At one point in my recent interviews with Israeli President Shimon Peres, I ask him why his mentor David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s founding prime minister, in choosing among many promising young men of his circle, selected Peres as his aide. Perhaps motivated by modesty, the 87-year-old Peres doesn’t offer a clear explanation. But without doubt, the “old man,” as Ben-Gurion was often called, had spotted the youngster’s oratorical and intellectual brilliance, which has entranced world leaders, though not always the Israeli public.
At home, Peres’ persona was shrouded for decades in a pall of popular distrust. He lacked credibility among many Israelis—which explains, in part, his inability to win general and internal Labor Party elections. Rabin repeatedly beat him, in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, in contests for the Labor leadership. One result of the bad blood between the two was that Rabin called Peres an “indefatigable underminer” (hatran bilti nil’eh), a description Peres thought unjustified. But the charge stuck and thereafter shadowed his political career. Though the two men apparently worked well together during Rabin’s second premiership, in 1992-1995, when Peres served as foreign minister, Peres proved unable to shake off their troubled history. Rabin’s martyrdom reinforced what he had left behind as his legacy. Peres eventually, only on his second try, won the presidency—not by popular majority but by Knesset vote.
How deeply he believes in his oft-proclaimed vision of a “new Middle East” after a decade of disappointment and terror is anyone’s guess. The hard core of “Mr. Security” surely remains: Hamas rocketeers and Turkish “peace flotillas,” and, possibly, Iranian nuclear madmen need to be forcibly contained and faced down. Beneath his polished, world-weary exterior, he is still the ex-defense minister who believes that for a stable Israel, security concerns must take the highest priority and that any chance of peace is ultimately contingent on Israel’s strength, and he seems to carry considerable clout as adviser and elder statesman with the current brood of politicians, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Despite his repeated failures to win election as prime minister, Peres is now a highly popular president, distanced from the daily toil of politics in the largely ceremonial head-of-state role, with a steady 78 percent public approval rating.
I interview Peres in his office, seated around a coffee table. He wears a suit and tie, about which he complains (“I meet diplomats all day”). His media adviser, Ayelet Frish, and her assistant sit with us throughout the two interviews, which were conducted in the Presidential Mansion in Jerusalem’s Talbiyeh quarter in early July and lasted for approximately 80 minutes each. Ayelet occasionally interjects, “That’s off the record,” when she feels her boss has said something excessively revealing. I’m not sure he remembers that I had interviewed him in the past, when I worked at the Jerusalem Post in the 1980s and he was Israel’s foreign minister. I can clearly picture a briefing he gave to journalists accompanying him to Alexandria, where he was to visit Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak. Peres had sat in an armchair in the center of his hotel room, and the journalists were draped over assorted chairs or seated on the carpet. I remember that he was brilliant. A quarter of a century on, he appears more tired, his voice weaker; perhaps altogether not quite as sharp.
I ask him about the 1948 war, in which some 700,000 Arabs fled or were driven out of the area that became the Jewish state. (Over the past three decades, I have written extensively about the war, devoting three books to the creation of the Palestinian refugee problem in 1947-1949. Peres, as far as I know, has never publicly commented on my books—though I have sensed, over the years, a certain displeasure on his part with my findings, which many viewed as critical of Israel and Ben-Gurion.)
A few months ago, I was pleasantly surprised to receive a handwritten letter from him praising a highly critical review I had written of a book by an anti-Israeli British historian. (At the start of our first interview earlier this month, Peres commented on my recent book, 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War, saying it highlighted for him the failings of personal memory. But he did not elaborate.) The war ended with Israel having an Arab minority of some 160,000, representing 15-20 percent of its citizenry. Today, Israel’s Arab minority, 1.3 million strong, identify themselves as Palestinians, occasionally riot, and support Israel’s enemies during bouts of hostilities (as when Israel fought Lebanon’s Hezbollah in 2006 and Hamas in Gaza in 2008-2009).
Morris: Perhaps ending the 1948 war with this demographic was a mistake?
Peres: No, moral considerations took priority over demographic considerations. Ben-Gurion knew that every war and conflict takes place twice—once on the battlefield and then in the history books. He didn’t want things to be written in the history books that were in dissonance with the foundations of Judaism. He really believed that without a moral priority there is no existence for the Jewish people. To expel he saw as contrary to his moral values.
But in 1948 he sometimes gave orders to expel.
He did not give orders to expel.
I suggest that Ben-Gurion did in fact give such orders, as when, on July 12, 1948, he authorized the expulsion of Arab inhabitants of the towns of Lydda and Ramleh on the Tel Aviv-Jerusalem road. Peres shakes his head. “I remember sitting in the room, when the matter of the expulsion of the Arabs from Haifa began, when Ben-Gurion telephoned [Labor Party strongman, later Haifa mayor] Abba Khoushi and told him to do all he could to get the Arabs to stay [in Haifa]. I heard this myself. I was there.” (It is worth noting that the Arabs of Haifa were not expelled but fled the city at the end of April 1948, due in part to a decision of the local Arab leadership.)
Next: The first decade of the Jewish state
Peres revered “the old man” and continuously quotes him and refers to him. His book-lined office contains a collection of photos of the old man in various prime-ministerial and leisurely poses, a few of them with a much-younger Peres at his side. Ben-Gurion and his legacy have been preoccupying Peres lately. He has just completed a biography of Ben-Gurion that will be published by Shocken Books next year as part of the Nextbook Press Jewish Encounters series.
Inducted at 24 into Ben-Gurion’s personal staff in 1947, Peres served as deputy director general and then director general of the Defense Ministry from 1952 to 1959; as a member of the Knesset, starting in 1959, for about four decades; and, on and off, as a cabinet minister. He was acting prime minister and prime minister three times: briefly in 1977 (after Yitzhak Rabin resigned because of a financial misdemeanor), in 1984-1986, and in 1995-1996 (after Rabin’s assassination).
For decades regarded as a “Ben-Gurionist” hard-liner or hawk, in the 1990s Peres orchestrated the Oslo negotiations with the PLO and emerged as Israel’s leading dove. For his role in those negotiations, the first between Israel and the Palestinian leadership, Peres shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with Rabin and PLO chairman Yasser Arafat.
I ask Peres about Ben-Gurion’s agreement to waive the conscription to military service of the ultra-Orthodox, known as haredim, and to subsidize their Torah studies in yeshivas. Was this not a mistake, given today’s reality of massive exemptions from military service and the social crisis caused by massive government subsidies of the haredi tendency to have disproportionately large families and not work?
Peres: Ben-Gurion appointed me to negotiate the [exemption from service] with them. I think it was in 1951. I saw in my mind’s eye my grandfather. I was not a neutral observer. At the time, we were talking about 100-150 yeshiva students altogether. The ultra-orthodox leaders said: If there is no exemption, the yeshivot will be established in other countries. [I thought:] Israel without yeshivot?
Peres implies that he is averse to today’s mass exemptions. He adds that he—and perhaps Ben-Gurion—expected the haredim to change over time and become productive members of society.
Peres: To be a haredi is not eternal.
It seems to be.
Haredi women are beginning to go to work; haredim are going to the army.
We’re still talking very small numbers.
We move on to Israeli-Arab relations during the first decade of the Jewish state. The 1948 war had formally ended with armistice agreements between Israel and each of its four neighbors, signed between February and July 1949. But the Arab states were deeply traumatized by their defeat, by the public spectacle of their ineptitude, and by the establishment of a Jewish state in the very heartland of Araby—indeed, physically severing the Arab West, the Maghreb (Libya, Algeria, Tunisia, Morocco, Mauritania, and Western Sahara), from the Arab East, the Mashreq (Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Iraq). They refused to acquiesce in Israel’s existence and, at least in their rhetoric, promised a “second round,” in which they would vanquish Israel. At the same time, some in Israel, including the revisionist right and Moshe Dayan, often or occasionally sought a second round in order to move Israel’s eastern frontier to the more defensible line of the Jordan River and to incorporate the historic heartland of the Jewish people: Judea, Samaria, and East Jerusalem.
During the years 1949-1956, a state of low-level belligerency persisted between Israel and its neighbors: Arabs, mostly refugees of the 1948 war, infiltrated Israel and occasionally launched terrorist attacks; Israel retaliated with strikes. Periodic clashes, especially from 1953 on, occurred between the armies of Israel and the Arab states along its frontiers. This cycle of violence culminated in the Israeli attack, joined by Britain and France, on Egypt in October-November 1956, known as the Sinai Campaign or Suez War. For Israel, this was the second Arab-Israeli war.
In the 1950s there was terrorism and Israeli reprisal attacks. The policy of reprisals didn’t work, and we ended up going to war in Sinai. And Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett thought the reprisal policy rendered the prospect of peace only more distant.
Look, I supported [the reprisal policy] today and supported it then. There were terrorist organizations. We couldn’t run after each terrorist. So, the policy was to hit the Arab states that hosted them.
But it didn’t succeed.
But we had to pressure [the neighboring] countries [to reduce infiltration]. So, we launched reprisals. [But] terror can’t be beaten. It can be only be stymied or reduced.
Perhaps we could have reached peace if we had offered greater concessions?
Our history with the Arabs is also my personal history. And I divide the history into two. So long as the Arabs thought that they could destroy us, they refused to make peace. They weren’t ready. During this period I was a hawk. Once they showed readiness to make peace, the picture changed. This happened between the Six-Day War and the Yom Kippur War. Before then, [Egyptian President Gamal Abdel] Nasser, with his allies Syria and Jordan, thought he could destroy us. They received a lot of weapons from Russia. To this day, I don’t know why Truman refused to sell us rifles—even rifles. Britain, France, and Canada joined them [in the embargo]. Until Kennedy, they [the United States] sold us no arms. Ben-Gurion was fearful the [Arabs] would destroy us.
Next: The 1967 Six-Day War
We move on to the 1967 Six-Day War, which, like the wars of 1948 and 1956, was not immediately followed by Israeli-Arab peace. Peres tells me that in May 1967 he tried to avert war by proposing “a certain measure”—foreign press reports, which he would not confirm, have stated over the years that Peres had proposed Israel explode a nuclear bomb in the Negev, as a warning to Nasser not to start a war. But the Israeli Cabinet rejected Peres’ idea, and Israel embarked on a preemptive attack, crushing the armies of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria and conquering East Jerusalem, the Sinai Peninsula, the Gaza Strip, the West Bank, and the Golan Heights.
A few days after the war ended, there was a secret Israeli Cabinet decision, on June 19, 1967, to give back Sinai to Egypt and the Golan to Syria in exchange for peace, with a demilitarization of these territories.
[The decision was to withdraw back to] the international frontier [in exchange for peace], yes. [A similar proposal was not made vis-à-vis the West Bank] as Jordan’s annexation of the West Bank [in 1948-1950] wasn’t [internationally] recognized, except by Pakistan [and Britain]. The offer to Egypt and Syria was also made publicly. In a Knesset speech. They knew about it.
Why didn’t Israel immediately after the war offer to give back to Jordan the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
We—Rabin, [Foreign minister Yigal] Allon, and I—met [Jordan’s King] Hussein in 1974 on the Red Sea, and each of us proposed [something]. Allon [proposed] the Allon Plan [in exchange for peace to withdraw from and give back to Jordan the hilly, populated crests of the West Bank while retaining the almost unpopulated Jordan Valley]. I asked Rabin permission to present my plan, and Rabin agreed.
What did you propose?
This was the [thrust of the 1986 Hussein-Peres] London Agreement, the first time it was proposed. There would be three entities: Jordan and Israel and the West Bank (which would be jointly ruled; each West Banker would be able to vote for his own parliament). And a local [West Bank] parliament would handle matters other than foreign and defense affairs. [The 1986 agreement was vetoed by then-Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir.] Hussein agreed to this. He agreed that this would be “a basis for negotiation.”
But this isn’t the same as giving back the West Bank and East Jerusalem to Jordanian sovereignty. What if we had offered to give back all the West Bank and East Jerusalem?
[Hussein] wouldn’t have agreed. He would have been alone and charged with treachery. Egypt and Syria would have prevented this.
Or what if we had withdrawn from the West and East Jerusalem, unilaterally, without agreement [and avoided Palestinian nationalism and the current imbroglio]?
And who would have guaranteed our safety, with a distance of only 10 miles from the West Bank’s western edge to the Mediterranean coast? … There was an exaggerated enthusiasm after [the victory of] 1967.
I try to draw him out on the Israeli atomic bomb, which, he prefers to call “the Israeli nuclear option.” It was the young Peres who, in the mid- and late-1950s, successfully negotiated with France for assistance with the construction of the Dimona nuclear plant, where, according to foreign press reports and Israeli spy Mordechai Vanunu, Israel produced and produces its nuclear weapons. And it was Peres who, apparently as Ben-Gurion’s agent, oversaw the whole program.
You are sometimes called the father of the Israeli nuclear bomb, but somehow, in Israeli public consciousness, it was not chalked up to your credit, for example at election-time. [Peres lost elections in 1977, 1981, and 1996; in 1984, under Peres, Labor won more seats in the Knesset than any other party but proved unable to form a left-wing coalition government and ended up in coalition with the Likud, with Peres and Likud leader Yitzhak Shamir “rotating” as prime ministers. This series of electoral defeats earned Peres a reputation with the Israeli public as a political loser, which he greatly resented.]
It was kept secret.
But a well-known secret.
It was completely hidden, unknown. Formally there was the Israel Atomic Energy Commission, but I managed everything. My role with the French was not known. And everybody was against me. [Here Peres is referring to opponents of the nuclear project within the Israeli establishment. They argued that Israel was too poor and technologically undeveloped to complete the project alone should the French withdraw their assistance, and that, even if successful in producing bombs, the bombs would cause Israel no end of political and diplomatic problems. Golda Meir, then Israel’s foreign minister, was among the critics of the project; Moshe Dayan was among the skeptics. According to foreign press reports, Israel achieved atomic weaponry in 1967-1968].
Is this not an injustice done [to you] by history?
Let me tell you. You won’t like this. But history [meaning the writing of history] in my eyes is not that important. I have reached the conclusion that a leader who worries about how he will go down in history will not be a great leader. He must give up his place in history in order to make history. I am an example of a person who had to lehitapek [keep silent] for a long time. My place in Israel Aircraft Industries [a leading Israeli weapons manufacturing company] was unknown, my part in [launching the] Entebbe [raid, in which Israeli commandos rescued more than 100 airplane passengers hijacked to Uganda by Palestinian and German terrorists in 1976] wasn’t known. [Rabin eventually reaped the credit.] I thought that the ability to do things, if I was straight with myself, was more important than being written down in history. To be No. 2, without the title, is sometimes more important than being No. 1. I know, look at my record.
I suppose I won’t have a major place in history. But this is unimportant. What is important is that I was a fair person [hogen]. I was not necessarily on the right [tzodek] side—that will only become apparent later—but I was on the fair side. So, I could sleep calmly at night. Churchill, of course, assured how he would be seen in history by writing his histories.
Did Israel’s possession of a nuclear bomb—OK, “option,” if you prefer—really serve Israel’s security?
Without doubt. Say there is a suspicion that [Israel has nuclear bombs]. This serves to deter. Let me tell you a story. Amr Moussa—formerly Egypt’s foreign minister, then secretary of the Arab League—we had good relations. One day he comes to me and says, “Shimon, we are friends, take me to Dimona and show me what you have there?” I said, “Are you crazy? I’ll take you there, you’ll see there’s nothing there, you’ll stop being suspicious, and they’ll fire me. And I’m not interested in you stopping being suspicious. Be suspicious.” This suspicion played a major role, I know, in [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat’s decision not to [try to] reach Tel Aviv [in planning the Yom Kippur War of 1973], in limiting the war to Sinai, not to exaggerate [in their war aims].
How do you know this?
I heard it from Yigael Yadin [a former IDF chief of general staff, later Israel’s deputy prime minister], who heard it from Sadat. And Yadin was someone completely reliable. [The nuclear capability] affected [that is, enhanced] Israel’s position in the world. This can’t be denied.
But since then, especially in recent years, the suspicion or reality of Israel having nuclear bombs enables [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad to say: “Why should we be forbidden nuclear weapons?”
They would have gone for nuclear weapons anyway, whether we had them or not. They want to destroy us.
But this gives them the excuse to go for the bomb.
The world understands the difference [between Israel having the bomb and Ahmadinejad having it]. To this day it serves as a [good] deterrent.
He is clear on the crucial point: “They want to destroy us.”
The handling of the matter, by the West, by all of us, has been wrong-headed, from the beginning. There are two elements. One is, in whose hands are the bombs. Say Switzerland got the bomb. Would anybody be worried?
I don’t think it’ll be easy to replace the Iranian regime.
I think the first sanctions should have been [and should be] moral sanctions.
Yes, against the leadership. To prevent anyone meeting them. Like Fascists, like Nazis, not that I’m saying they’re Nazis. Get them ousted from the United Nations. Put them on trial for calling for the destruction of a fellow U.N. member state. They are behind terrorism. Hezbollah.
But would this have stopped the Iranian nuclear project?
This together with economic sanctions. And place a ring of anti-missile missile systems around Iran.
On the settlements issue, you spoke of proportions, of before 1977 [when, as defense minister, you were responsible for Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank] and after [when for much of the time, the Likud was in charge]. You did have a hand [during 1974-77] in establishing settlements on the [heavily Arab-populated] hill crests. For example, Sebastia [ where a precedent-making breakthrough occurred in 1975, when Israel’s Labor-led government permitted the establishment of a Jewish settlement in the heavily Arab-populated hilly spine of Samaria].
It’s a matter of proportions, I never agreed to 300,000 settlers. We were for settlements which were agricultural-military [not civilian settlements]. Like Ofrah. That was the idea.
He suggests that the compromise with the settler group Gush Emunim, essentially to allow the settlers to take root, was reached behind his back by Yisrael Galili, a fellow Labor minister, and that Peres’ negotiation and deals with the settlers at the time of the Sebastia crisis were irrelevant to the outcome. But Israeli critics, then and since, have consistently charged Peres with precedent-making responsibility for the government cave-in to illegal Gush Emunim actions that led to the settlement enterprise in the heartlands of the West Bank.
But I was held to blame. And this joined the other defamations against my character—that I owned factories [and made money through my Defense Ministry position], that my mother was an Arab, etc. All untrue.
Israel refused to talk with the PLO for a long time, then changed its tune in the early 1990s. Maybe that was a mistake? [Perhaps Israel should have begun to talk to them earlier?]
Look, there was the Socialist International. It had several deputy presidents, including myself. Three leaders [were relevant]: Olof Palme [prime minister of Sweden], Bruno Kreisky [chancellor of Austria], and Willy Brandt [sometime chancellor of West Germany and head of its Social Democratic Party]. They wanted to bring PLO head Yasser Arafat into the International. The only vice president who was opposed was me. There were fierce arguments. They pressured me, they said you don’t know Arafat. I said, I am not against. We are a socialist and democratic organization. If he becomes a democrat and socialist, I won’t oppose him. Meanwhile he’s a terrorist. And [gradually] they persuaded him. It was them, 100 percent. They persuaded him to accept [U.N. Security Council Resolution] 242 [which implied recognition of Israel’s right to exist], to abandon terrorism. To talk to Israel.
Arafat was an extraordinary person. Very complicated. He was born in lots of places. [Peres was alluding, jokingly, to the fact that Arafat said he was, or was reported to have been, born variously in Jerusalem, Gaza, and Cairo—and, perhaps, more generally to his penchant for telling tall tales.] He had a wonderful memory, [he remembered] every name and birthday. But facts he didn’t remember. They didn’t interest him. They were something he forgot. So you couldn’t conduct an orderly conversation with him. He was [politically] isolated. Even among the Arabs. Had the Arab states helped him, as world Jewry had helped us, he would have had a state years before. The [European socialist leaders] gave him money, a platform, made him an international figure. And what they wanted from him, he delivered [i.e., announcing abandonment of terrorism, willingness to recognize Israel, etc.].
Kreisky, incidentally, had a big part in bringing Sadat to Jerusalem [and in bringing about peace], [through arranging or endorsing] a meeting between the Egyptian ambassador in Austria and [then-Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe] Dayan. Kreisky always attacked us. I once asked him: Why? He said, “If I didn’t, how would I be able to help you?”
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.
Next: Foreign relations
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?
But there is still nationalism—a flowering of nationalism, as in [the former] Yugoslavia—not to mention religion.
But nationalism does not bother me. If the nationalism is artistic and cultural, not military, so what? Yugoslavia was an artificial creation. You can’t put two people who don’t like each other under one roof with a dictator above them.
Should Netanyahu ever reach a peace deal with the Palestinian Authority, which will necessarily involve major, painful Israeli concessions, Peres is well-placed to sell it to the public, just as he is well-placed to sell Israel’s no-concession red lines to Western leaders. He is more optimistic about the chances for such a deal than I am.
So, a binational state, a single state, can’t be a solution to the conflict ?
When there is a feud, you can either separate the two sides or you can establish a majority [of one of the two parties, which will dominate the other]. There is no solution in one state. One state is a [recipe for] conflict, not a solution. The two peoples will fight over everything.
Is a two-state solution possible?
The situation today in practice is better than the situation in the negotiations. In Jerusalem [for example] the two peoples coexist.
Is a two-state solution possible with us ruling East Jerusalem—will the Arabs concede East Jerusalem?
And the Jews will concede it? There are solutions. Original Jerusalem, the Sacred Basin, is all told one square kilometer—the Old City, the Temple Mount, that’s the whole story. It’s small, but it’s not territory; it’s a flame, and it is difficult to divide fire, to fence in flames. What can be done? Let’s set aside [the idea of] national sovereignty and let’s look at religious sovereignty. Give each religion responsibility for its own holy sites.
But I think Arafat rejected this in 2000 [at Camp David]. He wanted [political] sovereignty.
Arafat is a completely different story.
But Abu Mazen [Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas] also wants sovereignty.
Peres: In my agreement with King Hussein we solved the problem. It can still be solved. There was no such thing as [political] sovereignty until the 16th century.
All the things outside the Sacred Basin, [all the Arab neighborhoods], are not holy.
But we built [Jewish] neighborhoods that prevent access to these Arab neighborhoods.
Access to them can be solved with bridges and tunnels.
So, the problem is the Sacred Basin, not the outlying districts?
The whole city is a problem. Netanyahu said we will [continue] to build in those places we built during the past 44 years. I reminded him that there are neighborhoods in which we didn’t build for 44 years. There are 21 Arab neighborhoods in which neither Begin nor Shamir built a building. For 20 buildings in Silwan you want to foment a war? This is crazy. [Peres was speaking about the Jerusalem Municipality’s recently announced intention to demolish 21 houses built illegally by Arabs in the neighborhood of Silwan in the Sacred Basin, which has triggered Arab and Western protests]. People say there is a problem of lack of space. This is nonsense. The world is becoming more urban. And in most places in the world [where there is lack of space] people build upwards, high rises.
What about internationalization of the Sacred Basin?
All that will do is perpetuate the conflict, but with the involvement of more parties.
I don’t think it is going to work.
That’s the difference between us. You write history—I have to make history.
Benny Morris is a professor of history at Ben-Gurion University and the author, most recently, of One State, Two States.
Benny Morris is an Israeli historian and the author, most recently, of Sidney Reilly: Master Spy (Yale 2022).