Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
Peres then moved on to the early 1990s and the start of the Oslo negotiations, which culminated in 1993 with the signing on the White House lawn of the Israel-PLO Declaration of Principles and the exchange of letters of mutual recognition.
Peres: But all the PLO people were self-appointed. I said [to my representatives], I don’t mind your having coffee with them. But I wanted someone who had Arafat’s authorization. Then began the talks in Norway [in 1992] between [Arafat’s aide] Abu Alaa and [Israeli academics Ron Pundak and Yair Hirschfeld]. I told them, “Let the PLO representative come with a sign from Arafat.” Arafat asked, what sign? I asked that they replace the PLO representative—who was extreme—in the [Israeli-Palestinian Refugee Committee, set up in the wake of the Madrid peace conference of 1991]. And they replaced him. This was the sign and marked the start of serious negotiations with the PLO. And Abu Alaa emerged as the most serious person from the PLO side. Arafat always said “no” to proposals we forwarded to him. We wanted a na’am [yes]. And Abu Alaa knew how to present things to Arafat so that he would say yes.
Afterwards, after Arafat and I became friends, I used to say to him: Never say no. Our relations were such that we never argued in public. Mutual respect. In private we argued.
How did you speak?
In English. His English was poor. He was embarrassed [by it]. But in private he spoke freely in English. Let me tell you a story. About Hebron. We wanted to retain [part of] downtown Hebron, the Cave of the Patriarchs and the route to Kiryat Arba. In the end, it was decided Arafat and I would sit, alone, until there was smoke [i.e., until there was agreement]. I felt he was very nervous. He started talking in French, which he didn’t know. And he started tapping with his foot, what he always did when he was nervous. [Peres demonstrates.] I called him “rais” [Arabic for headman or president]. He called me “your excellency.” I said to him, “Rais, we can’t reach an agreement.” I returned to my room. There, IDF head of Central Command, Gen. Ilan Biran, said: “This is catastrophic.” [He was referring to the fact that Arafat had not agreed to leave a small but crucial area of downtown Hebron in Israeli hands.] I go back to Arafat, knock on his door.
Arafat: “You all right?” Peres: “You got what you wanted. I didn’t. I left your room depressed. You are a general, I’m not. You are a president, and I’m not. You are an engineer, I’m not. You are a religious leader, I’m not. It’s no wonder that you got what you wanted and I negotiated like a fool.” Arafat: “Let me look at the map.” And then he agreed to what we wanted. He had received our respect, recognition. It worked.
Summarizing the Oslo process, Peres says, “I got from him what no one else would have: To move their demands from the 1947 [U.N. partition plan] borders [which gave the Jews 55 perecent of Mandate Palestine] to the 1967 borders [which gave the Israel 78 percent of Mandate Palestine]. No other Arab leader would have [conceded this]. Compare this with what Ben-Gurion had to accept from the U.N. in 1947. And, also, Arafat wanted peace, [at least] some part of him.”
You really think he accepted the idea of a Jewish state next to a small Palestinian state?
Yes. He wanted acceptance in the world. The world, including the Arab world, was against him. The Arab world was contemptuous of him. [He also wanted] acceptance by the Israelis. He wanted respect. Here was someone who treated him with respect and trust.
So, why didn’t he accept the Barak and Clinton proposals in 2000?
They didn’t know how to negotiate with him. Firstly, they made a major mistake, He asked to delay the talks. They coerced him [to hold them earlier than he wanted]. This was the first mistake. He asked for several weeks’ delay. Give him a day. [They said] no. In negotiations with Arabs, there is no word for “compromise.” An Arab doesn’t compromise. What is there? Gestures. An exchange of gestures. Sadat used to say to me, “Shimon, be more moderate in your words, make a gesture. I will too.” But to Arafat’s credit, he managed to maintain the Palestinian question on the international agenda for 20, 30 years, with no army, no state.
Your opponent in the 1996 elections, Benyamin Netanyahu, who then became prime minister for three years, how does he appear this time round? Any different?
Look, he has virtues. [In English:] He is not a vicious man. [Back to Hebrew:] This is important. He is a very intelligent man; he reads and thinks. Of course, it is difficult for him to divorce himself from the [ideological] inheritance with which he was born, but he is capable of doing that.
We didn’t see that in his first three-year term.
No. He signed the Hebron agreement and he accepted the Oslo Agreements.
You believe that now he is more capable of divorcing himself from his ideological heritage?
Look, I told you prime ministers are not divorced from reality. Life is full of contradictions. Most prime ministers don’t do what they promise to do. More than prime ministers direct reality, reality runs them. Who ever thought that Arik [Sharon] would dismantle settlements?
Ben-Gurion always told me to judge people “on the record,” on what they do. [Netanyahu] changed, also as a result of my influence. [Take the idea of] “economic peace.” Things have changed; [we] allow them to build, to develop their economy. I told [Netanyahu] in our first meeting [after his election]: “Bibi, you have a party without a program, I have a program without a party, and you can adopt it—that is, “economic peace.” I must say to his credit that he adopted and carried it out, and it changed reality.