Peres to Haaretz: Israel Must Not Put Off Peace Process With Palestinians

In an expansive interview with Haaretz, President Shimon Peres explains why peace is still possible with the Palestinians, his frustrations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and why he really is the retiring type.

The incidental interviewer doesn't have to break a sweat to get President Shimon Peres to sit back in his armchair and detail, with enthusiasm and at length, his vision of what the State of Israel will ideally look like in three years' time. After all, Peres and vision are synonymous. Like in Shmulik Kraus' song, Peres is one of those who sees far and sees transparently. Everything is clear to him, everything is lucid and understood.

Peres is in no doubt that he sees correctly. His only bother is that the folks around him do not see what he sees. And, perhaps, it bothers him that he will no longer be around when things sort themselves out and fall into place, in accordance with the guidelines he has drawn up for them.

President Shimon Peres.
Alex Levac

Speaking with Peres about retirement at 67 is like talking to the Pope about converting to Islam. Peres passed that age 21 years ago, and as he says of himself, not a day has gone by - neither before nor after he turned 67 - that he has not toiled for peace.

Peres' official retirement is scheduled to begin two years and three months from now, when he will be 91. Then he will have to bid farewell to the President's Residence, his workplace for the past five years, and embark, for the first time since he was 25 or 26 - who can remember? - upon civilian life, without a job and title.

To say that he is beside himself with excitement at the prospect would not be accurate. Good souls around him come to him and say: "What is this notion of retiring like this in midlife? Arrange another term for yourself at the Residence, another seven years of activity. When you are 98 we can talk about taking a little rest."

Peres smiles enjoyably at the question, but doesn't fall into the trap: "I hear these things, but no. It's enough for me, and enough for everyone else. One has to be careful of these compliments. Not to fall prey to compliments. I will take a shot against compliments. There are songs that I love, and there are songs that I hate. One of the songs I hate is: 'Ma la'asot, ma la'asot / She'ani yafa kazot' [What can I do, what can I do / That I am so beautiful]. I am not that beautiful."

If you discover someday that people who have your interests at heart are proposing to change the law and give you another term, what will you say?

Here Peres exercises caution. He does not say he will refuse under any circumstances. He does not say he will ask them to drop it at once. "I will not initiate and will not encourage that," he chooses to reply. "I will have things to do in the future too, after the presidency. Who will keep me from dealing with things that interest me? Science is more important than politics, and the brain is more important than the body. People will go on listening to me even when I am no longer president. On the other hand, I do not deny that today I have more possibilities.

"The public," he continues and elaborates, "does not want governance or rulers. The public wants leaders of another kind. Not the sort who stand up and say: 'I am on top, I am a hero, I am strong,' but rather the sort who go forward. The sort who want to serve, not to reign. When I was prime minister, I tried to be that sort."

In truth, Peres ought to know that it's not going to happen. Tailor-made laws, personal (Peres-onal ) ones are very problematic. Even in the case of living legends. Even if we are talking about one of the world's greatest statesmen and the ultimate president, the best the State of Israel could have wished for. More than a decade ago, the Knesset changed the law that had limited the president to two terms of five years each, and determined a single seven-year term. No one in the political system is imagining a law that would double the presidential term from seven to 14 years. That simply will not happen. The Knesset isn't about to go completely crazy.

So what will the state look like at 67, a year after Peres is no longer president?

"The answer to that question has to be split into two: Things that have to be completed by age 67, and things that have to be started," Peres says. "The thing that must be finished by then is the negotiations for peace. This has been going on for too long. We have no choice, and we have the possibility. And there is no other solution. I am aware of the other opinions, which claim that peace is unattainable, and I do not accept them. And if I may - I have a little experience."

Do you really think that three years from now Israel and the Palestinians will be able to live in peace? Isn't that being naive?

"It is doable. It is possible. We must not put it off, because if we delay we will roll backward instead of advancing. People understand that another war will not help. Its price will be high, and its outcome low."

What are the odds of a war breaking out in the coming year?

"A smaller chance than before. People realize that nothing good can come of it. There have been periods in my life when I was a hawk and there have been periods when I was a dove. I was a hawk when I thought there was no chance for peace, and I became a dove when I thought there was a chance for peace."

Everyone is talking about a war with Iran during the upcoming year. It's practically a consensus.

"I prefer that we go with the United States than without the United States. I prefer that we go with the world than without the world. There are those who say there is no assurance that economic sanctions against Iran will work. And who is promising us that military sanctions will work? Do they always work? The United States has invested a trillion dollars in the war on terror since the Twin Towers. Nu? So what happened? Is there no terrorism?"

One needn't strain one's brain in search of hidden signs to figure out to whom his words are addressed. Peres barely mentions, for now, the name of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, but Netanyahu's spirit is hovering in the room. Many of the things Peres says in the interview, which took place at his office on the day after Passover, correlate - to this interviewer's best understanding - with Netanyahu's statements, actions, speeches, policy and fiascoes.

Outwardly, the duo continue to maintain a good and close relationship. The spokesmen from both offices take care to get out the good word - about cooperation, coordination, regular one-on-one meetings. In reality there are hiccups, and there is a sobering up.

"We have to go for a peace process, period," Peres says decisively. "This doesn't require strategic advisers. Matters are clear and explicit. I have had no small number of conversations with Abu Mazen [Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas]. All of them were held with the prime minister's knowledge. He knew and knows all the details. Before and after the talks. And these talks led me to believe that it would have been possible to make peace. With Abu Mazen. And yes, contrary to statements, Abu Mazen wants peace and is capable of delivering the goods. He is a worthy partner and it would have been possible to make peace with him. And I say this based on knowledge and based on facts."

So why didn't it happen? Why has nothing happened for the past three years, the years of Netanyahu's government?

"Because the prime minister thinks there is another way," Peres says, and does not conceal his displeasure. "He chose the path of removing checkpoints, hundreds of checkpoints in the West Bank, which really does help the Palestinian economy to blossom, to build institutions and pass laws. These I commend. We built a state, even before we had a state. That is what the Palestinians are doing today.

"I also hear constant criticism about the disengagement from Gaza, that we shouldn't have left [Netanyahu, for example, is one of the harshest critics of the 2005 disengagement, despite having supported it at certain stages when he served as finance minister in Ariel Sharon's government]. I supported leaving Gaza and I support it today too. It is possible that it could have been done differently. But to say that we should never have left? What would have been the point? If we had remained there we would have wound up with dozens more dead - settlers and soldiers."

Both three years and two years ago, I sat here and heard you utter very optimistic statements about Netanyahu.

"Because I was convinced he was going to negotiate. He truly did institute an important and positive change in the territories, removing the checkpoints. But what didn't get done is the negotiations."

You were in the United States, you spoke with U.S. President Barack Obama. What is your impression?

"I believe that he means what he says, that all the options are on the table regarding Iran. Obama is a very impressive person. Despite the criticism of him, he has delivered quite a few revolutions. The health [insurance] revolution, for example. That is huge. Forty million people in the United States were without health insurance; now that is supposed to change. He is restoring the scientific issue to the top of America's priorities."

Let's go back for a moment to the State of Israel three years from now. What is the chance that there will be peace here?

"A reasonable chance," Peres declares. "Yes. There is a reasonable chance. I don't know of any prime minister who influenced reality more than reality influenced him. Not Begin, who made peace with Egypt, and not Ben-Gurion, who retreated from Sinai. In the end, reality wins."

And you are aware, of course, of the political reality. Of Netanyahu's problems, with himself and with his coalition.

"I've said before that Netanyahu has coalition problems." In private conversations, Peres tends to liken the government to what he terms "an uncalibrated scale." In his opinion, it leans too much to the right. "When a scale is uncalibrated," he says, "the resulting weight will never be correct. When the government leans too far to the right, or to the left, the decisions it makes are never good."

It's no secret that you are not pleased with the makeup of Netanyahu's government. It is too right wing for your taste.

"I said in the past and I say it again now: I am in favor of a national unity government. That is a more balanced government."

Toward the end of the interview, Peres recollects that he only spoke about what must be completed by the time the state turns 67, but what about the things that have yet to be started? "From a scientific-philosophical standpoint, the world is going to change direction," he happily elaborates. "The instrument that can yield the maximum is the head. The coming decade will be dedicated entirely to brain research. The United States is already going in this direction. There is so much to explore in the human brain and so much to gain from studies. I know a little bit about the subject, and I find astonishing things there. McKinsey & Company did preliminary research for the President's Residence on a certain segment of the brain, which is worth a million dollars. From it too they produced quite a bit of data. Just imagine what could be done with a budget of billions! In my opinion, Israel needs to transfer all of the future income from oil and gas to education and science. All of it! All of it!

"Today it is obvious that a person's fate is determined from the age of 0 to 3," Peres adds. "If you do not distribute all of the food groups for free at these ages, you are harming the child. And if you do not arrange for free education from kindergarten to academia, you are harming the person and the future, and the state. Education must be free, from kindergarten age up to university. So everyone will study."