Three months after Israel turns 65, Israel’s president will turn 90. As Shimon Peres mentions in this interview, conducted to mark Yom Ha’atzmaut (Independence Day) on Tuesday, just a couple of centuries ago, people tended to live only to 40. Doubtless his own longevity is a key contributor to the insistently positive world view he emphasizes here — for the Jews, for Israel, for the region, for humanity.
As the last member of the modern Jewish state’s founding generation still central to Israel’s development, Peres speaks from the vantage point of one who has seen it all — and all those decades have bolstered his certainties. He says he laughs at the “waste of journalism” in the innumerable pessimistic articles about where this region is heading. He is cavalier in dismissing geography as thoroughly irrelevant to our instantly connected world. “We learned in geography that there are five continents, each of them separate. Nonsense.” And that is why Mark Zuckerberg’s constructive Facebook revolution is prevailing, he says, where murderous would-be revolutionaries like Lenin and Stalin went bankrupt.
As he has done for so many years, Peres peppers his conversation with oratorical flourishes — some familiar, some apparently conjured up at the instant. He can switch, unpredictably, from grand rhetoric to narrow specifics. He can sound magisterial in detailing the flux of history one moment, and speak with humility the next about the unpredictability of humanity’s journey. Dull, he is not.
The following is a near-full transcript of Peres’s interview with The Times of Israel, conducted at the President’s Residence last week. At the end of our conversation, in the spirit of the age, he also moved from the sofa in his office to a more formal chair beside the national flag to record a short Yom Ha’atzmaut video message to our readers.
The Times of Israel: President Peres, let me start by asking you about Israeli-Turkish relations. A phone call as President Obama is leaving, and suddenly we’re friends again. What’s your sense of Prime Minister Erdogan and where he’s really headed?
President Peres: Their policy is flip-flopping. On the one hand, they want to have America [with them]. On the other hand, they want to have the Arabs. Those are different audiences. What appeals to the strategic audience of the Arabs, or the Israelis, or the Americans, is not a united message…
We’ve had this reconciliation conversation, and now Obama is getting ready to host Erdogan…
The Turks will have to pay attention to the world. They’ve discovered they have their own problems. The Kurds, for instance. For hundreds of years they were a silent audience. All of a sudden it became public.
[The Turks will have to ask themselves:] Are you permitting terror or not? Are you justifying terror or not? You cannot justify terror in Gaza and condemn terror among the Kurds.
The present government in Iran doesn’t have a future. The problem of Iran is timing, not verdict
Basically, the interest of Turkey is really a peaceful Middle East, the end of terror. They don’t have a choice. Erdogan did a great job on the economy. That’s the source of his strength. In the last 10 years, the Turkish economy has grown three times over. Unbelievable. This year for the first time they’ll have a GNP of a trillion dollars.
That creates a different structure of society. And all the values change. When you are poor, you’re basic problem is bread. When you are becoming middle class, it’s education, it’s housing. And when you go up higher, it’s more — it’s to produce, to create. You must make up your mind, which is the goal of your policy.
Let’s put that in the Iranian context — the goal of Iran’s policy, and the choices Iran is making.
The present government in Iran doesn’t have a future. The problem of Iran is timing, not verdict. It’s a government that doesn’t have a message — not only for humanity, but for their own people…
I think Obama conducts the right policy [on Iran]. Why do I say that? What makes America exceptional is that it is the only country in history, the only force in history, that became great by giving, not by taking. In the American historic balance, they gave more than they took. It’s wise, because if you take, you create enemies. To maintain enemies, my God, it is so costly. If you give, you create friends. Nothing is 100% of course, we’re talking about the mainstream. America for the last 235 years became greater and greater by giving, not by taking. People don’t realize that the Marshall Plan was a quarter of American GNP. Who in history did something like that?! They went to fight for other countries. They won. They lost soldiers. They gained assets. They gave back everything. They didn’t keep anything for themselves. And that’s why, for all the criticism, you know, people prefer America.
You say you trust Obama to take care of Iran. But the prime minister, I’m not so sure he does…
You’re interviewing me, not the prime minister.
Do you think that the Obama visit moved the prime minister? Do you think he has more faith now in Obama?
I think so. Yes. I can’t tell you how much. I cannot measure it. And nobody can measure it.
But it had an impact?
It had an impact. And I think the Israelis have more faith. The trust in Obama was raised by 20%. I personally believe that he is a friend, a profound friend.
You spent so much time with Obama on this visit.
What did you learn that impressed you, that gave you more confidence in him?
We belong to what I would call the “Exodus Camp.” We are peoples who ran away from slavery, oppression. Four words of a song tell it best: “Let my people go.” We belong to the same camp.
I think Obama is highly intelligent, a real intellectual. He represents the America that used to be, and the America which is. It used to be WASPy; now it’s made of differences. Democracy in the beginning was an attempt to introduce equality. And now the attempt is to give equal rights to everybody to be different.
Whoever says there’s no chance [of Israeli-Palestinian peace] is really demonstrating his ignorance, I can tell you
[Coming back to Obama's approach to Iran:] There are threats to freedom, to peace, to stability. We have to help people to gain freedom. But we don’t do it by starting to shoot. Let us first of all use all other means. As we say, all options on the table.
You never start by shooting. People will say, are you crazy? You have to show your own people, before you turn to the shooting game, that you tried. [You have] to create a coalition; Obama worked for a coalition. So it won’t be America alone. [You have] to use non-military means — like sanctions or pressure. [You have] to help legitimate the estimation of international bodies — so nobody will say you are fighting for a narrow American interest. And [you have to] be patient — try to negotiate, time and again. If nothing, the last resort — the [Americans] are not freiers, as we say — they’ll have to use force.
What do you think Obama has in mind now in terms of Israeli-Palestinian efforts? The conventional view is that there’s no chance of a permanent accord, that it’s a case of conflict management. But then you hear that Secretary Kerry believes there is a chance.
Whoever says there’s no chance is really demonstrating his ignorance, I can tell you.
If in May 1945, the last month of the Second World War, the most extreme war in European history, terrible — 60 or 70 million people lost their lives, including the Holocaust — if somebody had stood up and said, ‘In six years there’ll be a united Europe,’ people would have said, ‘What are you talking about?’ It happened.
David, it’s already 70 years that there have been no wars [in Europe]. Finished. If somebody would have stood up after the Holocaust in May 1945, and said in three years there will be a Jewish state — tell me, who really forecast that? Who can claim that he knew? And now, when modern communication shortens the time, you can change minds overnight almost.
So not only is Israeli-Palestinian peace possible, but it’s possible fairly quickly?
Yes, yes, yes. I don’t say it’s assured that it will be quick, but I say it’s possible it will be quick. There are many reasons to justify a new speed.
The whole story — before Oslo and after Oslo — from my point of view, we made mistakes. I know it’s easy to blame others. It sounds very patriotic. For me, patriotism also involves self-criticism. If we had accepted the London Agreement, we would have a new Middle East. We rejected it. If the Jordanians and Palestinians had come under the leadership of King Hussein, we wouldn’t have any problems. We rejected it. So, what was left? Arafat…
Oslo made a group of peace among the Arabs. Don’t forget that. And then the Arabs made a mistake. Because after Oslo, who but Arik Sharon could decide to leave Gaza? He left Gaza completely. It was difficult. We had to mobilize 75,000 policemen to bring back the settlers from Gaza and spend $2.5 billion to build alternative houses.
They got Gaza. They could have built a Palestinian entity. Why did they turn it into a base of missiles?
That’s very discouraging. Israel left Gaza. The Palestinians had an opportunity to encourage Israel to pull out of the West Bank as well…
My dear friend, don’t jump to conclusions There are setbacks and steps forward. It’s a dialectic. The world is dialectically built. Things have happened since then which encourage me. Until quite recently the Palestinian Authority didn’t have a security force. The difference between Jordan and the Palestinians was that Jordan had the Arab Legion. Otherwise, there wouldn’t be a Jordan. Since then the Palestinians built a security force. Not a large one, of 15,000 young people, trained by [Keith] Dayton, an American general, in Jordan. Occasionally a military force is more important than a political force. Those 15,000 youngsters are loyal to Abu Mazen [Mahmoud Abbas]. They wouldn’t like to see people from Gaza coming and taking them out. They don’t want that. That’s one change.
The second change is what’s taking place in the Arab world. The Arab world is now in disarray or uprising, whatever you call it — the Arab Spring. But for the first time since 1948 what’s happening in the Arab world has nothing to do with Israel. The changes in Syria, Libya, Yemen — nothing whatsoever. It’s really a result of their own young generations. It’s creating a new situation. The only link that remains is the conflict between us and the Palestinians, which is being used improperly by the extremists in the Arab camp. It’s artificial, but they use it.
We had a beginning of peace with the Palestinians and since then we have agreed also on the solution, which is the two state solution. In between there are disagreements with the negotiations. If we had an agreement, we wouldn’t need negotiations. Knowing all the details, it’s possible to overcome [the disagreements].
We have a government in Israel now that could make peace? This coalition?
Politics is not a matter of governments, but also a matter of realities. In my observation, realities affect leaders more than leaders affect realities. So you’re talking about government and I’m talking about the situation. No government can remain indifferent to the strategic audience. It’s not only a matter of war and peace today. There’s the economy, for instance. I don’t think this government can turn its back to realities. Maybe for a while.
So everything is open. I don’t want to give you a prescription, that I’m sure 100 percent. [But] I’m giving you a description of what the options are.
Did you get the sense that President Obama is interested in trying to move things forward?
And will give presidential effort? The phone call to Erdogan showed that, in a second, something was changed because the American president willed it.
Overnight, in 50 hours, he really changed the views of many Israelis.
What holds us from understanding what’s happening [in today's world] is our schooling. We learned the wrong things. We learned in geography that there are five continents, each of them separate. Nonsense. There are no more continents. The geography books are an old story. There’s just one globe and whoever says Atlantic, Pacific — nonsense.
You have a world of 7 billion people — a billion and a half Muslims among them. Can you divide it geographically? Can you turn your back on them? Can you ignore them? No. The heart of the problem of the Muslim world is here — not between us and the Palestinians, but the whole Middle East. How can the US president ignore it? All these [pessimistic] stories are a waste of journalism. I read all the articles and I laugh. Sixty percent of the world’s fish come from the Pacific but the people that eat it are in the Atlantic. Are you going to keep the fish from the people? Nonsense. And the president knows that.
There’s a famous saying. ‘If you have a hammer in your hand, you think that every problem is a nail.’ You don’t solve problems with hammers. It’s much more varied and sophisticated. You have to have patience and understanding. You have to have the double capacity: to be patient and from time to time, to be decisive. I find that Obama has the two [qualities]…
Turning to Israeli-Diaspora relations, let me ask you about the controversy over women’s prayer at the Kotel as an exemplar of decades of disconnect between Orthodox-controlled religious Israel and largely non-Orthodox American Jewry.
Judaism is made of variations. It’s un-Jewish to adopt [just] one of them… We cannot order everybody how to pray or how to behave. They won’t listen to us. What we have to reach with the Diaspora is the common denominator. The common denominator that we can all accept is made of three parts. One is respect for the 10 Commandments — a return to our specialty: that the top consideration must be the moral one; that values are more important than assets. That’s what we need in our lives. For that reason, nobody could kill us because you cannot kill a spirit. We must teach our children that Israel is not just politics, but Israel is basically a carrier of the preference for the ethical consideration.
The second part is the pursuit of knowledge. Since we didn’t have land, we are living on our knowledge. That’s in our DNA. People ask me what is the greatest contribution of the Jewish people to the rest of the world. My answer is: dissatisfaction. A good Jew cannot be satisfied. It’s not Jewish. That’s what makes us great contributors to creativity. We are seekers of betterment.
The third part is to pursue peace.
I think on these three principles we can unite, and we should unite, voluntarily. It doesn’t mean that there won’t be conflicts that we have to settle. Or frictions. Yes. The world is not made of totality. It’s made of individuality. The 99.8 percent versions of us are alike. But the 0.2 percent that remains enables every person to have different fingerprints. Even cancer is individual. Everything is individual.
You have this friendship with Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. Is he part of the potential common denominator. Don’t some of the keepers of Orthodoxy have an uncompromising and narrow-minded approach?
When it comes to peace, yes [he is part of that common denominator] and I want to keep him pro-peace. On knowledge, yes. Ten commandments, yes…
How concerned are you about the various unpleasant phenomena in Israeli society, such as hostility to migrants, price tag attacks…?
We have to change the proportion between teaching and educating. We put too much emphasis on teaching information instead of educating on how to behave. A nation is not made of laws, but also of culture. Clearly you have to have stronger courts and better police but also to emphasize education…
Your philosophy is ultimately that freedom and modernity and a desire for better education will triumph over hatred and narrow mindedness even in this terrible region?
What I’m saying is that it doesn’t depend on us any more. There’s a young boy, 28-years-old, whose name is Mark Zuckerberg. He created a better revolution than Lenin and Stalin. Lenin and Stalin probably killed 20 million people and they went bankrupt. This boy didn’t kill anybody and he’s extending. A billion people are already registered [on Facebook] and affected by it. I’m not sure if Mark read Karl Marx. I don’t think it’s a matter of ideology. I’m sure that Karl Marx never envisaged that there’ll be a Zuckerberg. And you and me don’t know: The minute you go from the known land to unknown science, we’re on a journey full of surprises.
But essentially a positive journey?
Clearly the answer is yes. The world is progressing — from the time of the caves, to this day. The world is not based on repetition, but on mutation. And it doesn’t have a reverse. It moves forward. That doesn’t mean that in the meantime you don’t have people who are regressors.
Today you live 80 years. Two hundred years ago, you lived 40. What you have today, a king didn’t have. When a king had a toothache he was crying like a baby. He didn’t have running water or a telephone. But the more we have, the more we want. Dissatisfaction: that is permanent.