Lally Weymouth is a senior associate editor of The Washington Post.
On the eve of a celebration of his 90th birthday, Israel’s President Shimon Peres sat with The Washington Post’s Lally Weymouth Thursday and reflected on developments in Israel, Syria, Iran, Egypt and elsewhere in the region. He also discussed peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which he says is attainable. Excerpts:
How do you see Secretary of State John Kerry’s efforts to get the peace process going again?
I’m impressed by his seriousness, his devotion, but I don’t underrate the difficulties that he’s facing. I think we have to stand by his side and help him to fulfill his mission, which is our hope.
But do you think it’s possible, given that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is saying he will not resume talks without Israel freezing settlement construction? Is Israel really willing to stop building settlements?
We can find a way to overcome this disagreement.
Do you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to overcome it?
I don’t want to go into details. I shall satisfy myself by saying there are ways to overcome.
Do you think President Abbas is a real partner for peace?
One hundred percent.
When President Abbas recently spoke at the World Economic Forum in Jordan , his speech was perceived by many to be hostile to Israel.
He wasn’t speaking to our audience — he was speaking to the ears of the Palestinians who criticize him. He has to show toughness. But if you really want to judge Abu Mazen, how many Arabs do you know who have stood up and said, “I am from Safed [a town in the north of Israel], but I shall not return to Safed”? He was risking his life.
So you’re saying when Israelis use hard-line rhetoric, it’s returned by the other side.
When you engage in high voices, everybody’s voice becomes high. I’m not saying who started, who didn’t start.
Turning to Syria, do you approve of the idea of the U.S. and some European countries arming the Syrian opposition?
Look, if it were dependent on me, I would pursue a totally different policy. I would turn to the Arab League and say: “Syria is a member of the Arab League. It is for you to enter Syria as a transitional government, stop the bloodshed, go to elections and do it in the name of the United Nations — all of us will support you.”
But how do you see the situation on the ground in Syria?
There were times when we have talked about secure borders. Well, [now] we don’t have secure peoples. Everybody is fighting all over the place. We don’t have peace or war or governments. Historically, the Middle East was governed by empires. The empires drew the lines between nations without paying attention to the ethnicity of the peoples in the nations. Now, you don’t have a single country that is cohesive in the Middle East. For that reason, you see civil wars all over the place.
What is breaking up nations today is terror. Even the countries that encourage terror are becoming its victims. Iran, for example. In Iraq, you have groups that encourage terror. Lebanon is broken by terror. Gaza is broken by terror. In Gaza, you have four terrorist groups.
It is an end to the era of classical wars. Classical wars unified nations. But the terrorists don’t have the full support of any nation.
Do you see the situation in Syria evolving into a war between Israel and Hezbollah, because Israel has said that it won’t allow Hezbollah to receive certain types of weapons?
We shall do whatever we can to prevent it, but I don’t want to threaten any wars.
Are you concerned about Israel’s northern border, which has been so stable for many years?
Yes, I’m concerned not only about the northern border; I’m concerned about all borders. I’m concerned about the whole Middle East. I don’t think that the Arab Spring is over. Now what can I say on the positive side? You know, there are 350 million Arabs. Ninety-nine million of them are already online. The iPhone affected the situation in the Middle East [more] than a declaration by Russia or America.
Can you believe what has been going on in Turkey?
I don’t know of any experts we have that forecasted it.
What’s your assessment of the developments in Egypt and in the Sinai?
I see more and more that Sinai is a problem for us but also a challenge for the Egyptians. I do not see that they can remain indifferent, and they won’t.
They will not?
They will not. They [the Egyptian military] are making an effort, and we responded to some of their requests.
On alterations on the number of troops allowed in the Sinai under the Camp David Accords?
In the deployment of forces, yes.
The Jordanians are complaining about the Egyptians cutting off the natural gas to Jordan.
But there are alternatives to it.
Like so many others, are you concerned about the future of the Hashemite Kingdom?
There is room to worry, but there is also room to believe that he [King Abdullah II] can overcome. One of the greatest concerns of the Jordanians is the Syrian refugees. Half a million of them are there, and it could easily become a million. It has a demographic meaning. Most of the refugees are Sunnis. Jordan is kindhearted, but they are in a difficult situation to be kindhearted, as Jordan is facing difficult economic problems.
Do you think the outcome of Friday’s Iranian election will make any difference?
What sort of an election is it? The leader elects his leaders? A priori, when they exclude somebody from the list, it’s the end of the elections. It’s a show.
Looking back on Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad . . .
He caused a great deal of difficulties. He planted hate, he called for the destruction of Israel. All this terrible talk about killing, threatening — it kills civilization. Civilization is a restraint.
You’ve been outspoken in saying Israel should not bomb the Iranian nuclear program unilaterally. Do you still feel that way?
I won’t talk about it. I want to say that I think President Obama proposed a policy which is reasonable and, in my eyes, acceptable. He committed himself that he will not permit a nuclear Iran, and he says the way to achieve it is to start by nonmilitary means without excluding such a [military] possibility. Now, what America can do, we cannot do. But if America and we can act together, it is for us the right thing to do. I don’t think we have to monopolize the danger of Iran, because I think Iran is a danger to all of us.
Do you believe that peace with the Palestinians is possible today?
I see the problem is not in the positions of the people but in the skepticism that was planted in their feelings about the possibility to achieve peace. I don’t share this skepticism. I think to lead means to lead out of skepticism.
Do you feel you have a leader who’s going to do that in this country?
What I can say is I’m advising our leaders to do so.
Do you have a good relationship with Prime Minister Netanyahu?
I remember you were quite optimistic about him at the start. Do you still feel that way?
I don’t know what I can do with being pessimistic, so I am optimistic all my life, and I don’t intend to stop.
What did you think of the young people who were recently elected to the Israeli parliament, like Yair Lapid? Is this a good development for the country?
I’m glad that 60 members of the parliament are newly elected. I don’t think they have shown already their full potential.
You’ve known so many great leaders all over the world. Who impressed you?
There’s a long list. In Israel, it was [former prime minister] David Ben-Gurion. He was my mentor, and really he gave me the opportunity to work for my country. I started to work with him when I was 24 years old.
What was your job?
My job was to answer the burning needs of the moment.
And the burning need of the moment was to get arms for the country?
The burning need of the moment was that we didn’t have arms to defend our lives. Many nations had declared an embargo on us — the United States refused to supply us with rifles. So my urgent task at the time was to break the embargo, because otherwise we would lose the war.
At the age of 24, you went around the Quai d’Orsay and you went to the Ministry of Defense in Paris?
We tried many things. We also got arms in illegal ways. The embargo did not include Russia. Russia kept supplying the Egyptians with more and more sophisticated arms. So we couldn’t just satisfy ourselves by getting a rifle here and a rifle there. We had to break the embargo. And there was a debate within our leadership. The key countries participating in the embargo were the United States, Great Britain, France and Canada. Most of our leaders thought that the way to overcome the embargo was by convincing the United States to do so. But it didn’t work.
Not me — all of us. I thought that with Great Britain we didn’t stand a chance. They were angry with us. And Canada worked with America. So I came to the conclusion that the only place that we could really change was France. I was alone in my views.
Even Ben-Gurion was reluctant about it. But he said, “Try your hand.” I went there two or three times a week. And I went all over to the political leaders, army generals, the intellectuals — I didn’t miss anybody. People said that I was raising empty promises until the first warplanes landed in Israel.
People in America say that the Iranians are closer and closer to getting the bomb and that by the end of the year it will be almost impossible, if nothing is done, to stop the program. What do you think Israel should do?
The Americans allowed a certain period of time to convince the Iranians to stop building their nuclear weapons by introducing economic sanctions and political pressure. They also think, with a certain amount of justification, that the sanctions are beginning to show their effect. Furthermore, they have added new sanctions, which is quite impressive. Now, people say sanctions cannot stop it. I’m not so sure that they are right. There is a growing disaffection in Iran itself.
You think so?
That’s what’s happening all over — what’s happening in Turkey?
Yes, but I don’t see anything happening in Iran.
That you don’t see and I don’t see it doesn’t mean that it doesn’t exist.
So do you think the Palestinian conflict is really solvable?
One hundred percent.
It often appears hopeless.
There are no hopeless situations, only hopeless people.