JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres is once again aiming to become the next Israeli prime minister. He won’t admit it, perhaps even to himself, but there is no doubt that Peres can already envision the evolving circumstances that might catapult him once again, against all odds and expectations, to the nation’s top office.
Peres would have to overcome formidable opposition from a host of other Labor contenders, who believe his retirement is overdue. But at 80, Peres is still one of Israel’s wiliest and most vigorous politicians, and he wouldn’t go down without a fight.
In an exclusive interview with the Forward this week in his Tel Aviv office, Peres pulled no punches in castigating what he views as the failed policies of the current Israeli administration.
Standing on the Knesset podium this week, Peres lambasted the Sharon government in scathing vintage-Peres form, as if he was a young and aspiring politician rather than his nation’s elder statesman.
Peres believes in negotiations, anytime, anywhere and with anyone willing to talk. He would negotiate concurrently with both Syria and the Palestinians, and he believes the time is ripe. Surprisingly, though, Peres does not support the forced evacuation of Jewish settlements in the territories. As someone trained to aim for the impossible, he believes that even this obstacle can be overcome, simply by talking.
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Q. Mr. Peres, have we, at last, reached the “New Middle East”?
A. One hundred percent. The crux of the idea of the “New Middle East,” philosophically speaking, is my belief that — while Islam can confront other religions and remain strong — extremist and fundamentalist Islam cannot confront the new age and remain intact. This is the main confrontation — with fanatics who want to maintain outdated lifestyles and don’t understand that one cannot survive with them. One cannot sustain antiquated agriculture, discrimination against women, and unelected leaders who are cowards and who are paralyzed. Just like all other cultures that have faced new eras, Islam has no choice but to adapt.
The process has already started, in certain places, like Turkey, and to some degree in the Pakistani army, and in Egypt to a certain extent. Now everything is beginning to fall like a house of cards. The Americans are in Iraq — not because they wish to conquer Iraq but because they want to prevent terror and weapons of mass destruction.
I’d like to make a historical analogy, which encompasses both: I doubt whether the United States would have used nuclear weapons in Hiroshima were it not for the kamikazes, because a few dozen pilots destroyed their navy. That was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On the other hand, one can just imagine what would have happened to the world if Hitler had possessed a nuclear bomb before Roosevelt. In essence, the United States is trying to prevent both things now in the world — no kamikazes, and no nuclear weapons in the hands of the kamikazes.
I also see the European Union arriving in the Middle East within five years, because the moment Turkey becomes a member, the E.U. will have common borders with both Syria and Iraq. I think that what happened with Gadhafi is amazing, and even the cease-fire in Sudan is very interesting.
So Israel could end up with no enemies. And that, of course, is a very big problem for the Likud.
Q. Is Israel reacting adequately to the situation?
A. I think not. In the beginning of his term, Sharon said he needs seven days of quiet in order to launch negotiations with the Palestinians. Now he’s had 70 days, and nothing is happening. Each time, the conditions for negotiations are toughened. And if someone says that he will negotiate only when terrorism stops, he can be sure that terrorism will continue and that there will be no negotiations.
Q. We can see some changes in [Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s] attitude as well.
A. Yes, Assad has been orphaned from both his parents, both the Iraqi and the Egyptian, and like Sholom Aleichem he is proclaiming: “Oh joy, I am an orphan.”
Q. But the Israeli government is not responding.
A. I don’t think it is capable. It can make some formalistic response, but I don’t think this government is capable of withdrawing from the Golan Heights, or even from parts of the Golan. If it cannot withdraw from Gaza, how will it withdraw from the Golan? In the Golan there aren’t 1.2 million Palestinians. In Gaza there are.
Q. Aren’t you disappointed with the Palestinian side as well?
A. I’ll tell you the truth — I’m hardly interested. Only a person who is suicidal is disappointed. As long as you’re alive, there’s no room for disappointment. A year ago, I did not believe that there would be such dramatic change in Iraq, or in Libya. It forces me to be modest. But not just me. My critics as well.
Q. Should we then launch negotiations with the Palestinians immediately?
A. Of course. They shouldn’t have been broken off even for a minute. Even Arafat, whom we criticize so much, fought in 1996 against the Hamas. Twenty activists were killed, thousands were arrested, their beards were cut off, and he confiscated weapons and archives. Anything is possible.
Q. Do you support the prime minister’s concept or plan for unilateral disengagement?
A. I don’t believe such a plan exists. I know that the ultimate in unilateralism is war, while the ultimate in peace is bilateralism. How will he disengage? Why should they disengage from us? What will he do with them? It’s as if someone is being seized by a bear and says, I’m in favor of disengaging. You have to discuss the bear, not just the person.
Q. So you think the plan is unwise, or do you think Sharon isn’t serious?
A. I think he intends something completely different. He has a miniature plan, to give the Palestinians 42% of the territory, to build an eastern fence as well, and to annex the land up to 15 kilometers from the Jordan River. He doesn’t really hide his intentions. The Americans are aware of this, and they are worried, and that’s why they are conducting a battle against the fence.
Q. They are criticizing the fence, but in the meantime it is being built.
A. The eastern side isn’t being built yet. And, in any case, Israel will have a major problem at the International Court of Justice in the Hague, and the Americans are well aware of this. We built a barricade in the West Bank so that we can climb on one in the Hague.
Q. Do you think Sharon will evacuate settlements?
A. I have a completely different view of the settlement issue. I think we should tell the settlers they have three choices: They can move to a bloc of settlements that we will build, they can move back to Israel proper, or they can stay where they are and we will take care of their security. I am opposed to coercion. There is no need for it. Why impose coercion on ourselves? Let them decide. Whatever they want.
Q. As you know, I am moving to Australia for a few years, and I must admit I am taken aback by the spontaneous outbursts of envy that I hear from everyone I tell. Generally speaking, aren’t you concerned about the angst, the malaise, the bad feelings that are so rampant today in Israeli society?
A. As long as we are immersed in terror, in corruption, in rejectionism — we will pay the price. Israel could be a fascinating pearl, a country living on science and not territories. It should immediately embark on a major project of nanotechnology, which I am trying to advance. It should be a model to others, a small country that is like a big family. Our role model should not be the United States, but countries like Denmark or Finland, or Holland or Austria. These countries have a high standard of living, a policy of social welfare, a tradition of dialogue and not coercion.
We can be a brilliant and dramatic country. And I believe it’s better to live in the Israeli drama than in pastoral Australia.
Q. But how will things ever change?
A. In Israeli politics, a party does not win its way to power, but rather loses its place in power. The Labor Party did all it could to lose power and grant victory to the Likud. I must admit, in fairness, that the Likud is now doing all that it can to lose power in the near future.
Q. But elections are to be held only in 2007.
A. The current situation can’t last until 2007. The Likud has more time than reality does. This is a blind, tired government, intellectually and operationally paralyzed.
Q. So perhaps one should join them in the effort?
A. I don’t think this government is interested. It is happy in its current situation. And there is no point in joining without a change in policy; it is better to fight for change from the outside than to join without any change.
Q. And when the next elections are held, who will be the Labor candidate? Shimon Peres, perhaps?
A. Whoever is selected. If there is someone else, better than me, so much the better. I am not seeking a title, I am seeking peace. As you know, I didn’t fight for my current position. I was almost forced into it, simply because there was no other choice.