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Peace talks aborted to give International Quartet plan “a chance” – Israeli President | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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Tel Aviv, Asharq Al-Awsat – Israeli President Shimon Peres is the elder statesmen of Israeli politics. He has served as Israeli Prime Minister three times in his career, and has been a member of 12 cabinets in a political career spanning more than half a century. He was first elected to the Knesset in November 1959, and barring a three-month-long hiatus in early 2006, served continuously until 2007, when he was appointed President. Peres is widely respected within Israel, as well as the Arab world, and was a recipient of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, for the peace talks he participated in – as Israeli Foreign Minister – which produced the Oslo Accords.

In an exclusive interview with Asharq Al-Awsat, Israeli President Shimon Peres talks about the future of Palestinian – Israeli peace negotiations, the Arab Spring, and the threat of Iran.

The following is the full text of the interview:

[Asharq Al-Awsat] I met with you a few months ago just prior to your trip to Jordan to meet with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, to complete talks aimed at resuming the peace negotiations. At the time, you said that you were extremely optimistic about the chances of resuming peace negotiations, but nothing was achieved on the ground. What happened?

[Peres] The situation in Egypt became more complicated, whilst there was [also] rapprochement between Hamas and Fatah.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However, isn’t it true that you were the one who contacted Abbas at the last moment, informing him that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was not granting you permission to pursue the talks?

[Peres] Yes, things were impeded on that day, but I did not give up.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] On that day, did you reach any agreement with Abbas? Did this meeting achieve any serious progress?

[Peres] We made a lot of progress.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What progress? Whose ideas were implemented or agreed upon; your own ideas, those of Abbas, those of Netanyahu?

[Peres] Everything was in coordination with Prime Minister [Netanyahu].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Could this “progress” have resulted in a serious agreement?

[Peres] It could have been very serious, if we were not forced to stop.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What forced you to stop?

[Peres] The International Quartet submitted its new proposals, and Tony Blair and US officials arrived and offered to conduct direct meetings focusing on the issues of borders and security. They asked each party to put forward its proposals [on these issues] within three months…this is what halted our progress.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you are saying that it was the International Quartet – not Prime Minister Netanyahu – that halted your most recent efforts to reach an agreement with Abbas?

[Peres] Netanyahu told me that he wanted to give the International Quartet’s proposal a chance.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However since that there have been no direct Israeli – Palestinian contacts. In this case, how would you characterize the International Quartet’s intervention?

[Peres] This [Israeli – Palestinian communication] has not been cut off completely, but it is less than before. This period will end on 14 January.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you mean to say that the International Quartet’s proposal is doomed to failure, and the negotiations will return to their previous track?

[Peres] Yes, this is what I believe.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The International Quartet has asked each party to put forward its proposal regarding the issue of borders and security. As far as I know, the Palestinians have done this, putting forward their own initiative regarding the border issue, and supporting the initiative that was previously put forward by the US regarding security. However the Israelis have so-far failed to put forward any initiative, is this true?

[Peres] Since the Americans put forward their initiative regarding the security issue, new developments have occurred in the region. There is a lack of security in the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula and the Gaza Strip, whilst the situation in Syria and Lebanon is unclear. Even in Egypt, the situation is obscure, but we must not fall victim to despair.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However didn’t the Ehud Olmert government agree to the US proposal on the security issue?

[Peres] The present Israeli government does not see itself as being bound to accept what was agreed by Olmert.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why?

[Peres] This is because this was a proposal, not an agreement. Abbas did not sign any agreement with Olmert, so this is not binding to the next government.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is there any hope in the current hardline Netanyahu government reaching an agreement with the Palestinians?

[Peres] I believe in direct negotiations. The International Quartet is not an alternative to that. Every party in the International Quartet has its own interests and causes. Take Russia, for example…it is standing with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad who is slaughtering his own people, whilst the situation in Syria is a source of concern for both Jordan and Lebanon. President al-Assad, who began his political life as an eye-doctor, is now demonstrating that he is a butcher, whilst our Lebanese “friend” Hassan Nasrallah is serving Iran’s interests [in the region]. However despite this [conflicting interests], Russia is part of the International Quartet, and this is a new situation that is different from the past.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Is Israel concerned about the situation in Syria?

[Peres] Everybody is concerned. This concern is increasing over the lack of clarity regarding what is known as the “Arab Spring”, although I have a different view of this issue.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your view?

[Peres] I believe that the “Arab Spring” indicates that there is a new generation of youth in the Arab world who understands that if the Arab world does not join the modern economy it will not be able to extricate itself from poverty. The imams in the mosques cannot find solutions to financial crises. Of course, there is no contradiction between religion and Facebook and technology, but the Arab youth want water, economy, technology, freedom, and democracy. This is the issue; the river Nile is not able to solve Egypt’s [financial] problems today. Egypt’s population 50 years ago was 18 million, whilst today it is 81 million. As for Ethiopia, its population 50 years ago stood at 17 million, and today it stands at 80 million, whilst Sudan [today] has a population of around 50 million. These countries are utilizing the old water distribution agreement, and they cannot depend solely on the Nile. In Jordan, there is no water. Whilst we in Israel do not suffer from problems such as this; the Dead Sea is dying, and the Sea of Galilee is shrinking, but we do not suffer from water shortages, due to technological development. This is also the same reason why our agriculture is sufficient, and why one acre of land can produce the crop yield of 10 acres. This is something that could happen in Egypt and everywhere, on the condition that they pay attention to science and technology, not political and partisan conflict. Such conflicts only lead to starvation. The Arab youth are aware of this, and have revolted against it, and therefore the Muslim Brotherhood’s attempts to hijack the revolution will not succeed.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You say the Muslim Brotherhood will not succeed, but they won the highest number of votes in the two previous rounds of Egyptian parliamentary elections. Are you certain about this?

[Peres] Even if they win the elections…the people want their problems to be solved. The youth in the Arab world are the majority, and they are well aware that just as in the past it was impossible to live without land, it is impossible today to live without science and technology, and without employment. When 35 percent of the youth are unemployed, they will not find anything to satisfy them, unless they are provided with employment. They are revolting against the state of affairs where they are forced to live with their families in one house, without any hope for a secure future. Switching MPs is not what is required, what is required is a radical change in the management of the state’s affairs.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] So you are not worried about the outcome of the Arab Spring, as other senior Israeli officials and leaders have expressed?

[Peres] I have confidence in the youth generation, as well as [the youth generation] in the Arab World. I have confidence in the new developments that we have seen. I have confidence in globalization and in the economy. Globalization has destroyed racism, and struck a critical blow to national intolerance. Today, you need to produce and sell your products, so you cannot differentiate between white and black; because you want everybody to buy from you. Whoever acts in a racist way, will become bankrupt. Anyone who wants a narrow national economy will become bankrupt. This is a new world, and the Arab youth are a part of it. The Arab Spring brought about two essential things, namely striking down the dictators, and proving that dictatorships are no longer appropriate for our time.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] However what about those who warn that many of this generation of Arab youth harbor deep animosity towards the state of Israel?

[Peres] I do not think there is a sincere basis for this hatred. They should hate terrorism and extremisms. In Israel, there is a genuine desire for peace, and there is an internal conflict raging about this peace; terrorism is what prevents peace. We have withdrawn from the Gaza Strip, but it does not want to leave us…it pursues us with rocket attacks. We left Lebanon, and it also pursues us with rocket attacks. So what more does Hamas want from us?

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the West Bank? There is a national authority there led by Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad, there is the rule of law and no rocket attacks, whilst the leadership rejects violence and continually asserts its desire for peace. Yet despite all this, has the Israeli policy changed towards the West Bank?

[Peres] We are working together to reach peace, and I am certain that we will succeed. Let me also say that we are not creating peace in order to be charitable to the Palestinians, but rather because it is an urgent need for the Israelis. We have lost a lot, both the Palestinians and the Israelis, due to terrorism. I lost power (in 1996) due to terrorist operations. At the time, I travelled with Yasser Arafat to a number of European states to back economic support for the Palestinian Authority. Every time that we make developments we face new obstacles due to terrorism, and those who are behind this. The Iraqi people lost because of Saddam Hussein. Look at Libya, and how much the people of Libya lost over the 40years of Gaddafi rule. Look at the damage that Hezbollah is causing in Lebanon and Hamas to the Palestinians.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What is your response to those who say that Israel today is profoundly different to the country it was during your era, or the Rabin era? There is the joke that even if the entire Arab world converted to Judaism, this would still not be enough to convince Netanyahu to make peace.

[Peres] There is no need for them to convert to Judaism, just to stop firing rockets [at Israel]. Hamas in Gaza don’t want peace.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Hamas in Gaza, in many cases, is acting as Israel’s police force, preventing other Palestinian factions from firing rockets at Israel. Doesn’t this unofficial truce indicate there is potential for peace?

[Peres] At the end of the day, Hamas prefers Iranian funding more than anything else. It is Iran today that is present in Gaza.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] If this is your view of the situation, then how could you say – as you did previously – that you are optimistic about a peace agreement?

[Peres] I am optimistic because I will not stop working for the resumption of negotiations, and we can then lead these negotiations down a successful path.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Will this start on 14 January, when the International Quartet deadline runs out?

[Peres] We have never stopped communicating [with the Palestinians], however the extent of this communication has decreased. It will resume at a higher pace next month.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What kind of talks will take place? Will this be direct or indirect negotiations?

[Peres] These will be calm talks; talks where despair is forbidden. There are actions and positions that lead to despair, however I do not despair. Every party has made mistakes. We saw Abbas meeting Amina Muna, who was convicted of killing an [Israeli] youth. Do I agree with this? No, but I do respect this man [Abbas], although I don’t know why he agreed to a meeting such as this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] You have worked closely with Netanyahu for many years. Do you truly believe there is any hope that he is serious about the peace process?

[Peres] Yes, I do. There is a difference between him and myself; he has less faith that the peace negotiations will be successful, but he does want this. All the communication that I have conducted with the Palestinians took place in coordination between us. He is the Prime Minister of Israel. He is the decision-maker. He has different partisan and coalition issues to take into account, but he knows that there is no alternative to peace, for peace brings prosperity.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Do you think there are solutions to all the problems and obstacles that have been encountered during the peace process? The issue of settlements, Jerusalem, refugees, and others; do you truly believe it is possible for both sides to reach an agreement on these issues?

[Peres] Yes, there are possible solutions to all these issues, and they have been discussed and we have made a lot of progress. We will continue to talk [to resolve these issues].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What progress?

[Peres] I don’t want to go into the details here, so as not to harm this.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Allow me to ask you a different question. When you were negotiating with Yasser Arafat, did you reach any solutions or agreements that were not revealed publicly? Are any such agreements being raised with Abbas today?

[Peres] With Arafat, we reached many things. Arafat was necessary as this is where the process begun, but it was not possible to reach the end of the road with him.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Why is that?

[Peres] He would go back on things we had agreed on. He believed in the use of violence to exert pressure. He would make promises and then go back on his word. When I asked him about this, he answered that he did not want to cause a Palestinian civil war. One time, I remember I told him that the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben Gurion, did not hesitate to impose the authority of the state on the opposition, although many people warned him that this could incite a civil war. However this did not work. Despite this, let me stress that without Arafat, we would not have reached a situation such as this, where the issue of the establishment of a Palestinian state is a foregone conclusion in everybody’s view.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about Abbas?

[Peres] Abbas is a civilized leader who truly loves peace and who we can reach peace with. I respect him a lot. I always sense his dedication to the cause of peace. He sometimes surprises me….for example, the issue of resorting to the United Nations, or his meeting with the freed prisoner Amina Muna in Turkey. However he is diligent in his talk about rejecting violence, and his desire for peace, with security guarantees for both sides. I respect him.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Let us return to the situation in Syria. Do you also have confidence in the Syrian youth who are rising up against al-Assad, regardless of their possible political or religious background and beliefs?

[Peres] The Syrian opposition is united in one thing…getting rid of dictatorship. That is the most important thing, namely a democratic Syria. This is an important and positive step, not just for the Syrian people, but for the Arab people, and also Israel. Only Iran and its agents will lose from this [the establishment of a democratic Syria].

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about those in Israel who are threatening military action against Iran?

[Peres] Iran is a threat…not just to Israel, but to the entire Arab world, and indeed the rest of the world.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] What about the hints in the West which seem to show a level of acceptance towards the emergence of Iran as a nuclear power?

[Peres] Time is running out regarding the Iranian nuclear file. However US President [Barack Obama] said that he would not allow Iran to possess nuclear weapon, whilst French President [Nicolas Sarkozy] and German Chancellor [Angela Merkel] said the same. This is an international problem, not just an Israeli one. I am not one of those that support viewing this issue as solely an Israeli one.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] The popular belief is that you routinely disagree with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, and your politics are certainly different, however you do not announce this disagreement publicly, in the same manner as [former President] Ezer Weizman. Why is that?

[Peres] My style of [political] work is different, for I want my views to be effective.

[Asharq Al-Awsat] Then, would you say your views influence Israeli policy and government?

[Peres] Do not expect me to praise myself here, what I will say is that I always give my opinion, whatever it might be!