Israeli President Shimon Peres likes to remind people that he is old. He is 90 and has worked with 10 U.S. presidents. He says he has also worked — for four decades — for a peace deal with the Palestinians. He has not succeeded.
His government service spans the entire history of the state of Israel, which is a spring chicken in comparison, at 66. Peres says that when he leaves office after his seven-year term ends this month, he is going into global high-tech, and that he is finished with governments.
“I am leaving the office, but I am not leaving the battle for peace,” Peres said Monday in a wide-ranging interview at his official residence.
He sees his future role as a matchmaker for corporate interests that want to do something good in the Middle East (and something good for Israel) — like Bill Gates with the diplomatic cachet, if not the billions. He says he doesn’t care about money. Israel has a decent retirement package.
“We can combine the Israeli companies with other global companies. Companies go without nationality; you don't have to raise your national flag,” he said. “Governments are suspicious; companies are not.” He is thinking health care, education, agriculture, Internet.
As part of his long goodbye, Peres will meet with President Obama in the White House on Wednesday and receive a Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol rotunda on Thursday. On his 90th birthday, he was serenaded by Barbra Streisand and toasted by Bill Clinton.
Peres arrived here as an immigrant, from a part of Poland that is now in Belarus, when Israel was governed by the British Mandate for Palestine. His father was a lumber merchant, his mother a librarian.
Peres said the United States and Israel remain close allies, with similar goals and common cause. He agreed that the relationship has been strained.
“I don't think, even if there are arguments between us, that there is division on basic things like security,” Peres said. “But there are tactical differences.”
Israel’s defense minister a few months ago called Secretary of State John F. Kerry “delusional” and “messianic” in his quest to broker a deal between Israel and the Palestinians.
The Obama administration's peace effort collapsed in April with bitter recriminations between the parties. U.S. diplomats said both sides were to blame for the failure. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas “shut down,” said special envoy Martin Indyk, and Israelis undermined efforts by going back on their promise to release a fourth batch of Palestinian prisoners and by announcing new settlement construction in the West Bank.
But Peres heaped praise on Abbas. “When you look for a candidate who can be your partner, he is your man,” Peres said of Abbas, who is 79 and beginning to wind down his own public career.
“We are old, and we are friends,” Peres said, when asked if the two were close.
Abbas has shown true courage, Peres said. Even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu disagrees.
Last week the Palestinian leader told a group of Arab leaders at a meeting in Saudi Arabia that the recent abduction of three Israeli teenagers in the West Bank was wrong. Netanyahu blames the Islamic militant group Hamas for the kidnapping.
“The three young men are human beings just like us and must be returned to their families,’’ said Abbas, whose security forces are assisting the Israelis in the search.
Peres said, “He said this in Arabic, in the heart of the Arab life.” If Israel is going to make peace, Peres said, it would be with Abbas. “ We started with him and we need to conclude with him, and we need to conclude with him as soon as possible.”
Peres said he would ask Obama on Wednesday to release Israel’s spy, Jonathan Pollard, an American civilian intelligence analyst who was sentenced to life in prison for passing secrets to the Israelis.
Pollard has served long enough, Peres said. “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.”
Peres agreed with Netanyahu that Iran and its nuclear program present an existential threat to Israel. Netanyahu has warned the Europeans and Americans that any deal with Tehran that lifts sanctions but does not shut down its nuclear ambitions is a “bad deal.”
“I do not know anybody that is threatening Iran. It is a safe country,” Peres said. “Maybe if they did not threaten to destroy us, then we would not say much.”
Looking back on his life, Peres said, “I think that the problem in life is not what to be but what to do.”
High rank and titles “never impressed me," Peres said. "They didn’t mean much. I did the greatest things in my life when my titles were low, and wasted my time when my titles were high.”
Ruth Eglash contributed to this report.