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Lally Weymouth interviews Israeli President Shimon Peres

Interview by Lally Weymouth
Sunday, October 25, 2009; B01

In Israel, the office of the president is meant to be ceremonial. But at 86, President Shimon Peres, the last founder of the Jewish state to remain active in Israeli politics and a frequent counselor to Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, hardly stays on the sidelines. Although Israelis are feeling pressured by a recent U.N. report, led by South African jurist Richard Goldstone, accusing the army of war crimes during the recent operation against Hamas -- as well as by Iran's nuclear ambitions and by the perception that the Obama administration is hostile to them -- Peres reached out last week, holding a conference in Jerusalem with international leaders in which he called on Netanyahu to move the peace process forward. Peres sat down at his home to speak with Newsweek-Washington Post's Lally Weymouth. Edited excerpts:

Everyone here is talking about the Goldstone report. Now it has gone to the Security Council. Do you think it puts Israel in a corner that it's impossible to get out of?

I think it's a great victory for terror. Never before did any terrorist organization gain such recognition, in the most unfair way.

Hamas?

Yes. First of all, we have a problem in the United Nations: There is a built-in majority against Israel. Israel doesn't stand a chance to win any single issue because the Muslim and the Arab nations and the ones who follow them are a majority. I think Mr. Goldstone made a mistake by agreeing to preside over a committee which has an anti-Israeli majority -- it cannot be objective if the judges are not objective. And the terms of reference were one-sided: to investigate the war crimes of Israel. And the conclusions -- they're one sided. There are 26 recommendations. Not one deals with terror. The terrorists are flying free and high. It's unbelievable.

Israel does not occupy Gaza. We left Gaza completely. We are the only country that forced our own settlers and army [out] without any foreign pressure to leave Gaza. And for eight years we restrained [while they fired missiles]. No reference to it.

You refer to the missiles coming into Israel from Gaza during those eight years and the Israeli towns that had to be evacuated.

Yes, there were about 12,000 missiles. No country would stand it. And all this -- it doesn't exist in the report. When you read the report, you think Israel woke up in a poor mood and went to attack Gaza.

You say the dispute over land between Israel and the Palestinians is only [about] 2 or 3 percent [of the land].

Yes, it is nothing. We can solve it.

You mean between Olmert and --

Yes, Netanyahu too. He said, "I'm ready to have a two-state solution." That is a major change. And we are being described as rightists, as extremists?

Is Netanyahu being unfairly portrayed as a rightist in the United States?

He came from the right, but he's no longer a rightist. He agreed to a two-state solution and to what no other prime minister ever agreed to -- to freeze settlements.

I understand that you meet with the prime minister quite often. That you discuss the peace process quite often.

Yes. What I can say is that he is listening to me. Maybe I have had a certain influence upon the steps that he has taken. I don't expect him to take everything that I say. My advice is simple: We have to make peace. We shouldn't postpone it.

What happens if the Goldstone report is referred to the International Criminal Court and your generals can't go to Great Britain?

They don't care that they can't go to Great Britain. But they care that they can't fight terrorists. I mean, the Russians should ask themselves, how are they going to fight terrorists? The Chinese have to ask themselves, how are they going to fight terrorists? The United States has to ask itself. All of us. We're in the same boat.

But the Russians haven't been supportive.

No. At the beginning they were a little bit reluctant and finally voted for the report.

And the United States was supportive?

The United States voted against. The position of the United States was fair and more than fair. I have to say that Hillary Clinton really mobilized herself to create a balanced situation, which we are very appreciative of. And also I don't [accept] the attempt that is being done [to say] that President Obama is against us. I think that President Obama is for peace and we can maintain a partnership.

I've never heard of a U.S. president at 4 percent or 5 percent in the Israeli polls.

I'm telling you my view. I think that we have to and can work with him. It's for the good of the United States; it's for the good of Israel. It's for the good of peace. I don't think we have to create an artificial or hostile relationship. That is totally unnecessary, and it is a mistake.

Going back to Goldstone, should there be an independent inquiry in Israel?

There wasn't a single war when Israel did not appoint after the war an investigating committee. And people paid a heavy price. Ministers of defense were fired. Generals were fired. Now, the chief of staff of the Israeli army today says: "We investigated all the time. We didn't let any accusation pass over without our investigation." And you know we have to investigate, we shall investigate every point.

But are you in favor of an internal inquiry?

We are doing all the time internal inquiries. The point is we have to make it known and understood. We don't cover [up] anything. You know why? Because we want to have a responsible army. Because the chief of staff wants to have a moral army. We do not do it to gain public relations.

We have to explain exactly the way we handled the wrongdoings -- because we do. Secondly, we have to renew the peace process. And I'm afraid that what the Goldstone committee did . . . killed for a while the peace process. Because the terrorists feel today high, and they are not in any mood to introduce a peace process.

How do you feel about the Iran situation? Many say that Iran is close to getting a nuclear weapon.

I don't think we have now to enumerate all the options. The present situation is that the danger of Iran is recognized as a world danger, and not just as an Israeli danger. So we shouldn't monopolize it and make it again an Israeli danger. President Obama says he wants to handle the situation in a certain way. If he will fail, he will look for another way. Let the president try his hand.

What do you think of the Geneva talks, with the proposal that Iran would send most of its low-enriched uranium out of the country?

I'm a little bit worried because the policy should be of prevention, not just of inspection -- to prevent the building of a bomb. Because later on to inspect the procedure of enriching uranium is very, very difficult, particularly when the Iranians are extremely economical about telling the truth.

Do you think the Iranians agreed to the Obama suggestion in order to buy time for the regime -- to legitimize it?

My impression is that they try to maneuver rather than to agree. To create an impression of an agreement without agreeing. But, you know, I don't think our people or the Americans are foolish.

Do you think it is a realistic dream to separate Syria from Iran?

It's their decision. They cannot have both. They cannot make peace with the country that calls to destroy us and make peace with us. They have to make up their minds. Look, governing is choosing.

You've seen the U.S. relationship in its various ups and downs through the years. How would you describe the current situation?

I think there is a deep friendship between the United States and Israel, and the ups and downs are of a passing nature. And I don't think that one of us is going to abandon [the other]. President Obama was elected by a majority of the American people. I do believe he will continue the same American tradition vis-à-vis Israel.

So many people your age are looking back. How is it that you keep looking ahead?

We are just at the beginning of a very long journey into the future. I think that we have to conclude a peace agreement. Some people ask, "What will happen to Israel in the coming 100 years vis-à-vis the Arab world?" And my answer is, the Arabs will change. Not us. They have to join in a new age.

Do you have any second thoughts about the Oslo Accords?

No, no, no. I think we did rightly. I think there are limits to what you can achieve. But as a result of Oslo, we made peace with Jordan. As a result of Oslo, there is a Palestinian Authority that wants peace. Without Oslo it would never have happened. So I am telling you, in spite of everything, there will be peace with the Palestinians.

With Abu Mazen [Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas]? Is he strong enough to make peace?

I would like [it] to be with Abu Mazen. I hope it will be with Abu Mazen. But what I said in the Knesset, I shall repeat here: It won't be a romantic peace. It won't be peace out of love; it will be peace out of necessity.

What is holding up peace talks?

The problem is a serious one. Bibi [Netanyahu] says "without preconditions." And there is logic to what he says. Because if we will negotiate about the negotiations, we'll never finish the pre-negotiations. And the Palestinians insist on some preconditions.

Like freezing settlements?

Yes. I think it's not necessary. We can find solutions.

So you're still looking ahead to tomorrow?

Yes. I'm looking ahead at tomorrow, self-assured, full of hope. I know that we are in a difficult passage. And I don't deny it. But, you know, passages are passages. The world is not made only of passages; it's made of continents. And the continent of peace is the greatest one.

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