalition government and ended up in coalition with the Likud, with Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir “rotating” as prime ministers. This series of electoral defeats earned Peres a reputation with the Israeli public as a political loser, which he greatly resented.]

It was kept secret.

But a well-known secret.

It was completely hidden, unknown. Formally there was the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, but I managed everything. My role with the French was not known. And everybody was against me. [Here Peres is referring to opponents of the nuclear project within the Israeli establishment. They argued that Israel was too poor and technologically undeveloped to complete the project alone should the French withdraw their assistance, and that, even if successful in producing bombs, the bombs would cause Israel no end of political and diplomatic problems. Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, was among the critics of the project; Moshe Dayan was among the skeptics. According to foreign press reports, Israel achieved atomic weaponry in 1967-1968].

Is this not an injustice done [to you] by history?

Let me tell you. You won’t like this. But history [meaning the writing of history] in my eyes is not that important. I have reached the conclusion that a leader who worries about how he will go down in history will not be a great leader. He must give up his place in history in order to make history. I am an example of a person who had to lehitapek [keep silent] for a long time. My place in Israel Aircraft Industries [a leading Israeli weapons manufacturing company] was unknown, my part in [launching the] Entebbe [raid, in which Israeli commandos rescued more than 100 airplane passengers hijacked to Uganda by Palestinian and German terrorists in 1976] wasn’t known. [Rabin eventually reaped the credit.] I thought that the ability to do things, if I was straight with myself, was more important than being written down in history. To be No. 2, without the title, is sometimes more important than being No. 1. I know, look at my record.

I suppose I won’t have a major place in history. But this is unimportant. What is important is that I was a fair person [hogen]. I was not necessarily on the right [tzodek] side—that will only become apparent later—but I was on the fair side. So, I could sleep calmly at night. Churchill, of course, assured how he would be seen in history by writing his histories.

Next: Nuclear weapons

Did Israel’s possession of a nuclear bomb—OK, “option,” if you prefer—really serve Israel’s security?

Without doubt. Say there is a suspicion that [Israel has nuclear bombs]. This serves to deter. Let me tell you a story. Amr Moussa—formerly Egypt’s foreign minister, then secretary of the Arab League—we had good relations. One day he comes to me and says, “Shimon, we are friends, take me to Dimona and show me what you have there?” I said, “Are you crazy? I’ll take you there, you’ll see there’s nothing there, you’ll stop being suspicious, and they’ll fire me. And I’m not interested in you stopping being suspicious. Be suspicious.” This suspicion played a major role, I know, in [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s decision not to [try to] reach Tel Aviv [in planning the Yom Kippur War of 1973], in limiting the war to Sinai, not to exaggerate [in their war aims].

How do you know this?

I heard it from Yigael Yadin [a former IDF chief of general staff, later Israel’s deputy prime minister], who heard it from Sadat. And Yadin was someone completely reliable. [The nuclear capability] affected [that is, enhanced] Israel’s position in the world. This can’t be denied.

But since then, especially in recent years, the suspicion or reality of Israel having nuclear bombs enables [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to say: “Why should we be forbidden nuclear weapons?”

They would have gone for nuclear weapons anyway, whether we had them or not. They want to destroy us.

But this gives them the excuse to go for the bomb.

The world understands the difference [between Israel having the bomb and Ahmadinejad having it]. To this day it serves as a [good] deterrent.

He is clear on the crucial point: “They want to destroy us.”

The handling of the matter, by the West, by all of us, has been wrong-headed, from the beginning. There are two elements. One is, in whose hands are the bombs. Say Switzerland got the bomb. Would anybody be worried?

I don’t think it’ll be easy to replace the Iranian regime.

I think the first sanctions should have been [and should be] moral sanctions.

Moral?

Yes, against the leadership. To prevent anyone meeting them. Like Fascists, like Nazis, not that I’m saying they’re Nazis. Get them ousted from the United Nations. Put them on trial for calling for the destruction of a fellow U.N. member state. They are behind terrorism. Hezbollah.

But would this have stopped the Iranian nuclear project?

This together with economic sanctions. And place a ring of anti-missile missile systems around Iran.

On the settlements issue, you spoke of proportions, of before 1977 [when, as defense minister, you were responsible for Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank] and after [when for much of the time, the Likud was in charge]. You did have a hand [during 1974-77] in establishing settlements on the [heavily Arab-populated] hill crests. For example, Sebastia [ where a precedent-making breakthrough occurred in 1975, when Israel’s Labor-led government permitted the establishment of a Jewish settlement in the heavily Arab-populated hilly spine of Samaria].

It’s a matter of proportions, I never agreed to 300,000 settlers. We were for settlements which were agricultural-military [not civilian settlements]. Like Ofrah. That was the idea.

He suggests that the compromise with the settler group Gush Emunim, essentially to allow the settlers to take root, was reached behind his back by Yisrael Galili, a fellow Labor minister, and that Peres’ negotiation and deals with the settlers at the time of the Sebastia crisis were irrelevant to the outcome. But Israeli critics, then and since, have consistently charged Peres with precedent-making responsibility for the government cave-in to illegal Gush Emunim actions that led to the settlement enterprise in the heartlands of the West Bank.

But I was held to blame. And this joined the other defamations against my character—that I owned factories [and made money through my Defense Ministry position], that my mother was an Arab, etc. All untrue.

Israel refused to talk with the PLO for a long time, then changed its tune in the early 1990s. Maybe that was a mistake? [Perhaps Israel should have begun to talk to them earlier?]

Look, there was the Socialist International. It had several deputy presidents, including myself. Three leaders [were relevant]: Olof Palme [prime minister of Sweden], Bruno Kreisky [chancellor of Austria], and Willy Brandt [sometime chancellor of West Germany and head of its Social Democratic Party]. They wanted to bring PLO head Yasser Arafat into the International. The only vice president who was opposed was me. There were fierce arguments. They pressured me, they said you don’t know Arafat. I said, I am not against. We are a socialist and democratic organization. If he becomes a democrat and socialist, I won’t oppose him. Meanwhile he’s a terrorist. And [gradually] they persuaded him. It was them, 100 percent. They persuaded him to accept [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 242 [which implied recognition of Israel’s right to exist], to abandon terrorism. To talk to Israel.

Arafat was an extraordinary person. Very complicated. He was born in lots of places. [Peres was alluding, jokingly, to the fact that Arafat said he was, or was reported to have been, born variously in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Cairo—and, perhaps, more generally to his penchant for telling tall tales.] He had a wonderful memory, [he remembered] every name and birthday. But facts he didn’t remember. They didn’t interest him. They were something he forgot. So you couldn’t conduct an orderly conversation with him. He was [politically] isolated. Even among the Arabs. Had the Arab states helped him, as world Jewry had helped us, he would have had a state years before. The [European socialist leaders] gave him money, a platform, made him an international figure. And what they wanted from him, he delivered [i.e., announcing abandonment of terrorism, willingness to recognize Israel, etc.].

Kreisky, incidentally, had a big part in bringing Sadat to Jerusalem [and in bringing about peace], [through arranging or endorsing] a meeting between the Egyptian ambassador in Austria and [then-Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan. Kreisky always attacked us. I once asked him: Why? He said, “If I didn’t, how would I be able to help you?”

Next: Oslo
Peres then moved on to the early 1990s and the start of the Oslo negotiations, which culminated in 1993 with the signing on the White House lawn of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles and the exchange of letters of mutual recognition.

Peres: But all the PLO people were self-appointed. I said [to my representatives], I don’t mind your having coffee with them. But I wanted someone who had Arafat’s authorization. Then began the talks in Norway [in 1992] between [Arafat’s aide] Abu Alaa and [Israeli academics Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld]. I told them, “Let the PLO representative come with a sign from Arafat.” Arafat asked, what sign? I asked that they replace the PLO representative—who was extreme—in the [Israeli-Palestinian Refugee Committee, set up in the wake of the Madrid peace conference of 1991]. And they replaced him. This was the sign and marked the start of serious negotiations with the PLO. And Abu Alaa emerged as the most serious person from the PLO side. Arafat always said “no” to proposals we forwarded to him. We wanted a na’am [yes]. And Abu Alaa knew how to present things to Arafat so that he would say yes.

Afterwards, after Arafat and I became friends, I used to say to him: Never say no. Our relations were such that we never argued in public. Mutual respect. In private we argued.

How did you speak?

In English. His English was poor. He was embarrassed [by it]. But in private he spoke freely in English. Let me tell you a story. About Hebron. We wanted to retain [part of] downtown Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the route to Kiryat Arba. In the end, it was decided Arafat and I would sit, alone, until there was smoke [i.e., until there was agreement]. I felt he was very nervous. He started talking in French, which he didn’t know. And he started tapping with his foot, what he always did when he was nervous. [Peres demonstrates.] I called him “rais” [Arabic for headman or president]. He called me “your excellency.” I said to him, “Rais, we can’t reach an agreement.” I returned to my room. There, IDF head of Central Command, Gen. Ilan Biran, said: “This is catastrophic.” [He was referring to the fact that Arafat had not agreed to leave a small but crucial area of downtown Hebron in Israeli hands.] I go back to Arafat, knock on his door.

Arafat: “You all right?” Peres: “You got what you wanted. I didn’t. I left your room depressed. You are a general, I’m not. You are a president, and I’m not. You are an engineer, I’m not. You are a religious leader, I’m not. It’s no wonder that you got what you wanted and I negotiated like a fool.” Arafat: “Let me look at the map.” And then he agreed to what we wanted. He had received our respect, recognition. It worked.

Summarizing the Oslo process, Peres says, “I got from him what no one else would have: To move their demands from the 1947 [U.N. partition plan] borders [which gave the Jews 55 perecent of Mandate Palestine] to the 1967 borders [which gave the Israel 78 percent of Mandate Palestine]. No other Arab leader would have [conceded this]. Compare this with what Ben-Gurion had to accept from the U.N. in 1947. And, also, Arafat wanted peace, [at least] some part of him.”

You really think he accepted the idea of a Jewish state next to a small Palestinian state?

Yes. He wanted acceptance in the world. The world, including the Arab world, was against him. The Arab world was contemptuous of him. [He also wanted] acceptance by the Israelis. He wanted respect. Here was someone who treated him with respect and trust.

So, why didn’t he accept the Barak and Clinton proposals in 2000?

They didn’t know how to negotiate with him. Firstly, they made a major mistake, He asked to delay the talks. They coerced him [to hold them earlier than he wanted]. This was the first mistake. He asked for several weeks’ delay. Give him a day. [They said] no. In negotiations with Arabs, there is no word for “compromise.” An Arab doesn’t compromise. What is there? Gestures. An exchange of gestures. Sadat used to say to me, “Shimon, be more moderate in your words, make a gesture. I will too.” But to Arafat’s credit, he managed to maintain the Palestinian question on the international agenda for 20, 30 years, with no army, no state.

Your opponent in the 1996 elections, Benyamin Netanyahu, who then became prime minister for three years, how does he appear this time round? Any different?

Look, he has virtues. [In English:] He is not a vicious man. [Back to Hebrew:] This is important. He is a very intelligent man; he reads and thinks. Of course, it is difficult for him to divorce himself from the [ideological] inheritance with which he was born, but he is capable of doing that.

We didn’t see that in his first three-year term.

No. He signed the Hebron agreement and he accepted the Oslo Agreements.

You believe that now he is more capable of divorcing himself from his ideological heritage?

Look, I told you prime ministers are not divorced from reality. Life is full of contradictions. Most prime ministers don’t do what they promise to do. More than prime ministers direct reality, reality runs them. Who ever thought that Arik [Sharon] would dismantle settlements?

Ben-Gurion always told me to judge people “on the record,” on what they do. [Netanyahu] changed, also as a result of my influence. [Take the idea of] “economic peace.” Things have changed; [we] allow them to build, to develop their economy. I told [Netanyahu] in our first meeting [after his election]: “Bibi, you have a party without a program, I have a program without a party, and you can adopt it—that is, “economic peace.” I must say to his credit that he adopted and carried it out, and it changed reality.

Next: Foreign relations
I ask about Bibi’s character. Has it also changed?

Peres: More than people change, circumstances change. Look, I was once a shepherd in [Kibbutz] Alumot]. And the gnats would set upon the herd, and each cow would run off in a different direction. And I had to collect and bring them home. This sometimes is how the government looks. There are gnats attacking each party, and somehow you have to keep them together.

How do you explain the rise in the delegitimization of Israel in the world in recent years? Do you agree that this is happening?

Let me give you a contrary picture: Israel is the most popular country in the world. [Peres’s media aide giggles. “Benny, you won’t leave here depressed,” she says.] For 2,000 years there was friction between the Vatican and the Jews. There are, what is it, 1.3 billion Christians? Now we have excellent relations with the Vatican. This is no small thing. And we have good relations with India, also hit by Muslim terrorists. And that’s together 3 billion. And [we now have] excellent relations with China.

Right. But why the delegitimization, especially in the West?

Firstly, there is a problem in the Scandinavian countries. They always want to appear like yefei nefesh [the Hebraism roughly translates as “bleeding hearts,” with an undertone of hypocrisy]. And I don’t expect them to understand us. Sweden doesn’t understand why we are at war. For 150 years they have not had a war. There were even Hitler and Stalin, but they kept out of the picture. As did Switzerland. So, they don’t understand why we are “for war,” as if we really like wars. It’s like Marie Antoinette didn’t understand why the people didn’t bake cakes. The same logic.

But it goes a bit beyond [Sweden and Switzerland]?

Our next big problem is England. There are several million Muslim voters. And for many members of parliament, that’s the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. And in England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab, of course, not among all Englishmen, and anti-Israeli, in the establishment. They abstained in the [pro-Zionist] 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution, despite [issuing the pro-Zionist] Balfour Declaration [in 1917]. They maintained an arms embargo against us [in the 1950s]; they had a defense treaty with Jordan; they always worked against us.

But England changed after the 1940s and 1950s. They supported us in 1967, there was Harold Wilson and Mrs. Thatcher [who were pro-Israeli].

There is also support for Israel today [on the British right].

But in Labor there was always a deep pro-Israeli current.

But [the late 1940s prime minister and Labor leader Clement] Attlee was [anti-Israel].

Anyway, this [pro-Israeli current] vanished because they think the Palestinians are the underdog. In their eyes the Arabs are the underdog. Even though this is irrational. Take the Gaza Strip. We unilaterally evacuated the Gaza Strip [in 2005]. We evacuated 8,000 settlers and it was very difficult, after mobilizing 47,000 policemen [and soldiers]. It cost us $2.5 billion in compensation. We left the Gaza Strip completely. Why did they fire rockets at us, for years they fired rockets at us. Why?

Maybe because they don’t like us?

Peres: You fire rockets at everyone you don’t like? For eight years they fired and we refrained from retaliating. When they fired at us, the British didn’t say a word.

Maybe it is anti-Semitism?

Yes, there is also anti-Semitism. There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary. But with Germany relations are pretty good, as with Italy and France.

But there is erosion of public pro-Israel sentiment—at the universities, in the press. I’m not talking about the governments.

I’ll tell you why. On television there is an asymmetry that can’t be corrected. What the terrorists do is never broadcast. Only the response is broadcast. And then critics charge: “This is disproportionate.” You don’t see the terrorist act. When a lawful nation fights a lawless nation there is a problem in the media. When an open regime fights a secret regime there is a problem.

What do you think about negotiating with Hamas?

Peres: It’s like talking to the wall. Hamas says we don’t want to talk, we want to destroy you, we don’t want peace with you. The difference between Hamas and Fatah is essential, not political. Fatah is a political organization. Politics is built on negotiation and compromise; religion does not compromise. So long as Hamas is a religious-political organization, I am deeply pessimistic.

About the Turkish flotilla, do you think we acted correctly?

We acted correctly, except in terms of explaining what happened.

We killed nine Turks, they killed no Israelis.

There were six boats. Only on one—where they came prepared for violence—was there a clash. There was a long delay in broadcasting our explanation. There is no starvation in Gaza and no siege. If Gaza would agree not to rocket us, we would leave the entry points open.

But we prevented items like cardamom from reaching Gaza.

OK, we made some mistakes. [But] we made another mistake—we restrained ourselves for eight years and allowed them to shoot thousands of rockets at us until the rage came out at one go [in the IDF assault on Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009]. Had we done then what we do now, retaliate each time they fire a rocket—there would have been no problem. In the end, it turned out that restraint was a mistake.

Will Israel, the Jewish state, be here in a hundred years’ time?

Yes, I’m sure. I’m certain, 100 percent. The Jewish people have a niche in history based on a preference for the moral appeal over everything else. We didn’t always act in line with this, but we aimed for it. Since the Jews started out, they broke idols, banned slavery—

But the Jews were then exiled from their land for 2,000 years.

But we didn’t disappear in exile. We alone remained [from the ancient world]. In a hundred years, there won’t be wars. History is written in red ink. It’s mainly a history of wars. The main reason for war was that people earned their livelihood from land. People wanted either to defend their land or conquer more land. From the moment people live from science, force can’t do [anything]. An army can’t overcome science. All these borders will be blurred. The main reason for classic wars has disappeared. What will remain are fanatical religious groups, irrational groups, dangerous to the whole world. They will be destroyed in the end, out of self-defense. There won’t be wars. There will be great rivalry. Football will be more important than war, and science more important than football. There will be a contest to develop nature’s riches. What importance is there today to land?

Next: One state, two states

But there is still nationalism—a flowering of nationalism, as in [the former] Yugoslavia—not to mention religion.

But nationalism does not bother me. If the nationalism is artistic and cultural, not military, so what? Yugoslavia was an artificial creation. You can’t put two people who don’t like each other under one roof with a dictator above them.

Should Netanyahu ever reach a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, which will necessarily involve major, painful Israeli concessions, Peres is well-placed to sell it to the public, just as he is well-placed to sell Israel’s no-concession red lines to Western leaders. He is more optimistic about the chances for such a deal than I am.

So, a binational state, a single state, can’t be a solution to the conflict ?

When there is a feud, you can either separate the two sides or you can establish a majority [of one of the two parties, which will dominate the other]. There is no solution in one state. One state is a [recipe for] conflict, not a solution. The two peoples will fight over everything.

Is a two-state solution possible?

The situation today in practice is better than the situation in the negotiations. In Jerusalem [for example] the two peoples coexist.

Is a two-state solution possible with us ruling East Jerusalem—will the Arabs concede East Jerusalem?

And the Jews will concede it? There are solutions. Original Jerusalem, the Sacred Basin, is all told one square kilometer—the Old City, the Temple Mount, that’s the whole story. It’s small, but it’s not territory; it’s a flame, and it is difficult to divide fire, to fence in flames. What can be done? Let’s set aside [the idea of] national sovereignty and let’s look at religious sovereignty. Give each religion responsibility for its own holy sites.

But I think Arafat rejected this in 2000 [at Camp David]. He wanted [political] sovereignty.

Arafat is a completely different story.

But Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] also wants sovereignty.

Peres: In my agreement with King Hussein we solved the problem. It can still be solved. There was no such thing as [political] sovereignty until the 16th century.
All the things outside the Sacred Basin, [all the Arab neighborhoods], are not holy.

But we built [Jewish] neighborhoods that prevent access to these Arab neighborhoods.

Access to them can be solved with bridges and tunnels.

So, the problem is the Sacred Basin, not the outlying districts?

The whole city is a problem. Netanyahu said we will [continue] to build in those places we built during the past 44 years. I reminded him that there are neighborhoods in which we didn’t build for 44 years. There are 21 Arab neighborhoods in which neither Begin nor Shamir built a building. For 20 buildings in Silwan you want to foment a war? This is crazy. [Peres was speaking about the Jerusalem Municipality’s recently announced intention to demolish 21 houses built illegally by Arabs in the neighborhood of Silwan in the Sacred Basin, which has triggered Arab and Western protests]. People say there is a problem of lack of space. This is nonsense. The world is becoming more urban. And in most places in the world [where there is lack of space] people build upwards, high rises.

What about internationalization of the Sacred Basin?

All that will do is perpetuate the conflict, but with the involvement of more parties.

I don’t think it is going to work.

That’s the difference between us. You write history—I have to make history.

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MaxS says:

Peres has indeed contributed much to Israel. But as principal architect of the Oslo agreement, which has done more damage to Israel than all the other wars put together, I’m amazed that he still has the gall to show his face.

Ken Besig Israel says:

Shimon Peres and his dangerous naivete regarding peace with the Arabs and his downright ignorant support of Oslo, the Sharon Disengagement, and his appeasement mentality has killed, wounded, maimed, and disfigured more innocent Israeli Jews than all the Arab terrorist attacks in our history.
Shimon Peres’ voluntary submission to every ridiculous and lethal European and American demand for Israeli concessions to the Arabs has led to the Arabs thinking that all they have to do is wait long enough and most Israelis will become just as cowardly and weak as Peres.
Shimon Peres is perhaps the most dangerous element in the world Israel has to deal with. If only Peres’ shortcomings were the result of senility or Alzheimer’s, there might be some way to correct them, but Shimon Peres is a Left wing, Peace Now at any price with the Arabs, concessionist and appeaser, the Israeli version of WWII Neville Chamberlain if you will.
With luck and a generous helping of the mercy of God, we will never see Peres’ kind of sick and twisted betrayal of Israel ever again.

Ken Besig Israel says:

It is of course entirely appropriate that Peres should be interviewed by another dangerous and misguided Post Zionist Leftist so called historian Benny “know nothing about Israel, the Arabs, or the Middle East” Morris.
Mr. Morris has actually written history books about Israel, and managed in those books to libel Israel in some of the bitterest terms possible, that is, when he wasn’t publishing outright lies about Israel. For Benny Morris, Israeli soldiers and settlers are murderous baby killing thugs while the Arabs are the cream of humanity and a byword for restraint and compromise. Indeed, for Benny Morris the world would have been a much better place had the sin of Israel never been committed and the poor Arabs left to live their lives in peace and progress.
Benny Morris and Shimon Peres, what a pair of horse thieves they would make. You know they used to say that Peres would sell out Israel the first chance he got, but now they say Peres wouldn’t sell Israel, he’d just give it away. Benny Morris is a slightly different tale he just sold his soul and integrity so he would win the acclaim of the anti Israeli secular Left.
These two clowns deserve each other.

Sharon Kahn says:

I am wondering why Mr. Morris did not mention or ask Mr. Peres about his eponymous Peace Institute which, as far as I understand, concentrated heavily on creating the conditions for economic peace.

David Star says:

It amazes me to read Ken Besig’s sentiments regarding Peres and Benny Morris. His understatements of the foul deeds of these two shows a reticence for bringing out all the facts that should be known about them.

Ken Besig Israel says:

There is not enough room on the Internet nor are there enough words of condemnation available to use to describe the perfidy of Peres and Morris.
These two are beneath contempt.

allenby says:

peres’ Oslo Peeeeece formula has created a monster killing spree in Israel that lasted for almost 10 years. Don’t remember the exact number of Israelis killed, but it was probably the second in number of victims after the Yom Kippur War 1973.
Rabin didn’t want to go to oslo. Pundak and Beilin are those who created and handcrafted the oslo-pogroms together with their friend arafat. Did they know what arafat was planning ? an old experienced diplomat peres should have known the game arafat was playing. And what about Thousands of Sfardi children that were sacrificed for atomic experiments in dimona, as a trade with US ??? peres was then the head of Israel’s atomic commission.

Amiel Ungar says:

I was amused by the amalgam Harold Brown. I assume that the author meant either the prime minister Harold Wilson or the foreign minister George Brown.

Per Einar Sonnesyn says:

Too much to hide?
“About two weeks ago, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed regulations restricting access to government archives. As Barak Ravid revealed yesterday in Haaretz, 50-year-old materials that were to be opened to the public for historical study will now remain classified for two more decades.–
Israel, which this year celebrated its 62nd birthday, can and must confront the less than heroic chapters in its past and reveal them to the public and for historical study. The public has a right to know about the decisions made by the state’s founders, even if they involved violations of human rights, covering up crimes or harassing political opponents by security means. The country is mature and strong enough to absorb the criticism that could arise if, for example, previously unpublished testimonies are discovered about the events at Deir Yassin”, Haaretz wrote yesterday. How bad conscience does the prime minister have to do this?
And why does one Israeli Shalit count more than 10 000 palestinians in Israeli prison?
It is forgotten that Ashkelon is an old Palestinian town, with the mosque still in its center!

The facts on the ground speaks too loud to be subdued!

Per Einar

David says:

Israel is an historical anachronism, a blip in history. It will drown in a sea of Arabs. Israel faces the same fate that has befallen all other settler/colonialist enterprises dependent on the political support and largesse of another country thousands of miles away – abandonment. Time, the thrust of history, economics, geopolitics and demographics are with the Palestinians and the Arabs in general.

Martin K says:

Umm, did the president of Israel just call the UK a anti-semitic nation? Wtf?

Shalom Freedman says:

I do not believe Shimon Peres was wise in regard to ‘Oslo’. I believe he misjudged the intention of Arafat, and still does.
But to read this outpouring of vitriol against a man who has contributed so much tp the Jewish state is disheartening. Peres has spent his entire life helping to build the state of Israel. He is doing this still now. The list of his accomplishments is long indeed.
He is one of the true pioneer founding fathers of Israel whose complex story does credit both to him and to the Jewish people.
It would behoove those who fanatically condemn him to look at the whole picture, and and have a bit of gratitude for what he has done for Israel, and the Jewish people as a whole.

Binyamin in Orangeburg says:

The Thirteen Lies of Shimon Peres.
Lie Number 1: He [Ben-Gurion] did not give orders to expel.
Lie Number 2: They [the Iranians] want to destroy us. . . not that I’m saying they’re Nazis. . . .They are behind terrorism. Hezbollah.
Lie Number 4: I never agreed to 300,000 settlers.
[Racist] Lie Number 5: An Arab doesn’t compromise.
Lie Number 6: Things have changed [for the Palestinians]; [we] allow them to build, to develop their economy.
Lie Number 7: They [the British] always worked against us.
Lie Number 8: We left the Gaza Strip completely.
Lie Number 9: [Before Cast Lead] we refrained from retaliating [against the Hamas rockets]. … we restrained ourselves for eight years and allowed them to shoot thousands of rockets at us until the rage came out at one go. {Earth to Shimon, you killed 2500 Gazans between the time the Qassams started in the Fall of 2001 and Cast Lead. Total Israeli casualties over the same period from Gaza rockets – 27.}
Lie Number 10: Hamas says we don’t want to talk, we want to destroy you, we don’t want peace with you.
Lie Number 11: There is, in Gaza, no siege.
Lie Number 12: We [the Jews] alone remained [from the ancient world].
Lie Number 13 {THE BIGGEST LIE OF ALL}: There is no solution in one state.

Mixed in with the lies are a few truths:
There was an exaggerated enthusiasm after [the victory of] 1967.
The other defamation against my character—that my mother was an Arab. Untrue. [But I am a racist.]
I got from him [Arafat] what no one else would have: To move their demands from the 1947 [U.N. partition plan] borders [which gave the Jews 55 perecent of Mandate Palestine] to the 1967 borders [which gave the Israel 78 percent of Mandate Palestine]. No other Arab leader would have [conceded this]. . . . Arafat wanted peace.

David says:

For the record, Shimon Peres was born in Poland and his real name is Shimon Persky. Perhaps nothing better illustrates the utter fraudulence of Zionism than the fact that in an absurd attempt to legitimize a false link between them and the ancient Israelites, many of Israel’s leaders changed their names in favour of Hebrew ones. David Gruen became David Ben-Gurion; Goldie Myerson became Golda Meir; Ariel Shinerman became Ariel Sharon, etc.

Nor must we forget that Shimon Peres was responsible for the April 1996 premeditated massacre of over 100 innocent Lebanese civilians in the Qana UN compound. He should have been arrested, charged and put on trial as a war criminal.

Dave says:

A great state-man, with true vision. so much of his vision is already applied.
Wish Israel had more people like him. When a person like that talks, should listen and take some time for thinking more on what he said and meant. Experience and rare view combined with humanism.

(a tad embarrassing to see some of the comments here. how low will people go to sound an anti-israeli opinion no matter what is the context?! … like David’s argument with the names changing… this is ridiculous.. pure lack of knowledge and understanding competing with anti-israeli prejudice.. )

David says:

Dave

Like it or not, by changing their names, Peres et al. have assumed false identities. There is no lack of knowledge on my part and as for my “anti-israel [sic] prejudice..,” I freely admit that I stand with the Palestinian victims, not with Israel, their well documented victimizer.

JonathanInTelAviv says:

Simple people who don’t accept a secure Israel label Peres a right-wing extremist, while simple people who don’t accept an Israel at peace with the Moslem world label him a left-wing extremist. But the conflict isn’t simple, and anyone pushing a simple solution is a fool.

David Bramhall says:

Another lie to add to Peres’ list: there is no common saying in England that “an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary”. Perhaps Mr.Peres could give us his source, though I suspect that he just made it up.

His recent comments about Britain have caused great hurt in a nation that by and large regards itself as pro-Jewish and pro-Israeli. If Mr.Peres thinks that Britain favours the Arab nations, he might like to reflect on the fact that they got oil and he don’t. We have no choice but to deal with them.

@David

I wonder if you even realize how much your insane, lunatic rant supports Peres’ assertion?

And David, while oil is probably the main motivating factor, the reality is you do hate us regardless. And by “us” i’m referring to Jews, Israelly or otherwise.

As a British citizen, I take great exception to President Peres calling my country anti-Semitic.

This criticism is simply not consistent with the facts. Quite apart from the Balfour Declaration, it is clear from Tom Segev’s history of the British Mandate “One Palestine Complete” that the British were not neutral between Palestine’s Arab and Jewish residents; instead they consistently favoured the interests of the Jewish residents.

Regor says:

Mr. Peres accuses the English of being anti-semitic? He should not confuse the ordinary ethnic English who stood alone in 1940 against the Nazis and gave shelter to persecuted Jewish people and the England of today.It is not the ordinary ethnic English who are desecrating Jewish cemeteries, synagogues and memorials or spouting pro-arab and anti-Israeli rhetoric but the foreign colonists who have been allowed to settle here in major cities, who may call themselves British or not, and who are well represented in an oppresive British parliament. Like the Israelis the English( but without an English parliament to protect their interests)feel beleaguered and surrounded by enemies.

lovelyisraelis says:

The British are repulsed by Israel for the same reason the rest of humanity is repulsed by these criminals.

It’s not anti-Semitism. It’s anti-Nazism.

British (and Jewish) labor MP Gerald Kauffman spells this out nicely for the pro-Israel goons:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qMGuYjt6CP8

Lisa Abramowicz says:

Regor: I admire and revere Britain for standing up against och fighting the Nazi regime during WWII even when it wasn’t opportune to do so. But I beg to differ on another matter. You claim that Britain
“gave shelter to persecuted Jewish people”. How many did Britain actually give shelter to? Even temporarily? Very few. At the same time stopping Jews from trying to get into Mandate Palestine. Two thirds of the European Jews perished during the war after having been stripped of all civil and human rights. Even after the war when no one could say that they didn’t know, very few countries incl Britain was prepared to let in large numbers of survivors.

REGOR says:

Lisa, how many? I understand in the 1930’s about 90,000 plus around 10,000 children under the “Kindertransport” programme. Yes, more could have been done. In the main the English have been friendly to Jews and were the authors of the Balfour Declaration. However, the British government were guilty of a betrayal of the Jewish people dduring the Mandate period and, of course, at the bottom of this was oil. The British relied on Arab regimes of the Middle East so a pro-arab policy on palestine served best to protect oil rights and the Suez canal.In England at the moment I believe there are some 350,000 Jews who add something to the life of the mind, music, art, science, medecine, etc. and my country, England, would be the poorer for their absence.

lovelyisraelis says:

And lest we forget, ALL of the Jewish children in saved by England from the holocaust would be dead if the repulsive Israeli criminal and psychopath David Ben Gurion had had his way:

“If I knew that it was possible to save all the children of Germany by transporting them to England, and only half by transferring them to the Land of Israel, I would choose the latter.”

Great friends of the Jews, these Israelis!

Dov Ber says:

Shimon Peres is very well respected for his vision. He sees the end-game. He knows what is possible. He is also a mentor to Barak Obama. He is humble, gentle, and kind– he is a jewish sage

Yaakov Hillel says:

To my friend Mohammed Amin and the rest of the British cronies. The saving of 10000 Jewish children whose families completely perished in the holocaust, mainly because the British locked the gates of Palestine for them to escape to, does not give England any credits.The Jews were thrown out of England hundreds of years earlier, the antisemitism is in their blood.the Universities trying to ban israel is the continuation of the great English love for jews. The Book/movie “the ship of fools tells an important angle of the story that the Jews were not let in to any country in the world including England and the United States. The British caused unseaworthy ships full of refugees not into Palestine and they sank with their thousdands of Jews that have gone in the holocaust. the British were partners to the Nazis when they could have blown up the railroads into the death camps and the death camps them selves. I have one good thing i can say about the British, they are inviting friends like Amin into England with a free hand they would not let the jews. The Jews would have turned England into a true empire the muslims will send england to an odyessy that goes back 1300 years where Their Leader who lied and murdered and was a praised pedophile who has taught to put women in their places. We see in the world that if a Muslim girl is raped then her family burn her to death. this is the world that the British have turned to, and they cannot turn the wheel back. Today you are going to pay for what you did to the Jews sixty years ago. The people who are going to make your life misrable are he ones you let into Palestine in the hundred of thousands when you would not let The tortured Jews in.

Yaakov Hillel says:

Shimon Peres Belongs to the socialist/ once communist party of Israel. His mentor David Ben-Gurion was useless when it came to protecting the Jews against Muslims But he was brilliant when he gave orders to Kill Jews because they were not socialist-communists. He gave an order to look good among his non Jewish socialist-Communist friends to sink a ship in Tel Aviv Harbor with shooting canon fire at it. And his son of legacy Yitzchak.Rabin gave orders to machine gun the survivors who jumped off the exploding ship to save their lives and swim to safety. Ben Gurion carries the responsibility of having Zombied 16 year-olds (I have living proof) shoot survivors which was a planned act of murder from the roof tops of the hotels. Their only sin was they were not Socialist- Communists,and may be Israel would be a democratic country with revisionists (capitalists) taking over government some day. This is the true mentor and socialist half brother of Shimon Peres that the Israelis cry over their legacy. Maybe I have become a target now like Yitzchak Rabin who was put to death by a conspiracy.

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Making History

Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive