Israel President Shimon Peres arrived in Washington on Tuesday to meet with President Obama at the White House. He will receive the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on Wednesday. The 90-year-old Peres has worked with 10 U.S. presidents. He served as foreign minister, defense minister, prime minister (twice) and is now finishing his seven-year term as president, a largely ceremonial post in Israel, with lots of red carpets and wreath laying. As one of Israel’s best-known leaders, Peres sought to elevate the post and has used his presidency to advocate — unsuccessfully — for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
The interview took place at the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem on Monday as Peres was packing his bags. It has been edited and condensed.
Q: On your trip to Washington you will ask for the early release of Jonathan Pollard, who is eligible for parole next year, after 30 years in federal prison. Why is Pollard so important to you and the Israelis? Many see him as a spy, a traitor, an American who sold secrets about the Soviet Union to Israel for money.
A: I am a president who also gives pardons. Usually my considerations are humane. I have the same feeling towards him. I think he is a man who is sitting already 29 years. That is a long time to sit. And he is sick and there are limits.
Q: Will you speak about Jonathan Pollard with President Obama?
A: Yes. I have already spoken about this with Obama, but I will speak again.
Q: You’ve known more U.S. presidents than Fidel Castro.
A: I’ve worked with 10 presidents. It’s a record. I worked with Republicans and Democrats. All of them when it came to Israel were, movingly, friendly. From Truman, who was the first to recognize Israel 11 minutes after the U.N. resolution, to Obama. When it comes to the major issues of security and strategy, we are together, completely.
Q: The U.S. branch of the Presbyterian church just voted to divest from three companies that do business with the Israeli military. I understand the Israeli position is that the Boycott Divestment Sanctions movement is about the de-legitimization of Israel. But some people might see it favorably, because they want to push Israel in what they see as the right direction. And you have pushed this Israeli government as well.
A: In any democratic country you have more than one view. The minute you try to threaten and use boycotts I think it is outside the democratic perception. Democracy wants to win by reason, not by arms or by any other material damage, because, look, I don’t have to remind you that I am totally for peace. It is my greatest dream. It was and will remain so. But I cannot forget that we have had to go through seven wars. Can any church help us to win a war? If you can’t help us win a war, then please don’t press us.
Q: You and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas met earlier this month at the Vatican for a “prayer summit” with Pope Francis. What do you and Abbas talk about? Are you truly old friends?
A: We are old and we are friends [Peres laughs]. President Abbas and myself, we are the ones who signed the Oslo agreement, so we really know each other, not just theoretically. There are times when Abbas did not agree with [PLO leader Yasser] Arafat. I find him a man of his word and a man of courage. I still believe he is the best candidate for peace. That he has different views is not surprising. But our problem is not to submit to the differences but to overcome them, and I think that when it comes to overcoming differences, he has made some declarations that are extremely courageous, beginning when he said he was born in Safed. [Abbas said in 2012 that though he was born in Safed in 1935, which at the time was under British administration but is now part of Israel, he would not return there. “It’s my right to see it, but not to live there. . .”]
Q: The Israeli military operation — the search for the missing teens, the crackdown on Hamas — is one of the most sweeping, and aggressive, actions in the West Bank in a decade. You’ve written about collective punishment. Is that what is going on in the West Bank?
A: I don’t think that from our point of view anybody looked for a collective punishment. It was basically a search and rescue operation. I am not aware that we tried to use arms.
Q: Five Palestinians have died in clashes that accompany the raids by Israeli troops.
A: They have not died by our initiative. Nobody wanted to kill anybody.
Q: How do you see the relationship today between the United States and Israel, specifically the two governments. I think it has seen better days. There’s been friction over the last few months. The Israeli defense minister called Secretary of State John Kerry “delusional” and “messianic.”
A: For many years the stakes were clear. There were the Arabs attacking us and us defending ourselves, so basically there were no real problems [between the United States and Israel]. Now there are many small cells, and each of them can destroy on their own. Some can arrive at New York and kill thousands of people. So we have to reorient. But on the basic issue, which in my judgment is freedom. Without freedom you cannot have real peace. [Peres speaks for a few minutes about history, then continues]. We are advised by experts, but they are experts of the past. Some experts advise what to do in accordance with the past, but the past flew away, and we have to reorient ourselves in the face of new dangers. I don’t think, even if there are arguments between us, that there is division on basic things like security. But there are tactical differences.
Q: Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu talks often about Iran and its nuclear program as an existential threat to Israel. Do you share his view that Iran poses such a threat?
A: Yes. We have to be reasonable people. I do not know anybody that is threatening Iran. It is a safe country. Unfortunately some people there are threatening us. It is not just that they are trying to build a nuclear bomb, but their leaders [former president Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad and others spoke often about attacking Israel, so I cannot say this is reasonable. We did not do anything to them. They are not short of energy. Maybe if they did not threaten to destroy us, then we would not say much.
Q: I hear that Israel has a nice retirement package. What are you going to do when you leave office next month?
A: I am leaving the office but am not leaving the battle for peace. I think today you can move ahead working with global companies more than with national governments. Governments have budgets but no money, companies have money but no budgets. Governments are based on power, companies are based on goodwill, which allows them to invest in the future. Israel is a start-up nation, and I think it can be done in other places. I will do it outside the government. I don’t need the government.