Facing Tomorrow, Peres Addresses Problems Besetting Middle East

Ahead of his 90th birthday and the opening of his Israeli Presidential Conference, Shimon Peres talks about Syria, Iran and the future.

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On the occasion of his upcoming 90th birthday and the opening of the fifth annual Israeli Presidential Conference, President Shimon Peres gave a wide-ranging interview to Reuters, in which he discussed Syria, Iran, the peace process with the Palestinians and other issues crucial to Israel and its neighbors.

Peres dismissed the idea that Israel could launch a unilateral military strike against Iran's nuclear facilities and urged Palestinians and Israelis to forge immediate peace.

Looking at the many problems besetting the Middle East, Israel's elder statesmen, who is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate, said terror groups were ripping apart the Arab world.

Many Israeli politicians have cautioned against giving weapons to the increasingly radicalized rebel fighters, fearful that the arms would sooner or later be used against Israel, which shares a tense frontier with its old foe Syria.

But asked if the U.S. decision to provide military assistance to the rebels was wise, Peres said "Yes."

"They didn't have a choice," he added, sitting in the sun-soaked garden of his Jerusalem residence and speaking in quiet, measured tones.

"Unfortunately it is becoming more of a confrontation between two superpowers and [there is] a growing intervention of outside forces. It is a tragedy," he told Reuters.

Presidential Conference to get underway

Meanwhile, the fifth Israeli Presidential Conference entitled Facing Tomorrow 2013: The Human Factor in Shaping Tomorrow, will kick off Tuesday evening at the Jerusalem International Convention Center. Organized in partnership with Hebrew University, the three-day event is expected to bring together thousands of delegates and guests to participate in panels, classes, round tables and other sessions dedicated to what organizers are calling the issues central to our future: geopolitics, economics, society, environment, culture, identity, education, new media, and more.

This year's conference features diverse speakers, including leading U.S. Jewish leaders, ambassadors, economists, scientists and world leaders such as former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, actor Robert De Niro, and former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

Under the auspices of Peres, the conference will also include festivities in celebration of his 90th birthday, which is in August.

One man who will not be attending the Presidential Conference is prominent British scientist Stephen Hawking, who pulled out of the event last month to protest Israel's occupation of the Palestinians.

Peres said the boycott was a mistake, but urged his government to find a way to resume peace negotiations with the Palestinians which broke down in 2010 over the issue of continued Jewish settlement building on occupied land.

U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry hopes to revive the talks and Peres said the opportunity must be seized. "I say again and again, clear and loud, we have to make peace right now," Peres said.

Ever optimistic, Peres thought the settler problem could be overcome, pointing to ideas outlined in previous negotiations.

"They were offered two options. One, the settlers that want to come back [to Israel] should come back and be compensated. There will be three blocs for the ones that want to remain. What will be in the [next] negotiations, we will see in the future," he said.

Peres greets Prince Albert of Monaco. Credit: AP
President Shimon Peres in Jerusalem.Credit: Reuters
President Shimon Peres meets with American actor Robert De Niro at the President's residence in Jerusalem, on June 18, 2013.Credit: AFP

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