Shimon Peres was one of the great conjurers of modern politics, able to make life-altering realities appear seemingly out of thin air. Like many other successful artists, or maybe all of them, his world-spanning imaginative gifts were matched by his technical mastery of the large systems of meaning he worked within, and by his gift for reading other people correctly and persuading them to give him what he wanted. His friends and his detractors might have both agreed that Israel was too small a stage for his talents, and that his effect on history might have been even greater if he had lived in a bigger country. Others might say that he could never have emerged anywhere else, that Israel was his muse.
A direct descendent of Rav Chaim of Volozhin, the greatest student of the Vilna Gaon, Peres immigrated at the age of 11 from what was then Poland (now Belarus) to Palestine, where he became aide de camp to David Ben-Gurion, the founder of the State of Israel. What Ben-Gurion saw in Peres was a brilliant young man who spoke five languages and whose combination of personal ambition and longing for the approval of a strong father ensured his loyalty. When I asked Peres in a long 2013 interview about his memory of returning to Europe after the Holocaust, in which his beloved grandfather, Rabbi Zvi Meltzer, was murdered, along with the rest of the Meltzer and Perski families, he replied with a story, which was still vivid in his mind, about a late-night meeting in a hotel room, in which Ben-Gurion decisively preferred his answer to a question over an answer offered by his rival, Golda Meir.
The list of Peres’ accomplishments is long, and any half-dozen of them would be enough to comfortably fill the biography of a highly accomplished person who played a significant role on the world-historical stage. He built many of the systems and relationships on which Israel’s powerful defense establishment was founded; he got the weapons from France that broke the embargo that was intended to strangle the Jewish state in its cradle; he was the father of the Israeli nuclear reactor at Dimona, and what, according to Colin Powell’s recent emails, are over 200 Israeli nuclear bombs. He was a prime mover of the Oslo Peace Accords, which promised a peace that large numbers of Israelis and Palestinians both yearn for and reject. He was the grandfather, spiritually and practically, of the Israeli tech industry, whose capacity for innovation continues to startle the world.
Peres’ detractors often got him wrong, as did many of his biggest fans, because he dwelt in a relativistic universe, in which he functioned as an artist whose medium was political power. His contradictions were part of his art, and of the highest order. He was simultaneously the walking representative of Israel’s hopes for peace, and the bone-deep embodiment of the country’s defense establishment. He was a passionate egotist who cared deeply about the Jewish people and about the future of humankind. He charmed people with his warm, grandfatherly manner, especially in his old age, yet he was seemingly immune to most normal human emotion, including in situations in which other experienced politicians would get carried away by anger or grief. He could be manipulated, just as he manipulated others. He was a father of the settlements. He loved the idea of the future, and scoffed at the past, which he would then recall in loving and highly specific detail. He understood human beings and manipulated affairs of state without an ounce of evident sentimentality. At the same time, he was a dreamer who devoutly believed that his dreams would come true.
And why not? In his own life, many of his most unlikely dreams had, in fact, become reality, starting with the most unlikely dream of reviving the Jewish nation in its native land after a hiatus of nearly 2,000 years. While the State of Israel would certainly have been established in 1948 without him, he arguably did more to build the young nation since that year than any other single person. Putin, Xi, and Obama sought his advice and wanted to talk with him, as did Sergey Brin and Mark Zuckerberg, and Carla Bruni, and a long roster of glittering names in his Rolodex. It is hard to imagine any of those people feeling the same quickening of interest if offered the chance to spend two hours with any of his rivals or detractors.
I was lucky enough to interview Shimon Peres at length three times over the past 10 years. What has always interested me about him is his personal psychology, which reminded me of a character from a great Viennese modernist novel, and also his memory for specific and important historical facts that no one else alive still remembers, or ever knew. His aides said that they enjoyed our interviews because they weren’t “normal.” In any case, I learned a great deal from him—about the hinges on which history can turn, and how those hinges are made, the power of empathy and imagination as political tools, and the differences between political language, which is always relative, and literary language, which is a closed system that insists on truth.
This interview, the last of any length given before his death this week, was conducted in English (with occasional lapses into Hebrew and French) on Aug. 31 in Jaffo, at the Peres Center for Peace, and was intended to be published before Rosh Hashanah 5777, to greet the Jewish New Year. He was relaxed and alert, and in apparent good health for a 93-year-old man who was about to receive a pacemaker.
So, have you seen the Stanley Kubrick movie, 2001: A Space Odyssey?
No, I’m not familiar with it.
It’s a movie set on a space station. And the highly intelligent computer, named HAL, believes that there is something dangerous about the mission, and becomes more and more unhinged, and HAL kills most of the people—
—on board the ship. It ends, actually, with a very Shimon Peres-like moment, where human beings do receive enlightenment from these super-extraterrestrial minds, who are far more advanced than we humans are. It’s a great movie. But it’s the very beginning of the film that I want to talk to you about.
The film opens with a conflict between two groups of early humans—apes, basically. One group has an area that has some water, and another group of apes comes and takes the waterhole from them. The leader of the first group of apes has the idea of creating a weapon out of the bone of an animal. And with this innovation, the first group of apes comes and they attack the second group of apes, and they kill one of them, and they take back their waterhole. And then, there’s a fantastic scene, which is the image that sticks in my mind from the film, where the victorious ape throws his weapon up toward the sky, and the shot transforms into an advanced spaceship that is orbiting the Earth.
The meaning I take from this image is that the same aggression that motivates the ape to kill is the thing that drives humans to create science, technology, art. And it’s impossible to separate the two. That this thing in our nature that drove us to, and drives us still, to be aggressive and to kill—is also the thing that, taken in a different direction, drives us to conquer and master nature and science and technology. Do you believe that’s true?
I didn’t think so.
The film suffers, first of all, from one mistake: The idea that we want to create robots who are like us. Nonsense! You can put in a robot whatever you want. To wash the floor, or to fly. You cannot install in him imagination. No chance. Imagination is also the difference between us and animals. The greatest animal on Earth is the elephant. A huge piece of flesh. They say the animal has an excellent memory. OK, but he lacks imagination.
And opposable thumbs.
Imagination. Would he have imagination, he would kill us.
So why is mankind governing the whole world? We don’t know actually why. The world is not made just of science. This is primitive to think. There are still elements in our life that we don’t know. We know so much about human beings, but we also sense there is so much to learn that we are still very far away from. At the beginning, our ancestors brought in the idea of the Lord. Our thought was that the Lord did the things that we don’t know. And then Moshe Rabbeinu, who was a very wise man, he says, “We don’t know where he is. We don’t know how he looks. We don’t know what he says. We never saw him. He calls us from time to time.”
I don’t think the history of the world comes from a material basis. It’s made from the unknown thing which is called humanity. And we don’t know what that is. Every time, we discover a little bit more and more. But still, we don’t understand the core of who we are. So let’s be a little bit honest, then. The Lord, or whatever it is, plays with things.
Look, for hundreds of years, we made our living from the land. Now land is something tangible. Even mechanical. You want more land? Fight. There is no land without blood. You have to defend your borders. For there’s no land without borders. And for that reason, our history is a history of war. War was the major factor in keeping our land.
I am asking myself, again, and I don’t know the answer: Are we going to war because we are aggressive by nature, as you said? Or are we aggressive because we have to go to war? Are we going to war because we didn’t have an alternative until science came?
But science doesn’t take sides. And I believe that science without morality is the greatest danger in the world. Because science is neutral: It can fall into the hands of good people and bad people. It can fall into the hands of terrorists or the hands of innocent people.
I believe that we were born innocent. Our institutions teach us to make mistakes. Why? Because in all the schools in all universities, we teach one thing: The things that happened. There is no school, no university that can teach you what will happen, or how it can happen. No school.
Think of the school that the children of Aleppo are attending now. They’re attending a university where on one side you have a teacher who bombs them with chlorine gas with the help of Iran and Russia, and on the other side, you have the teachers from ISIS who wish to reestablish the seventh-century caliphate. And they see their brothers and mothers and fathers, some of whom have entirely democratic and liberal intentions, ripped to pieces, and the great nations of the world don’t care what happens to them, and spit on them.
They are teaching you the future?
What other future can the children of Aleppo possibly learn? The world they inhabit is evil, and it teaches them bad lessons.
Look, in the Arab world, there are 400 million people. Maybe 60, 70 thousand are terrorists. But many millions more are students at universities. The problem is when they graduate from the universities—and by the way, among the students 60 percent are women, and only 40 percent men—they don’t have anywhere to work, because there is no high-tech in their countries.
What we are trying to work on now is to teach them to do what we are doing here. We enable the students to build their own companies. I think the universities even are a waste of time. Give me $10,000 to attend a lecture by an economist? No chance. They explain why we are poor. I can be poor without explanation. What they are telling are old stories.
Instead, teach them: What is innovation? What is science? If you’ll bring something from the past, it’s not innovation. The past doesn’t have a future.
How can a country that wishes to live in the future survive in a region that lives in the past?
No. No. There are already thousands and thousands of students in the Arab world that have smartphones. They are connected to the modern world.
We have two systems of governments in our time. The old ones, the political ones, are down below, without prestige, without trust, because they are representatives of the past. Those leaders stand up and say, “I’m great, I am strong.” The people say, “Can you bring an end to terror?” “No.” “Can you bring an end to the social gap?” “No.” “So why do you think you are a great leader?”
If you look at a country like Egypt, which can’t grow enough wheat to give bread to its people, and you look at Syria, which manufactures corpses, you feel optimistic that the consciousness of the people in those places will change and embrace a new reality, which is fueled by advances in science and technology?
Yes. The best example is China. China is a 4,000-year-old culture, a very rich culture with no idea of a golden heaven. But the second China, the new one, was born 39 years ago, and it was one of the poorest countries on the planet. They didn’t get money from America, and they didn’t get money from Russia. They had a leader who was, on one hand, a philosopher, and on the other hand, a brutal guy. In the 39 years since Deng, China has become almost equal to America.
And now I come to my own ego. I began relations between this new China and Israel.
My sense is that when you watch Russian movements and actions, sometimes there’s an unseen gravitational force that comes from someplace, and I often feel that place is China. I feel that the two countries are loosely coordinating their policies in some specific areas, including here.
No, there is no coordination.
There’s a Chinese warship with the Russian ships off the coast of Syria, and the Chinese are training Syrian troops inside China.
Let me tell you a story that I have from Kissinger. I think he also wrote it down somewhere. It was the 70th birthday of Stalin, and the Russians insisted that Mao Zedong come to participate. Mao didn’t want to. He hated to fly, and he didn’t like the Russians. But the pressure was tremendous: “We are brothers, we are Communists,” and this and that. And, finally, the Politburo of China decided that they will go. Mao didn’t like to fly, so they took a train. It was winter, so it took him 16 days to travel from Beijing to Moscow.
That sounds awful.
Before they went, the Politburo met to decide, “What sort of a gift are we going to bring to Stalin?” Well, China has gold, let’s give him a collection of gold. They have the white jade, which is even more expensive than gold. So maybe a collection of white jade.
Then Mao Zedong said, “Sorry, what are we, a colony? We are paying a tribute to them?” And then one of the members of the Politburo suggested a collection of Chinese vegetables.
Poor Mao, he arrives in Moscow, sick from this winter train ride. They put him in a small place, and they didn’t pay attention to him. And they told Stalin about the gift, he says, “Oh, he wants to poison me. Send it away.” And Mao Zedong was terribly insulted. So he says, “I am finished with the Russians.” He told this story to Kissinger. And then the Russians all of the sudden realized what they did. So they sent a nice boy, Kosygin, to apologize to Mao. The Chinese put him in a tent, with mosquitoes.
So you believe that Mao’s curse still holds?
The Chinese have already had three revolutions. Russia did not. Mao Zedong brought order and expelled the foreigners. He united China by force. Then he became an emperor, and he lost his mind. The Cultural Revolution was a loss of mind. He couldn’t sleep at night. He would take a train in the middle of night to wherever he wanted, and they would stop all the trains in China. Mao would have parties with the young secretaries from the office, and he gave them syphilis. The country was plunged into chaos.
Then Mao died, and along came a small Chinese man by the name of Deng, and he says, “Gentlemen, the revolution is over. Let’s get down to business. Keep your slogans, keep your symbols, it doesn’t matter. But we are going to enter the market economy.” And they changed China.
The market economy means that you cannot be alone. You must behave as the world does, as a global business. The Indians were better than the Chinese at first for the simple reason—the Indians speak English. So they could join in the global companies right away, but basically in services. They sold you tickets for airplanes. Since China didn’t speak English, they had to learn to manufacture things. But it went slowly.
Then came the third Chinese revolution, which is industry built on science. And they do use science, with all their might. So that is the third revolution.
Then came a fourth revolution. Because the billionaires become corrupt, corrupted. And who are they? The sons of the elite, who were able to send their children to study in America. So they decided to have a fight against corruption. And then they learned, and all of them are learning, that the world is divided, actually, in two blocs. The Pacific and the Atlantic. The Atlantic is the old empire. The Pacific is fresh and great. And they have started to create Eastern institutions.
It’s interesting to see your eyes light up when you talk about the Chinese organizing a Pacific bloc, because you really do seem to believe that is going to be an engine of history and progress.
I was among the first to visit China. And they knew from my biography that I am a graduate of an agricultural school. So the foreign minister says, “Have a look at the Chinese agriculture.” I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was so primitive! So backwards. I said, “What are you doing?”
We suggested to them that we start with seeds: An Israeli seed of wheat gives you a yield that is three times more than the Chinese one. Then they did the same with milk. And we are today the best friends of China.
That’s the reason why, when I come to China, they still ask for my advice. I sat for three hours with Xi, and I told him, “Look what’s happening to you. You are today economically almost like America. And you smell power as well. But listen to me: You have to decide either to be a giver or a taker. The biggest mistake is if you’ll use the power to take. The greatest wisdom is if you give.”
Speaking of takers: There’s a very nice man who lives in Israel now named Leonid Nevzlin. I think you know him. He and his good friend Mikhail Khodorkovsky started a company called Menatep, or Yukos, which, back in the 1990s they saw as the bearer of the kinds of values that you describe. And they believed that this company would help to transform the culture of Russia, and also hopefully make them rich. Then Vladimir Putin came along, and he had the idea that the state should control that kind of wealth. So he took away their companies, and he put Khodorkovsky in jail in Siberia.
And since then, Putin, who rules the land that both of our families come from, has continued to play by these outdated rules that you say belong to the past. He re-equipped his army, then he ate Crimea, then he ate the eastern part of Ukraine, and now he bombs Syria from bases in Iran. And if you asked Putin who influences big events today, he would say, “I do.”
You have talked with Putin?
I have always wanted to talk to Putin. It would be a very interesting conversation to read. But it’s a tough get.
I am very good friends with Putin. And I shall give you, in brief, the content of one of our recent discussions.
I told him, “You’re 63 years old, I’m 93 years old. Tell me, what do you want to achieve in the coming 30 years? What are you fighting for? Are you hoping to piss off America?”
He says, “No.”
“America wants a piece of Russia? No. You have trouble discussing things with Obama?”
He says, “Why do you ask?
I said, “Look, I am not a spy, whatever, tell me.”
He says, “What do you think?”
And I said, “America will win no matter what you do.”
“Why?” he asked.
“Because they are lucky, and you are not.”
I told him more. “When an American wakes up in the morning, what does he see? Mexico in the south, and they accept Mexicans in their country. Canada in the north, they are the best friends in the world. And on the right and on the left, there are fish in the water.
“What does Obama have to worry about? You, you wake up in the morning, whom do you have? Japan, China, Afghanistan? My God! They know that you have plenty of land, and you don’t give them a penny. You have 20 percent of the sweet water, and you give nothing. So when the snow in Siberia melts, the first thing you will see there are Chinese. Because there are plenty of Chinese in the east, and not so many Russians.”
The second thing I told him was: “America has the best proportion between the size of the land and the size of the people. You here have the worst. Twenty million square kilometers. My God. But what you don’t have are people. Your people are dying. Don’t be impressed by the applause and what people are saying. They won’t forgive you. Why do Russians live for only 62 years, while Americans will live 82 years?”
And then I told him: “You behave like a czar.”
I am very open.
Yes, I get that.
I said, “What did the czars do? They developed two cities, St. Petersburg and Moscow, as a showcase. Whatever you want, you will find there. The rest of Russia is like Nigeria covered with snow. Your people are dying. You don’t give them life. You think they’ll forgive you?”
“Why is America great?” I asked him. “Because they were givers. Why is Europe in trouble? Because they are takers. America is giving; people think it’s because they are generous. I think it’s because they are wise. If you give, you create friends. The most beneficial investment is making friends.
“America had the guts to take the Marshall Plan, a huge piece of their GNP that they gave to this dying Europe. And in this way, they have shown that this is the best investment in the world.”
There is no European country that didn’t take an empire. The French and the British, the Portuguese, everybody. And what happened? They were thrown out of there and left with nothing. England, the greatest empire from sunrise to sunset, all the oceans, and the nice, nonviolent Indians threw them out and left them with nothing but three small islands, they don’t know what to do with them.
“Believe me,” I told Putin, “enemies and animosity are the greatest waste in life. You are investing in a foolish thing.”
You saw America come to the Middle East after the British left, not as an empire, exactly, but certainly as the guarantor of arrangements between states, and now you’re seeing America … not leave the region entirely, but the tide is going out.
Well, I mean, you can afford it, because your investment in friendship still exists. You have NATO. You have Europe, which means 600 million people who are still with you.
Putin says, “Look, what do they want from me? What do you need NATO for? The Soviet Union doesn’t exist anymore. The Warsaw Pact was dismantled. I am ready to be a member of NATO, like you! But why do they need Georgia in NATO? Why do they need Romania in NATO? They want to go to Europe, go to Europe. But which army do they want to fight?”
And then he said: “You think I didn’t know that Crimea is Russian, and that Khrushchev gave it to Ukraine as a gift? I didn’t care, until then you needed the Ukrainians in NATO. What for? I didn’t touch them. They wanted to go to Europe, I said, ‘Great, go to Europe.’ But why did you need them in NATO?”
Putin told me he talked with Obama. He said, “I told Obama, ‘You know what? I’m ready to join you in the Middle East. Economically, not militarily. I invested $4 billion in Libya, we are working toward a transition there.’ Then one morning, I read that Obama cut the connection with Libya. I lost $4 billion. So I asked him, ‘Why did you do that? Did you think about what will happen there afterwards?’ ”
Maybe Obama’s mind was on something else.
I said to Putin, “Look, in spite of all this, why don’t you do what the Americans do? Create another government, or a governing body that allows for the growth of companies. You only have a government. In the government, you have the most ambitious people. They are corrupted, they are corrupting others, they are not loyal. Have the companies, and let them do what the American companies do.”
“Well,” he says, “what do you suggest?” I said, “We have a million Russian-speaking people in Israel. We are best, or among the best, in science. We are ready to help you. Work outside of the government. Or leave the government, they are corrupted anyway. You won’t win.”
He says, “OK, let’s try.” And so we are trying now. And the absurdity of this story is that there were some American companies that invested a great deal in Russia, and now they are in big trouble. They asked me to help them out.
We had fun talking about history last time, and we both like the French, so I have another historical question for you. How well did you know Pierre-Marie Koenig?
Kœnig? He was a good friend of mine. Pierre Kœnig. Huh.
I wanted to ask you about him. Tell me about how that friendship developed, and what was he like? He led one of the bravest fights in World War II.
He was the big hero of the Bir Hakeim [a battle in Libya that along with the defense of Tobruk forced the cancellation of a planned Axis invasion of Malta, and delayed Rommel’s invasion of Egypt]. In the Bir Hakeim there was an Israeli unit, Jewish fighters. You know, when I met for the first time de Gaulle, he told me that he couldn’t believe that the Jewish people can become soldiers. Pierre Kœnig became minister of defense.
You know where I am going with this.
Yes. Let me interrupt with a short story. There were two ambassadors here in the Middle East, French. Pierre Gilbert, who was the ambassador to Israel, and Couve de Murville was the ambassador to Egypt. Both of them were extremely talented people, and real intellectuals. Pierre Gilbert became a sworn friend of ours. And then de Gaulle decided to nominate Couve de Murville as foreign minister.
What France did for Israel was because of Pierre Gilbert. And so, since Pierre Koenig was my friend, I asked him to go and have a word with de Gaulle. De Gaulle smelled what he wants, so he didn’t want the meeting. Pierre Koenig got in to see him anyway, and told him, “All my friends, all your friends, all our brothers in arms, think you are making a mistake by firing Gilbert.” De Gaulle interrupted him and says, “Mon cher, Pierre. The time has come for you to change your friends.” That’s the end of the story.
[Laughs] You came to Pierre Koenig, and you said, “Israel needs modern fighter planes.” Did you tell him that Israel needs to develop an atomic capacity, of course for peaceful purposes?
I didn’t start with him.
Who did you start with?
I had many starts.
Oh, I would imagine.
There are endless stories. Where did we start? We started here, we started there. But the most meaningful start was with a gentleman called Bourgès-Maunoury. He was minister of interior, which was actually the minister of defense, because of the war in Algeria. His grandfather was the maréchal, the general, who conquered Egypt for Napoleon.
He had a friend who was the director general of his office, Abel Tomas, a very strange guy. I mean, he talked like a machine gun. Eat—I never saw an appetite like it. When our head of the Mossad went through Paris, Abel Tomas came, he wanted to see me. So he invited us for lunch. I think he has eaten at that lunch 25 oysters. I mean, an unbelievable appetite. But he talked against Hitler like nobody else. The two of them were taken prisoner together by the Germans. And both of them escaped. And Bourgès was at the time 30 years old. He became a very brave fighter in the Résistance. And Abel Tomas was with him, the two of them hunting Nazis.
So I asked Abel toward the end of the conversation, “On whose behalf are you talking?” He says, “What do you mean? The minister of the interior, Bourgès-Maunoury, Maurice.” I told him, “Can I see him?” He said, “Why not?” So he asked me, “When do you want to see him?” I told him, “Even now.”
He picks up the phone, calls Bourgès-Maunoury, and tells him who am I, and he says that he would like to see me. So Maurice asks when, he says, “He wants now.” So we left the restaurant and went straight to the home of Bourgès-Maunoury, whom I had never met before. And he had a bottle of old wine that he opened. And I gave him a big story, and a list of our requests. And he says, “OK, I will help you.”
I told him, “We need planes and we need tanks.” He says, “Oh, but there are some problems. Many of the things we have belong to NATO, so I can’t give them. The planes we are producing”—they produced then the Mirage and other planes—“were all financed by NATO. And there is an embargo against the Middle East.”
He says, “I’m ready to close my eyes, give you everything you want. But I have a condition. That neither your foreign minister nor our foreign minister can have the slightest idea about it.” So I did it between the two of us.
And then there was the campaign against the Suez, but this is a different story.
Are you saying that was a French idea and not something you and Dayan cooked up?
It was a French idea. Because he called me up. At the beginning, it was French and British. They knew that Ben-Gurion, the year before it, tried to penetrate until Sharm el Sheikh, in order to open the Straits of Tiran. But they didn’t get a majority in the government. But they knew that our army was already prepared to do it.
So one day, he calls me up and he says, “Shimon, can you come in?” I went to his place, and there was the general staff of the French army. And Bourgès said, “Look. The English and we want to reopen the Suez. How much time did you estimate it will take to go through Sinai and reach the Suez?” I told them I don’t remember the exact time, but two or three weeks. He says, “What? The English say two to three months. And you say two to three weeks?”
I told him, “I am not a child, I am telling you what we estimated at the time.” And he says, “Look, it’s a major difference between us, because we want it right now.” Because then in France, every Sunday and Monday they changed the government. “And the British want it after the winter because they wanted to go by sea.” So they had a clash about the timing.
I was sure Ben-Gurion would refuse to participate because he didn’t trust the English, but I didn’t tell them that. With me was my representative, and we went out. He says, “Shimon, you are my friend, but the government should hang you. Because you give the impression that you are ready to participate without having authority.” So I told him, “Yes, OK, they’ll hang us, but we should open the Suez.”
Anyway, I sent the cable to Ben-Gurion. And he usually wouldn’t answer about theoretic situations. But I got the short cable that says, “Tell them that we prefer the French date.”
No one imagined that Eisenhower was falling in love with Nasser?
No. But the French were afraid that if Eisenhower will find out, it could be a problem, and they were worried about [British Prime Minister Anthony] Eden, too. Who was such a beautiful guy, gut my God, what a politician. He wanted to have a war where nobody will kill or be killed.
Eden thought he could do it alone with the French, and they didn’t want us. We didn’t want them. But Bourgès was strong.
But the other gentleman was Guy Mollet, the head of the French Socialist Party. Our leadership was Anglo-Saxon. The respect of France was down. Ben-Gurion thought that de Gaulle is not a serious man, ever since Charles said, “Heavy is the cross that we have to carry.”
They said, “Are you crazy? You’ll go with the French, they lost the war.”
Ben-Gurion was a straightforward man. He caused me a great deal of trouble. Every time I would bring a friend from France to Ben-Gurion, before he said hello, he would ask them, “Why did you lose the war?” And then my guest would be insulted.
But I had told Ben-Gurion, “Look, nothing came out from the Americans. Nothing came out from the British, the British are against Israel. America was still connected with the Saudis and the oil. They won’t give us an ounce.” So I had suggested France. He says, “What?” I said, “Look. I don’t know a word of French. I don’t know anybody in France. Let me try.” I was 25 or 26 years old. But he trusted me completely. So he says, “Go and try.”
The next part of the connection was Guy Mollet. It was a few months before the elections. And in the embassy, they told me, “Look, you want to see all the leaders, but there is one that you don’t have to see.” I said, “Who?” He says, “Guy Mollet.” The Socialist Party, had at that time, 11 percent. “There’s no chance that he will become prime minister.”
So contrary to the advice of our foreign ministry, I went to see Guy Mollet because we were both members of the Socialist International. Another advantage was that he spoke English. So I went, and I started to talk, and they interrupted me, and what did he say? “I want to say something: You have heard that I am an anti-Semite?” I didn’t know how to answer him.
Of course, sir!
Right. So I said, “I know there are rumors,” but I didn’t want to commit myself. He says, “Nonsense.” He explained that there was a competition for who would replace Leon Blum as head of the Socialist Party. “My contender was Daniel, a Jewish guy. I won, he lost. But I am a friend of the Jews. I am a friend of Israel.”
I said, “Well, thank you very much, but I am not so satisfied.” He says, “Why?” I said, “Because we are both Socialists. That means that before the election, we are great friends. After the elections, we are forgotten.”
He says, “Give me an example.” I told him, “[British Labor Party statesman Ernest] Bevin was also our friend, and a fellow Socialist. And once he came to power, he became our greatest enemy.” He says, “I am not Bevin. And I shall not be a Bevin.” And he promised me everything.
What did you do for him?
Before we departed, he says, “Look, I want to ask you something. The press is totally against me. And you have many friends in Paris in the press. Try to have a word with them.” [Laughs.] I didn’t know anything about France. I didn’t know anybody.
So I told him “Guy, believe me, I don’t know anybody.” He says, “Don’t be modest.” Two weeks later, on the front page, there was a picture of Guy Mollet, and a very friendly cover story about him.
He called me up and he said—
“Thank you! You are a man of your word.”
[Laughs] I said, “Guy, I didn’t have a hand in anything!”
How important do you think it is for Jewish power, the anti-Semitic idea that Jews secretly do control the banks, they control the media, they control foreign governments. This idea is sometimes an asset for the State of Israel, isn’t it?
Yes, it was an asset.
And believe it or not, the Socialists were elected. And Guy Mollet became prime minister [1956-57]. A few minutes after the results of the elections became news, I got the call, from Guy Mollet. And he told me, “I won. And now you see that I shall implement everything I told you. Can you please come to me tomorrow night, in private?” So I flew from Tel Aviv, and I had Shabbos dinner with him and his wife and his two daughters, who had previously visited Israel upon our invitation.
And I can’t tell you the exact details of what followed. But they did something that was never done before or since in history. Never. Never in history did one nation give another nation such a chance, with something so crucial to its survival.
I’ve spent a lot of time in France over the last five years, I have close friends there. And the situation there is different now. Yes, in the 1980s there were also bombings and there were guards outside synagogues. And Jews tend to complain a lot. But now parents are afraid to send their children to public school. They’re afraid to go out in the street. You have known the French and the Jewish community there much longer than I have. Do you look at them and say, you should stay in France because the French Jewish community has a long history and relations with France are important, or do you say to them, it’s time to leave this place because there’s no future for your families there?
The story of modern France is Dreyfus. Who stood up against the Dreyfus case first?
Yes. Why did he do it? In France, there have been four Jewish prime ministers. Don’t forget that.
Do you know the difference between France and America? In America, if I get into a car with my friend, he will tell me how many children he has, and to which psychologist they are going. So we are friends. But it never holds water. You need to constantly maintain the relationship. In France, the opposite is true.
Yes. That’s my experience, too.
It’s very hard to become someone’s friend. But once you have a friend, that friend is for life.
Is it time for the Jews of France to leave?
Look, I prefer the Jews to come here. Not because they are under pressure, because they feel here like they are at home. And I would like to see an Israel that charms people, not just saves people.
I have one more historical question for you. You knew Abba Kovner, right?
There’s a story that Kovner, the great Hebrew poet and partisan fighter, had a plan to take vengeance against the Germans after the war for the Holocaust, which is a subject we’ve spoken about before. Originally the plan was to poison the water systems of Nuremberg and four other German cities.
The poison for this plan was made by Ephraim Katzir, who was then at the Weitzman Institute and later became the president of Israel. Kovner took this poison with him on a ship, but a British patrol took him off the ship, and his group threw the poison in the water. Who told them?
I don’t know.
Because this plan would have been probably the greatest moral disaster in the history of the Jewish people.
I agree. I agree. I would never do it. Never. Never.
I wondered if you knew this story.
No. I did not. If I would have known, I would have been totally against it. Totally.
Instead, Ben-Gurion sat down with the Germans.
Because the Germans owed us. And it’s not that we wanted to be repaid, but he thought that the new generation of Germany, whether you like it or not, cannot be responsible for what their fathers did. Ben-Gurion said we should not forget and not forgive. But we are not going to accuse the young generation. Now Germany is a sworn friend of Israel. A sworn friend.
Angela Merkel has admitted over a million Muslim refugees to Germany, many of whom are from Syria. And in the past six months, there have been reports of large delegations of German business leaders going to Tehran and of the arrangement of a state visit by Rouhani to Berlin. If you put these things together, it is possible to imagine in the future a Germany that is less of a friend.
Germany, no. I became friends with Franz Josef Strauss. He was the minister of defense. And I talked with him. I said, “Look, the French are helping us with arms, the Americans are helping us with money. You should do both.”
Give us arms and money. But he said, “I need the majority in the parliament. And the Socialists are against Germany being involved in any arms deal. Have a word with the Socialists.”
The representative Socialist in the committee for defense, his name was Erler. A very nice gentleman. Very modest. I came to him. And he told me, “Look, we are not going to get involved in any war.” I told him, “You did it already. And now, it can happen to us again. Do you have the right to allow it? Theoretically?” And to my great surprise, he says, “I agree.”
Mrs. Merkel gave us four or five submarines. They gave us arms without money.
Look, they came and asked me to participate in a sort of symposium about Einstein. I thought that Einstein was not just a great scientist, but a really wise man. Because he came to the conclusion that we exist in relativity. The opposite to relativity is actually tyranny.
I don’t believe that we can achieve perfection. But I do believe that the attempt to achieve perfection is part of perfection. I’m not sure that we shall achieve it, but I am sure we have to try.
I was born in 1967, which means that I will be 50 years old next year. It’s will also be the 50th anniversary of Israel’s victory in the Six Day War, and the 50th year of the occupation. These two events, one representing, in common memory, the salvation of Jewish people, of the Jewish State—
The Six Day War?
The state could have been wiped out. Instead, a great victory was won. It was also the beginning of Jews becoming rulers over another people. Is it right to call something that’s already half-a-century old temporary? I suppose that I am only temporary, and so are you. But we feel it otherwise.
I am not sure that the Six Day War was a great victory. I am sure that we committed a mistake by not converting the victory into peace. As a result, we had the Yom Kippur War. So it’s not if you enter the war, but how do you conclude the war. And even if you are a winner in the beginning, you may become a little bit drunk.
You cannot take history in pieces. It’s consequential. And clearly, I thought that I had my own ideas about the war, which I don’t want to go into.
Don’t forget that at that time, the rumor was that Israel already has the thing we talked about earlier. And in the Yom Kippur War, Sadat said they didn’t want to come to Israel. Their goal was to arrive in the middle of Zion. Why?
Whether we have it, we don’t have it, is another matter. But the Arabs were sure we had it. And that helped us in the Yom Kippur War.
Yeah. Sadat stopped on purpose; it was a public maneuver.
Yessir. And I want to tell you a few words: The occupation is a mistake. I believe that is basic. The foundation of the Jewish existence is morality. More than power. Not morality as a talking point, but morality in fact. And I think what is moral is reasonable. I think the wisest thing in life is to be an honest man. And by the way, it doesn’t cost money, you know?
Sometimes it costs money.
Better to spend money on that than to spend money and sit in prison.
I thought that as a result of the Six Day War, we should have tried to make peace.
When I was young, the injustice of the occupation greatly bothered me. It made me angry because I saw an alternative. Now I am bothered because I don’t see one.
The Six Day War was not aimed to occupy another people. The Arabs tried to kill us. We went to war because we were attacked seven times. Outgunned, outnumbered. So from the point of Jewish justice, it’s not so clear. But I think we would be wise if we would try to transform our victory into the two-state solution.
I think it would have been wise if Yitzhak Shamir had accepted the agreement—
That you reached in London with King Hussein.
That was the best ever.
Best. To this very day. But I’ll tell you something.
Peres’ aide: Your guest has been waiting for half an hour.
Please finish your sentence. Then you can see the guest who’s been waiting for half an hour.
I want to finish my sentence, yes. The way to peace is not war, and not negotiation. It’s innovation. To be great in science, you don’t have to go to war. You can be a small country in size and a great country in content. And even today, this option exists. And I believe in it. It’s difficult, it may take time, but everything is difficult. I have spent my entire life as a dreamer. And as you said last time, an optimist. I choose to be an optimist.
Yes, it was that phrase that I liked. [Laughs.]
I think to deal with the past is a waste of time. You can’t change it, anyway.
People say, you won’t repeat the same mistakes. So you’ll make new ones.
The past doesn’t need the future, and the future doesn’t need the past.
I know you have one more of those.
Better to dream than to remember.
Shimon Peres died at age 93 on Sept. 28, 2016.
David Samuels has written cover stories for Harper’s, The New Yorker, The New York Times Magazine, The Atlantic and other magazines. He is Tablet’s Literary Editor.