Shimon Peres has been a key figure in the Israeli political milieu for so long, that he can easily afford to say "I told you so" to most of his critics. And about things he can't yet prove, he can say "wait and see." That's his message to those who are not convinced that his vision of a "new Middle East" will be realized, or that an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will be reached. Time will tell, he says.

Peres' vision for the future and his actions in the past have resulted in a high honor. On Wednesday, the U.S. president presented the Medal of Freedom to the Israeli president. It's the highest civilian award bestowed in the United States. Peres says it's not his honor, but Israel's honor.

"This is an achievement for the relations between the two countries," Peres told Haaretz in an interview at the Blair House, the U.S. president's official state guest house. "I was surprised. There are 200 countries and the honor could go to any one of them, but they chose Israel. I say Israel, because you can't really separate me from Israel; we are one entity. Those who claim I got this medal 'because of the elections' - well, there are larger minority groups than Jews in the United States."

Seeking peace, serving people

When asked what he sees as his greatest achievement to date, Peres said it's that people believe "in the sincerity of [his] efforts" to bring peace.

"Frankly, I didn't know so many people in the world know about me," he said. "But even when I visited Mauritania, workers at the port shouted 'Shimon Peres.' I think people believe that I seek to serve people more than I seek power. I can compile a long list of what I gave up in life - including power - to serve people, because that's what brings me real satisfaction. I usually like people, I always help if I can, and I hope I never did anything to harm anyone."

Among the invited guests at the White House ceremony were members of the late Yitzhak Rabin's family. While Peres and Rabin were leaders in the same party, tensions between the two were an open secret for years. But Peres noted that it's impossible not to honor Rabin on such an occasion. "Rabin was my partner in the peace process, he paid with his life ... After all these years, and the ups and downs in our relationship, it's almost an historical placation. I never said a bad word about Rabin, and it's very gallant of the Rabin family to make it all the way to Washington to express the same sentiment. Yitzhak is a part of history, no one can ignore that."

Defending his record

Peres has long been a somewhat controversial figure, especially for the right wing, but at 88, he's finally reached the status of popular mainstream statesman. Still, he's eager to defend his past record and certainly won't tolerate anyone calling him a "loser" for his past political misfortunes.

"I was in a unique position. I was a 24 year old baby when Ben-Gurion gave me a job, and in a short period of time, I enjoyed his unprecedented trust. All those who were afraid to attack Ben-Gurion attacked me instead. Besides, many things I was dealing with were confidential, and I didn't immediately run to tell friends, as is done today."

He also notes that he gets a lot of credit today for things he came under attack for in the past. "The crisis in our relations with France, the reactor, the air industry - I never gave up on my beliefs. People said it was all just my fantasies. 'It's rubbish,' they said, 'Who is he to make these predictions?' But today many of the things I predicted are happening. I didn't change, but with some historic perspective, people see me differently."

I asked the president if he would still choose a career in politics if he could make the choice again. He insists he never chose a career in politics. "I was among the founding members of Kibbutz Alumim, and I was a happy man. I was called to serve in the Haganah in 1947, and I thought it would be for a short period of time. But 'one to two years' turned into 65 years. I also became a prisoner of actions. I wanted to leave a couple of times, but I couldn't just abandon things in the middle."

Serious peace partners

Peres does not believe public relations, what is known to Israelis as hasbara, is the country's problem. "I think a good deed is self-explanatory," he said. "And things that are bad - you can't really rationalize them."

As to which category Israeli actions fall into, perhaps it's not so clear cut. But both Israel and the Palestinians are "serious partners for peace," Peres says.

"I think both the Palestinians and Israel are tired of wars. We didn't want to occupy; we found ourselves in a situation in which we didn't want to be. In 1967, the victory was so big that we could have translated it into an even bigger diplomatic achievement. But there is no point in crying over spilled milk. The Palestinians also have their domestic problems. I warned [Yasser] Arafat that if he would have more than one gun, he would not have one nation. So this was their mistake.

"On our side, the problem is we are ready for peace, but when we are asked to pay the price, people cry, 'Why is it so high?' Peace, like love, you can't make with your eyes wide open. You need to close them a little bit."

Peres explained how the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, which have become the main point of contention between Israel and much of the rest of the world in the past few years, can be dealt with. "Only the three large settlement blocs should remain. Those who want to stay will remain there, those who want to come home will receive compensation. I think it's possible and reasonable".

A new Middle East

Peres has been talking for years about a new Middle East, and the turmoil surrounding Israel doesn't scare him.

"There is going to be a new Middle East, there is no choice. Maybe I was mistaken with the timeline, but there is no return to the past. Sometimes ideas are more powerful than armies and dictatorships. When I met Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg, I thought how he has made a bigger revolution than Lenin and Stalin - without killing anyone and without a political party. And his revolution reached town squares in Cairo. There is nothing easy in life and everything comes with risks. I don't believe in winning the lottery out of the blue. But despite risks, you do things."

Practically, Peres said, Israel is the "good guy" in the Middle East. But potentially, he says everyone is a good guy. "I don't believe in differences between men. Arabs, black people - they are exactly like me. I think the Arab [countries] can be like us, and we can help them, through empathy, not repeated disputes. I think that's the reason I have their trust. I won't tell them something that is not true, and they know it".

I asked Peres how he would respond to those who claim it is "lucky" we never made peace with Syria, or "we would be at war in the Golan Heights today." The president gave an exasperated answer. "Oh come on," he said. "People need more sophistication than that. Karl Marx once said that a leader can make history, but not necessarily the one he intended to. I met many leaders that were forced to follow reality."

As to how we should be dealing with the situation in Syria today, Peres said "we should let the Arab League do the job. For years they've complained about interventions. If Americans intervene again, there will be more complaints. The Arab League says it's a disaster there? Take care of it, and we'll assist in every way we can."

Crazy enough to pose danger

Peres has expressed support for dialogue with Iran, but he also accused Tehran of "exploiting American democracy." The bottom line, he said, is that it is important that non-military options be employed. "But dialogue should be strictly limited in time, so that the Iranian program does not reach the point of no return." The president said that Iranian leadership is not acting as a rational player, when it comes to the nuclear issue. "It doesn't mean they are totally crazy, but crazy enough to pose danger."

He reiterated what he said two months ago about trusting U.S. President Obama to solve the problem. "I trust him because the world can't afford itself the Middle East falling prey to Iran. This is not child's play and it's not a matter of some nice gesture; we are talking about the entire world economy. It just cannot happen.

"The problem today is that the national governments are weakened. There is a global economy, but no global government. There is no one in charge of the terror, so there is a need to create coalitions. Now, when you try to create a coalition, differences pop up - between the U.S., Russia, China ... I think the cooperation of Arab countries could purge the coalition from the marginal interests of the other players involved."

Pollard plea

Peres' plea to President Obama to grant clemency to convicted Israeli spy Jonathan Pollard reached headlines again this week, despite the fact that the president already raised the topic in the past with Obama, and the only result was him noting that "President Obama heard me," without any promise of action.

I asked him about former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., Itamar Rabinovich, saying that the Americans haven't released Pollard because they were concerned he didn't act by himself (though Rabinovich eventually made some caveats to his remarks ).

"I have no idea what the Americans' considerations are. They won't tell me, and I see no reason to guess. I have no appeal on his conviction, I have made a humanitarian appeal. I know sometimes it's a process from hell, with all the different pros and cons involved. I encountered this process, made decisions and was even criticized for them.

"I don't know what pressures Obama faces and don't expect him to tell me, as I don't tell people about mine when I ponder the granting of clemency. I just express my position on the Pollard case."