Israeli President Shimon Peres reflects on his mentor, his peace partner, and whether the State of Israel will survive
I ask about Bibi’s character. Has it also changed?
Peres: More than people change, circumstances change. Look, I was once a shepherd in [Kibbutz] Alumot]. And the gnats would set upon the herd, and each cow would run off in a different direction. And I had to collect and bring them home. This sometimes is how the government looks. There are gnats attacking each party, and somehow you have to keep them together.
How do you explain the rise in the delegitimization of Israel in the world in recent years? Do you agree that this is happening?
Let me give you a contrary picture: Israel is the most popular country in the world. [Peres’s media aide giggles. “Benny, you won’t leave here depressed,” she says.] For 2,000 years there was friction between the Vatican and the Jews. There are, what is it, 1.3 billion Christians? Now we have excellent relations with the Vatican. This is no small thing. And we have good relations with India, also hit by Muslim terrorists. And that’s together 3 billion. And [we now have] excellent relations with China.
Right. But why the delegitimization, especially in the West?
Firstly, there is a problem in the Scandinavian countries. They always want to appear like yefei nefesh [the Hebraism roughly translates as “bleeding hearts,” with an undertone of hypocrisy]. And I don’t expect them to understand us. Sweden doesn’t understand why we are at war. For 150 years they have not had a war. There were even Hitler and Stalin, but they kept out of the picture. As did Switzerland. So, they don’t understand why we are “for war,” as if we really like wars. It’s like Marie Antoinette didn’t understand why the people didn’t bake cakes. The same logic.
But it goes a bit beyond [Sweden and Switzerland]?
Our next big problem is England. There are several million Muslim voters. And for many members of parliament, that’s the difference between getting elected and not getting elected. And in England there has always been something deeply pro-Arab, of course, not among all Englishmen, and anti-Israeli, in the establishment. They abstained in the [pro-Zionist] 1947 U.N. Partition Resolution, despite [issuing the pro-Zionist] Balfour Declaration [in 1917]. They maintained an arms embargo against us [in the 1950s]; they had a defense treaty with Jordan; they always worked against us.
But England changed after the 1940s and 1950s. They supported us in 1967, there was Harold Wilson and Mrs. Thatcher [who were pro-Israeli].
There is also support for Israel today [on the British right].
But in Labor there was always a deep pro-Israeli current.
But [the late 1940s prime minister and Labor leader Clement] Attlee was [anti-Israel].
Anyway, this [pro-Israeli current] vanished because they think the Palestinians are the underdog. In their eyes the Arabs are the underdog. Even though this is irrational. Take the Gaza Strip. We unilaterally evacuated the Gaza Strip [in 2005]. We evacuated 8,000 settlers and it was very difficult, after mobilizing 47,000 policemen [and soldiers]. It cost us $2.5 billion in compensation. We left the Gaza Strip completely. Why did they fire rockets at us, for years they fired rockets at us. Why?
Maybe because they don’t like us?
Peres: You fire rockets at everyone you don’t like? For eight years they fired and we refrained from retaliating. When they fired at us, the British didn’t say a word.
Maybe it is anti-Semitism?
Yes, there is also anti-Semitism. There is in England a saying that an anti-Semite is someone who hates the Jews more than is necessary. But with Germany relations are pretty good, as with Italy and France.
But there is erosion of public pro-Israel sentiment—at the universities, in the press. I’m not talking about the governments.
I’ll tell you why. On television there is an asymmetry that can’t be corrected. What the terrorists do is never broadcast. Only the response is broadcast. And then critics charge: “This is disproportionate.” You don’t see the terrorist act. When a lawful nation fights a lawless nation there is a problem in the media. When an open regime fights a secret regime there is a problem.
What do you think about negotiating with Hamas?
Peres: It’s like talking to the wall. Hamas says we don’t want to talk, we want to destroy you, we don’t want peace with you. The difference between Hamas and Fatah is essential, not political. Fatah is a political organization. Politics is built on negotiation and compromise; religion does not compromise. So long as Hamas is a religious-political organization, I am deeply pessimistic.
About the Turkish flotilla, do you think we acted correctly?
We acted correctly, except in terms of explaining what happened.
We killed nine Turks, they killed no Israelis.
There were six boats. Only on one—where they came prepared for violence—was there a clash. There was a long delay in broadcasting our explanation. There is no starvation in Gaza and no siege. If Gaza would agree not to rocket us, we would leave the entry points open.
But we prevented items like cardamom from reaching Gaza.
OK, we made some mistakes. [But] we made another mistake—we restrained ourselves for eight years and allowed them to shoot thousands of rockets at us until the rage came out at one go [in the IDF assault on Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009]. Had we done then what we do now, retaliate each time they fire a rocket—there would have been no problem. In the end, it turned out that restraint was a mistake.
Will Israel, the Jewish state, be here in a hundred years’ time?
Yes, I’m sure. I’m certain, 100 percent. The Jewish people have a niche in history based on a preference for the moral appeal over everything else. We didn’t always act in line with this, but we aimed for it. Since the Jews started out, they broke idols, banned slavery—
But the Jews were then exiled from their land for 2,000 years.
But we didn’t disappear in exile. We alone remained [from the ancient world]. In a hundred years, there won’t be wars. History is written in red ink. It’s mainly a history of wars. The main reason for war was that people earned their livelihood from land. People wanted either to defend their land or conquer more land. From the moment people live from science, force can’t do [anything]. An army can’t overcome science. All these borders will be blurred. The main reason for classic wars has disappeared. What will remain are fanatical religious groups, irrational groups, dangerous to the whole world. They will be destroyed in the end, out of self-defense. There won’t be wars. There will be great rivalry. Football will be more important than war, and science more important than football. There will be a contest to develop nature’s riches. What importance is there today to land?