At home, he is credited with turning Israel into a nuclear power as well as stabilizing and strengthening the economy during the 1980s. Globally, he is recognized as the figure behind the Oslo agreements and the backbone of the peace process with the Palestinians. But the past appears of little interest to Peres. “I don’t waste time looking back and remembering,” he says. “I hope my proudest moment is still to come, when there is peace in my country.”
We would prefer to see how the economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure on Iran play out, but all the options are on the table
In the last few months, Peres has become Israel’s conscience. Most Israeli politicians, particularly those in Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition government, appear to have turned their backs on the situation in the West Bank and the shame of its apartheid wall, not to mention the blockade of the Gaza Strip and general prospects for peace. But the president is an exception. When asked what he wishes for on his 90th birthday, he replies: “Only peace,” adding with a frown: “It’s more of a psychological problem than a political one. It’s about overcoming the skepticism.”
Peace is something Peres is genuinely passionate about, and that is why he has decided to put all his weight behind US Secretary of State John Kerry’s attempt to engineer an unconditional return to the negotiating table by both parties.
— Do you share Kerry’s sense of urgency?
I don’t think Bashar al-Assad can stay in power – a leader who has killed so many of his own people can’t continue to serve them
— We should always have a sense of urgency when it comes to peace; we should never waste time putting an end to conflict or war. I believe that we have a chance to reestablish the negotiations and it shouldn’t be missed. There’s no alternative to a two-state solution.
His birthday is on August 2, but Peres will be celebrating this week with a conference in Jerusalem entitled “Facing Tomorrow,” with Bill Clinton and Tony Blair speaking alongside a number of peace brokers.
Peres is now six years through a seven-year presidential mandate that has spanned both Ehud Olmert’s spell in office as prime minister, and then Netanyahu’s.
In the first few years of Netanyahu’s term, Peres acted as a counterbalance – a sort of peacemaker between the prime minister and the international community and, above all, a buffer between Israel and the White House when relations with Barack Obama soured.
Last year, he used his 89th birthday celebrations to introduce a note of calm when Netanyahu was raising the war cry against Iran and its nuclear threat. “There was no way we could achieve this alone,” says Peres, who provoked Netanyahu’s wrath by triggering dissent. According to his supporters, Peres’ relationship with Netanyahu is today greatly improved.
— What other options does the international community have when it comes to Iran?
— Iran is a serious threat, not just to Israel, but to the entire world. Its ambition is to control the Middle East and terrorize the world. The first to be victimized by the Iranian regime are the Iranians themselves who are seeing their human rights depleted from one day to the next. In its eagerness for a nuclear weapon, it ignores its duty to its people whose needs are for food and employment not enriched uranium. President Obama is heading up a global coalition dedicated to peace and stability in the region. None of us wants to use force; we would prefer to see how the economic sanctions and diplomatic pressure [on Iran] play out, but all the options are on the table.
— Have relations between Netanyahu and Obama improved since his last visit to Israel three months ago?
— You need to ask them; but what I can say is that relations between Israel and the US are excellent. Obama’s visit was a breath of fresh air and highlighted the depth of the friendship and the strength of America’s commitment to Israel.
With the Syrian conflict now taking precedence, Peres warns against the danger of Israel’s involvement. So far this year, the Israeli air force has made three attacks on military targets near Damascus. US Intelligence thinks that they were targeting Iranian missiles being sent to Lebanon.
“Our involvement in the Syrian conflict can only have negative repercussions,” says Peres. “I don’t see how we can save Syria or promote peace in this way. I don’t think Bashar al-Assad can stay in power – a leader who has killed so many of his own people can’t continue to serve them. I propose that the Arab League creates an Arab force in blue helmets with the support of the UN and puts an end to the bloodletting to allow an interim government to be set up.”
Despite his age, Peres continues to be the soul of eloquence. He has always been a great orator, a talent that helped him to become a force to be reckoned with in Israeli politics but also the reason he has proved more popular on the international stage as foreign minister than at home.
As Israel’s founding father Ben Gurion’s protégé, he became Director General of Defense in 1953, a post that enabled him to strengthen the country’s relations with France, which subsequently helped Israel build a nuclear reactor in the Negev desert. Peres went on to become a labor party politician and joined the ranks of Israel’s parliament in 1959. Twenty-five years later, he was voted in as prime minister for the first time, heading up a coalition of Labor and the right-wing party, Likud. Following Isaac Rabin’s assassination in 1995, he became prime minister for a second term.
Of all the dreams and aspirations he has harbored for Israel since he first set foot in the British Mandate of Palestine in 1934, Peres never envisaged that the state would end up becoming home to six million Jews – the same number that perished in the Holocaust that killed so many of his family. This number was topped last March when Israel overtook the Jewish population in the US. “It’s bigger than my dream,” says Peres. “I regret not having dreamed big enough.”
English version by Heather Galloway.