AnalysisWhy does Israel need a president? 'You must have more than just one person at the top'

Peres: With good will you can achieve peace. With wrong policies, you can postpone it

A final presidential Independence Day interview with that indefatigable optimist, our ‘obedient servant’ Shimon Peres

David Horovitz

David Horovitz is the founding editor of The Times of Israel. He is the author of "Still Life with Bombers" (2004) and "A Little Too Close to God" (2000), and co-author of "Shalom Friend: The Life and Legacy of Yitzhak Rabin" (1996). He previously edited The Jerusalem Post (2004-2011) and The Jerusalem Report (1998-2004).

Shimon Peres speaks to The Times of Israel's David Horovitz (photo credit: Office of the President)
Shimon Peres speaks to The Times of Israel's David Horovitz (photo credit: Office of the President)

This is Shimon Peres’s final Independence Day as president of the State of Israel. At 90, he might be forgiven for contemplating something of a withdrawal from public prominence. But he shows no sign of going gentle into that political good night when his seven-year term ends in July.

Before he steps down he has several more foreign trips planned, a pope to host, ambassadors and overseas leaders to welcome, judges to swear in, and innumerable events to address. And after he leaves the President’s Residence, he plans to use the platform of his Peres Center for Peace to foster tolerance and cooperation in the cause of regional reconciliation — not in some vague, woolly way, but by utilizing his peerless connections to try to cultivate change.

He gives an insight into that kind of activity in this Times of Israel interview when he says he intends to galvanize the international community to press Hamas into recognizing Israel and abandoning terrorism. Impossible, many might say. Naive. Foolish. Peres — and this is clearly one of his abiding key features — is entirely undaunted by dismissive, negative assessments. He says he’s spent a lifetime watching “unbelievable” developments coming to pass.

Peres the party politician was a divisive man; Peres the president is overwhelmingly regarded as having been an asset for Israel, at home and, especially, abroad. Those who disagreed with him when he was a prominent figure in Labor and, far more briefly, in the Kadima party, may not have disagreed with him much less as he continued, from his position as president, to extol a vision of potential regional harmony. President Peres remained resolutely unmugged by the bloodiest and bleakest of realities. But there are few, even among those critics, who doubt that his insistence on the possibility of a better future, and his determination to work for it, has been beneficial to his country.

To this reporter, over the years (as to much of the Israeli media), Peres has proved both gracious and available. (The latter is a quality — no, a requirement in a democracy — that our prime minister has abandoned.)

Also good-humored: At the start of this interview, he took great pleasure in ridiculing my antiquated tape-recording devices, asking if, perhaps, they yield different and more interesting content than do the MP3 digital devices favored by my colleagues.

As time has passed, Peres’s voice has softened and his rhetorical flourishes have become more familiar. So, too, his diplomatic positions. The politician who once outflanked his rival-turned-partner Yitzhak Rabin from the right has long since metamorphosed into the most prominent peacenik in a nation that says it wants peace while voting for governments that are disinclined to take risks for the cause. While Israel remains uncertain, Peres is convinced. And since he has failed to win us all over as president, he’ll keep on trying when he steps down.

I don’t think we have that many problems with Abbas

Knowing that this would be my final interview with the serving President Peres was more than a little moving. In a year that also saw the death of Ariel Sharon, the imminent departure from office of this hitherto ubiquitous figure, whose public life has escorted Israel from its first growing pains, truly marks the end of “Modern Israel: The early decades.” And to watch relative mediocrities squabbling over the presidential succession only underlines a certain sense of national orphanhood as this last of the old guard prepares to move on.

The Times of Israel: So how are you going to save the negotiations with the Palestinians?

Shimon Peres: Look, you have to work out what aspect is causing the most delay. In my opinion, today, that’s Hamas. I don’t think we have that many problems with Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas]. Quite the contrary. I can understand why he wants to unify the two camps. The problem is that you cannot unify contradictory forces. It’s either terrorism or peace. You can’t have both.

President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority Chairman and Fatah leader Mahmoud Abbas meet in 2008 (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)
President Shimon Peres and Palestinian Authority head Mahmoud Abbas meeting in 2008 at the President’s Residence in Jerusalem. (photo credit: Kobi Gideon/Flash 90)

There’s a highly unusual situation at present. Gaza, which is free (of any Israeli presence), supports terrorism. The West Bank, which is not yet entirely free, supports demilitarization. There’s no logic in that. We completely left Gaza. There are no settlements, there are no settlers, there is no army. What else do they want? What do they need 10,000 missiles for? Why are they building tunnels? They’ve got almost 1.9 million people to look after. The people are hungry.

The secretary general of the UN calls me all the time asking us to let in wood, concrete. I’m all in favor, but if they use it to build tunnels, that’s crazy. Hamas has to be told (by the world), if you’re a party, you’re a party, but without terrorism, in favor of peace, respecting agreements. If not, then you’re an enemy.

And until then, Israel should not be negotiating with a Hamas-backed Palestinian government?

Our government doesn’t need to take the lead on this. The international community needs to do this.

I’ll tell you a short story. I was one of the deputy presidents of the Socialist International. There were 15 of us, deputy presidents. Fourteeen of them wanted to accept Arafat as a member and I was the only one who was opposed. They treated me fairly. But the trio of leaders — Willy Brandt, Bruno Kreisky and Olaf Palme — said to me, Shimon, you’re a democrat. Fourteen against one. You have to give in. Why are you opposed?

Yitzhak Rabin, left, chats with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)
Yitzhak Rabin, left, chats with Yasser Arafat and Shimon Peres after the three received the Nobel Peace Prize in Oslo in 1994 (photo credit: courtesy GPO)

I said, why do you say I’m opposed? Not at all. If you can prove to me that Arafat’s a socialist, that he supports peace and rules out terrorism, I’ll vote in favor. And what happened? They left me alone and they went to Arafat. They spoke to him. And it was them, I believe, who wrought the change in Arafat.

I expect the same thing to happen with Hamas. Decisions the Israeli government makes aren’t binding on Hamas. But if all governments say to Hamas, listen, if you want funding, you want help, you want development, stop [the terrorism]… Answer the question: Why are you shooting [at Israel]? For what purpose are you shooting?

Your friend, someone you trust, Abbas, signed a reconciliation agreement with an unreformed Hamas, however…

I’m not at all sure how this is going to play out. This kind of thing has happened several times in the past. I’m not sure it will come to pass this time. But I actually hope it does succeed, since the only way in which it can succeed is if [Hamas abandons terrorism]. All that is asked of Hamas is to do what is normal. I’d like to hear one Hamas leader tell me why they are firing [at Israel]. You wanted us to leave Gaza. We left Gaza. You wanted a free Gaza. Gaza is free. Why are you shooting? Why should one and a half million mothers lose sleep at night because you have a screw loose?

But I don’t want it to be Israel that has to say this. I don’t want to get into that argument. I want it to be the world that says it, an international effort. And I intend to devote a great deal of effort to galvanize the world, to make clear that we are not opposed to Palestinian unity, not opposed to people, but we are opposed to murder. It’s unthinkable and it destroys peace.

What do you make of Abbas’s condemnation of the Holocaust?

I greatly appreciate it. He had a different view in the past? What’s wrong with him changing his mind. It’s the first time Arabs are hearing this from an Arab leader, I believe. So I think it was a good step and I greatly respect it.

And what of John Kerry’s warning that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state if no agreement is reached?

You know, you can talk of peace in two ways. You can take the negative approach: what will happen if there’s no peace? Or you take the positive approach: what will unfold if there is peace? Personally I tend to stress the positive approach: What will peace bring — for Arabs, Jews and for the Middle East. There is no shortage of positive reasons. Unfortunately what began as discreet negotiations [under Kerry’s stewardship] became a public debate. And now the rhetoric has overwhelmed the methodology. I would tone down the proclamations where each side rules out this and that, saying no and no. All these declarations create more extreme positions. I would remind ourselves that peace will offer amazing achievements. I would tell the Arabs that peace will offer amazing achievements.

US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with President Shimon Peres on June 28, 2013. (photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Flash90)
US Secretary of State John Kerry meets with President Shimon Peres last June. (photo credit: Matty Stern/U.S. Embassy Tel Aviv/Flash90)

The real problem in the Arab world is that the birthrate has outstripped the growth of industrial production. There is no way to dramatically boost an economy on the ground, only through science. The Arabs have to make a calculation to join the scientific era. We can help them in many ways, and we must help.

I see an Israeli interest to separate from the Palestinians. On the Palestinian side, I see the opposite — the people seeking to prevent their leader from compromise.

Paradoxically, even separation takes two. You can’t get divorced if one side isn’t willing to. I much prefer living together than living separately. You can’t actually separate. You can’t divide the Jordan and you can’t divide the climate and you can’t divide the pollution and you can’t divide the diseases. It doesn’t work that way. The world is moving away from separation, toward globalization. Because in the scientific era there are no borders. In the scientific era, armies cannot conquer anything. They can’t conquer information.

Let me ask you the question differently. It seems to me that the Israelis see self-interest in an agreement with the Palestinians and the Palestinian public does not.

President Shimon Peres with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in March 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/ GPO/ Flash 90)
President Shimon Peres with Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in March 2012 (photo credit: Moshe Milner/ GPO/ Flash 90)

I wouldn’t jump to conclusions. People aren’t so knowledgeable about the details. There are general perceptions and those general perceptions are greatly influenced by what is said in public. In the surveys I see, essentially the Arabs want peace and we want peace. And there can’t be a separate peace. Peace needs to be comprehensive. You can’t have a partial peace. You can’t have temporary peace. You can’t have a peace only in certain places. Every people can retain their culture, their identity, their language. That certainly remains, but you can’t put up borders to science.

To say ‘never again’ means you have to make peace

You can’t place red lines. Lenin and Stalin had a red line, and murdered millions of people. Along comes a 27-year old boy, Mark Zuckerberg. No borders. And wrought a revolution. One approach went bankrupt. The other conquered the world. You can’t arrange things differently.

Has the Holocaust made us too defensive, too wary, even paranoid when it comes to the security of our state?

I don’t think you can generalize about the impact. The one unifying consequence is the insistence: Never again. But to say “never again” means you have to make peace. There are those who say never again means you have to be more forceful. The conclusions are different.

And you tend to the less forceful approach?

That’s not an inclination. That’s the necessary direction. The world has changed. There are two approaches to leadership — one that is built on force and the other that is built on good will. Good will is winning. Reliance on force is losing. Good will is the global companies that don’t have armies or police forces. They are built on good products and good relations. You can’t be racist. You can’t be nationalistic. You have to be global. What’s the conclusion? That through good will you can achieve more than through bureaucratic administrations… Governments always have to justify their existence and to badmouth their rivals. Companies have to cooperate.

Another Hitler would have a very hard time rising

I take the view that to be generous is smarter than to be cruel. It’s more beneficial to give than to take. America’s greatness lies in what it has given.

Where do you place the Iranian threat in that vision of being constructive and generous and full of good will?

Look, we’re not sheep to the slaughter. Iran isn’t a country free to get up and do outrageous things. We have ways to prevent outrageous things from happening.

And the comparison that some people draw between the Iranian threat and the Nazis?

I think another Hitler would have a very hard time rising. Apart from the horrifying genocide that killed six million Jews, he killed another 60 million.

To look at the historical perspective, no military victory ultimately prevailed. Only values prevailed. There was 300 years of Ottoman rule here. Then came the British and French empires. What remains of any of that? Then came the Cold War, which was really surreal. The Americans and the Russians spent billions, on what?

Now there’s an investigation under way in Russia, on how much they invested in Egypt. About 60 billion dollars, largely in weaponry. Did they win wars? No. Is there a Communist party there? No. It’s banned. So why did they spend all that money?…

So many victims. So much money. Enough.

What’s your message for Israel on Independence Day?

We have to conduct our policy of peace in a Jewish way. We have to conduct our future according to Jewish values. This is the greatest strategy.

‘Through good will and generosity, although not without strength, you can achieve peace, and by wrong policies you can postpone it’

Everybody was born in the image of the Lord, whether you’re an Arab or whether you’re a Jew. Some people say with the Arabs you cannot make peace. Well, what do you know? We made peace with the Arabs. In Jordan there are Arabs. We didn’t make peace with them? We did. With Egypt? We did. Didn’t the Palestinians split — part for peace, part for terror?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Shimon Peres at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, July 18, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and President Shimon Peres at the opening ceremony of the Maccabiah Games in Jerusalem, July 18, 2013. (Photo credit: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

I believe that through good will and generosity, although not without strength, you can achieve peace, and by wrong policies you can postpone it. And, by the way, in order to achieve peace, the first party you have to convince is your own party. Because your own party says we are for peace, we are ready to pay the price, but why do you pay so much, why are you so naive?

Look, what is the alternative? Not to pay? Not to believe?

President Shimon Peres meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan, at the World Economic Forum in Amman, Jordan on May 26, 2013. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/FLASH90)
President Shimon Peres meets with King Abdullah II of Jordan, at the World Economic Forum in Amman, Jordan on May 26, 2013. (Photo credit: Mark Neyman/GPO/FLASH90)

I saw things that at the beginning were considered unbelievable, coming true, like peace with Egypt, like peace with Jordan, like a partial peace with the Palestinians. And we have to go on.

And what do you say to the Jewish world?

We are a united Jewish people spiritually. Our spiritual union kept us together even when we didn’t have an independent state. Now that we have an independent state, we can be more united, without giving up the individual preferences.

You know The Times of Israel appears in Arabic now, as well. So a message for the Arab world?

There are 350 million Arabs in the Middle East. Sixty percent of them are below the age of 25. Hundreds of millions of them are already connected [to the internet]. I think this is the beginning of the change because if the young generation is connected, like all young generations in the world, they will search for peace and search for answers to their real problems, instead of continuing old images and old mistakes.

This is your last Independence Day as president. Does Israel need a president and why?

Israel needs a president because I think you need to have more than just one person at the top. One represents the administration, the government. The other represents the people and the mood. One represents the present situation. The other should act for the desired situation.

Advice for your successor?

Pay attention to the culture of the national life. As our sages say, derech eretz kadma l’Torah (roughly: Be a mensch). The president can contribute greatly if he will understand that a president is serving, not ruling. To serve is not less important than to rule.

To sum it up with a joke: The British High Commissioner used to sign himself as “your obedient servant.” Once an Israeli official wrote him a letter, addressing it to: “My dear obedient servant.” I suggest that the president be the obedient servant.

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