[Dr. Aaron Lerner - IMRA: Shimon Peres has lately adopted a novel approach
to dealing with his consistent record of failing in policy making in
Arab-Israeli affairs over close to two decade: he argues that the past
should be ignored. The beauty of dismissing the past is that one is left
with rhetoric stripped of the need to defend its assertions against the
reality of past experience. And this is perfect for Mr. Peres. Because if
the requirement is nothing more than a well turned phrase then this is most
definitely something that President Peres excels in. ]
SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli President Shimon Peres 'We Have to Open
Negotiations Right Away'
The United Nations has recognized a Palestinian state and Israeli Prime
Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to prefer confrontation over negotiation.
But in an interview with SPIEGEL, Israeli President Shimon Peres says that
there is no alternative to re-starting peace talks, adding that it is time
to forget the past.
SPIEGEL: In a recent vote, the United Nations essentially recognized a state
of Palestine by granting it "non-member observer status." Are you
disappointed by that decision?
Peres: You can criticize the UN resolution, but it doesn't matter. I learned
a long time ago that there is one thing in life you cannot change, and that
is the past. What happened, happened.
SPIEGEL: Will the UN decision make peace negotiations with the Palestinians
Peres: I don't know if more difficult, but more necessary. Now the major
issue will be the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the two
parties will try to hunt each other. Is that a prospect for the future?
That's what we've done the whole time: They used to blame us, and we used to
blame them. But we have to forget the past.
SPIEGEL: Yet when making claims to the Holy Land, both sides cite thousands
of years of history.
Peres: We are not going to deal with Abraham, our father and brother. It's
SPIEGEL: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though, refers to that
history on an almost daily basis.
Peres: History is necessary to justify the present. But to go back 2,000
years? My God, leave it to the historians. What happened 2,000 years ago is
not being repeated today. My proposal is: Draw a line and say there is a
forgiveness of the past; we are not going to sue each other. It's a waste of
time. We have to open negotiations without prior conditions right away. And
right away means after parliamentary elections on January 22.
SPIEGEL: Germany abstained in the recent UN vote on Palestinian status. One
element contributing to Berlin's position was Chancellor Angela Merkel's
frustration that Netanyahu has yet to enter into negotiations with the
Palestinians. Can you understand her position?
Peres: I would have liked Germany to vote differently. But so what? When I
look deeper and ask myself what I prefer, a German Europe or a Germany that
is European, I prefer a European Germany. And this decision is part of
Germany being European.
SPIEGEL: Last Thursday, high-level meetings between Israeli and German
cabinet members were held in Berlin. Before arriving, Prime Minister
Netanyahu complained about Germany's UN vote. What do you think about the
state of German-Israeli relations?
Peres: I think the relationship is fair, and I think that the attitude of
Chancellor Merkel is remarkable. She has her positions, and her thinking is
constant. I respect her very much. Germany's ties to Israel are deep, not
opportunistic. It happens from time to time that we have a disagreement.
Even the blue skies of the Mediterranean have clouds sometimes. But the sky
SPIEGEL: Germany wasn't alone. With the exception of the Czech Republic,
every EU country either voted in favor of the Palestinians or abstained. Is
Israel becoming increasingly isolated?
Peres: They didn't vote for us because of the lack of negotiations. As soon
as we start negotiations, they will support us.
SPIEGEL: But what if there aren't any negotiations?
Peres: No negotiations is not a possibility. We have to negotiate.
Basically, we already have a foundation for an agreement: two states and the
settlement blocks. There will be three blocks, and we shall give to the
Palestinians an equal piece of land. The settlements take up maybe 2 to 6
percent of the West Bank. It's not unsolvable.
SPIEGEL: If the solution is really so simple, why wasn't peace achieved many
Peres: The real problem is how to start negotiations. You cannot begin the
negotiations with the end. So we have to define how to start. And I think we
have to start the following way: To say what happened until now will stop
and there will be a forgiveness of the past. We have to start without prior
SPIEGEL: You had a series of secret meetings with Palestinian President
Mahmoud Abbas more than a year ago. The two of you had gotten close to
reaching an agreement on how to restart negotiations. But at that point,
Netanyahu asked you to break off contact.
Peres: Look, that's the past again. But Netanyahu agreed to a two-state
SPIEGEL: On paper, perhaps. But nothing has happened. And in all likelihood,
the next government will be even less willing to negotiate.
Peres: The future government will have to make a strategic decision. And
Israel doesn't have a better choice than the two-state solution.
SPIEGEL: Is that just your opinion? Or does Prime Minister Netanyahu share
it as well? His actions would seem to indicate that he doesn't.
Peres: These four years will not be repeated.
SPIEGEL: What makes you so sure?
Peres: My experience. That's the difference between young and old. I am old.
I can tell you, reality affects leaders more than any leader affects
reality. I am sure Netanhayu doesn't want a bi-national state. A bi-national
state would not have peace -- because of the tension, the differences and
the smallness of the land.
SPIEGEL: But it seems more like Netanyahu wants to preserve the status quo.
Peres: At the moment, yes, maybe. But there will be another moment.
SPIEGEL: How have you retained your optimism over all these years of strife?
Peres: I remember the early days. I came to a country that had nothing, a
small piece of land with a swamp in the north and a desert in the south. We
didn't have water. We had two lakes -- one dead, the other dying -- and one
river, the Jordan, which has more fame than water. In 1948, we were a small
group of 650,000 people surrounded by tremendous hostility, outgunned,
outnumbered, without natural resources. We had a war before we had a state.
We had an army before we had a government. We didn't have a chance -- and
yet, look what happened.
SPIEGEL: That was 1948. But if you compare the current situation to the
hopeful times of August 1993, when the Oslo peace accords were signed, you
have to admit that things have gotten much worse.
Peres: Some critics also said that we would never make peace with any Arab
country. We made peace with Egypt; we made peace with Jordan. We started to
make peace with the Palestinians. And, as a matter of fact, there is a
Palestinian Authority, and there is sort of a relationship.
SPIEGEL: What are the chances that you will live to see successful
negotiations concluded between the Israelis and Palestinians?
Peres: One-hundred percent. It may take a little bit more time than I wish.
We have to be patient, we have to be constant and we shouldn't listen to
pessimists. They make as many mistakes as the optimists.
SPIEGEL: One could also see your constant optimism as nothing more than a
fig leaf for a government that lacks sufficient will to compromise.
Peres: Such accusations are nonsense. In my long political career, I have
participated in doing unbelievable things for this country. What I did are
real things -- not fig leaves, but figs, the fruits.
SPIEGEL: Some see Netanyahu's current term as prime minister as four lost
years in terms of reform and important changes. During his term, the climate
has also become more hostile toward African immigrants and Israeli Arabs.
Peres: I'm not so sure that everything is so bleak. Look at relations with
Arabs in Israel itself: It looks like an impossible relationship. But if you
look a bit closer, there are islands of peace between us. For instance, take
health care. There is not a single hospital in Israel that doesn't have Arab
nurses, doctors, patients and Jewish doctors, nurses and patients working
together without problems. It's complete peace in the hospitals.
SPIEGEL: Many in Israel view the Arab Spring as an "Arab winter." Do you
share that view?
Peres: I see it as a "world spring" rather than an Arab spring. The climate
of change is global, not national. And you can't come to a world spring
dressed for winter.
SPIEGEL: To what extent have the revolutions in the Arab world influenced
what happens in Israel?
Peres: Not everything that happens in the Middle East is connected to
Israel. The bloodshed in Syria is not connected to Israel. Egypt has nothing
to do with Israel. And the same goes for Tunisia and Yemen. There are some
fanatics who try to introduce the conflict between us and the Palestinians
as an excuse for their extremism, but they are a minority. So I think we
have to disconnect ourselves from this transitional period in the Middle
SPIEGEL: You have spoken about a "new Middle East" for decades. Is the
Middle East that is currently taking shape like the one you have envisioned?
Peres: There is not yet a new Middle East. There is a divorce from the old
Middle East, but not yet a new Middle East. We're in a period of transition.
But they are building governments; the process has started. The young
generation has already achieved something. First of all, they got rid of
their dictators. They pushed their countries to elections. They didn't know
how to win elections, but they did introduce elections.
SPIEGEL: Four months ago, shortly before you celebrated your 89th birthday,
you publicly warned Israelis against making a unilateral strike on Iran.
What worried you so much that you chose to speak out?
Peres: The problem of Iran is a global problem. Israel doesn't have to
SPIEGEL: Does that mean you don't trust your country's current leaders to
make the right decision?
Peres: I respect leaders, but I respect realities as well. And I prefer to
go with a coalition led by the United States. President Barack Obama, in my
judgment, is a serious and constant leader. He is against Iranians having a
bomb because it's a danger to the world.
SPIEGEL: You recently complained about losing sleep because you're so
worried. Should we be worried, too?
Peres: Sure, I am worried … and therefore I expressed my views. Even Russian
President Vladimir Putin told me he can't stand a nuclear bomb in the hands
of the Iranians. So why do it alone? I don't understand that.
SPIEGEL: Your positions on this and many other issues are contrary to those
held by the current government and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Why aren't you
more openly critical?
Peres: I prefer to express what I am for, and not what I am against.
SPIEGEL: Many Israelis were expecting to see you run as the head of the
opposition in the upcoming elections. Why did you ultimately choose not to
Peres: I was elected for seven years as president. I want to fulfill what I
took upon myself. I don't lack opportunities. I don't feel that I am idle. I
think that I have to tell the story of my country and where we are heading.
SPIEGEL: Did you ever even consider running?
Peres: I feel that I can influence just as much with goodwill as with
administrative power. I think I have, in a way, an educational
responsibility to tell young people where we are heading. I hope I'm not
exaggerating, but I hope that people are listening to me very carefully.
SPIEGEL: President Peres, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Hans Hoyng and Juliane von Mittelstaedt