SPIEGEL Interview with Israeli President Shimon Peres: 'We Have to Open Negotiations Right Away'
The United Nations has recognized a Palestinian state and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu seems to prefer confrontation over negotiation. But in an interview with SPIEGEL, Israeli President Shimon Peres says that there is no alternative to re-starting peace talks, adding that it is time to forget the past.
SPIEGEL: In a recent vote, the United Nations essentially recognized a state of Palestine by granting it "non-member observer status." Are you disappointed by that decision?
SPIEGEL: Will the UN decision make peace negotiations with the Palestinians more difficult?
Peres: I don't know if more difficult, but more necessary. Now the major issue will be the International Criminal Court in The Hague and the two parties will try to hunt each other. Is that a prospect for the future? That's what we've done the whole time: They used to blame us, and we used to blame them. But we have to forget the past.
SPIEGEL: Yet when making claims to the Holy Land, both sides cite thousands of years of history.
Peres: We are not going to deal with Abraham, our father and brother. It's over.
SPIEGEL: Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, though, refers to that history on an almost daily basis.
Peres: History is necessary to justify the present. But to go back 2,000 years? My God, leave it to the historians. What happened 2,000 years ago is not being repeated today. My proposal is: Draw a line and say there is a forgiveness of the past; we are not going to sue each other. It's a waste of time. We have to open negotiations without prior conditions right away. And right away means after parliamentary elections on January 22.
SPIEGEL: Germany abstained in the recent UN vote on Palestinian status. One element contributing to Berlin's position was Chancellor Angela Merkel's frustration that Netanyahu has yet to enter into negotiations with the Palestinians. Can you understand her position?
Peres: I would have liked Germany to vote differently. But so what? When I look deeper and ask myself what I prefer, a German Europe or a Germany that is European, I prefer a European Germany. And this decision is part of Germany being European.
SPIEGEL: Last Thursday, high-level meetings between Israeli and German cabinet members were held in Berlin. Before arriving, Prime Minister Netanyahu complained about Germany's UN vote. What do you think about the state of German-Israeli relations?
Peres: I think the relationship is fair, and I think that the attitude of Chancellor Merkel is remarkable. She has her positions, and her thinking is constant. I respect her very much. Germany's ties to Israel are deep, not opportunistic. It happens from time to time that we have a disagreement. Even the blue skies of the Mediterranean have clouds sometimes. But the sky is blue.
SPIEGEL: Germany wasn't alone. With the exception of the Czech Republic, every EU country either voted in favor of the Palestinians or abstained. Is Israel becoming increasingly isolated?
Peres: They didn't vote for us because of the lack of negotiations. As soon as we start negotiations, they will support us.
SPIEGEL: But what if there aren't any negotiations?
Peres: No negotiations is not a possibility. We have to negotiate. Basically, we already have a foundation for an agreement: two states and the settlement blocks. There will be three blocks, and we shall give to the Palestinians an equal piece of land. The settlements take up maybe 2 to 6 percent of the West Bank. It's not unsolvable.
SPIEGEL: If the solution is really so simple, why wasn't peace achieved many years ago?
Peres: The real problem is how to start negotiations. You cannot begin the negotiations with the end. So we have to define how to start. And I think we have to start the following way: To say what happened until now will stop and there will be a forgiveness of the past. We have to start without prior conditions.
SPIEGEL: You had a series of secret meetings with Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas more than a year ago. The two of you had gotten close to reaching an agreement on how to restart negotiations. But at that point, Netanyahu asked you to break off contact.
Peres: Look, that's the past again. But Netanyahu agreed to a two-state solution.
SPIEGEL: On paper, perhaps. But nothing has happened. And in all likelihood, the next government will be even less willing to negotiate.
Peres: The future government will have to make a strategic decision. And Israel doesn't have a better choice than the two-state solution.
SPIEGEL: Is that just your opinion? Or does Prime Minister Netanyahu share it as well? His actions would seem to indicate that he doesn't.
Peres: These four years will not be repeated.
SPIEGEL: What makes you so sure?
Peres: My experience. That's the difference between young and old. I am old. I can tell you, reality affects leaders more than any leader affects reality. I am sure Netanhayu doesn't want a bi-national state. A bi-national state would not have peace -- because of the tension, the differences and the smallness of the land.
SPIEGEL: But it seems more like Netanyahu wants to preserve the status quo.
Peres: At the moment, yes, maybe. But there will be another moment.
SPIEGEL: How have you retained your optimism over all these years of strife?
Peres: I remember the early days. I came to a country that had nothing, a small piece of land with a swamp in the north and a desert in the south. We didn't have water. We had two lakes -- one dead, the other dying -- and one river, the Jordan, which has more fame than water. In 1948, we were a small group of 650,000 people surrounded by tremendous hostility, outgunned, outnumbered, without natural resources. We had a war before we had a state. We had an army before we had a government. We didn't have a chance -- and yet, look what happened.
SPIEGEL: That was 1948. But if you compare the current situation to the hopeful times of August 1993, when the Oslo peace accords were signed, you have to admit that things have gotten much worse.
Peres: Some critics also said that we would never make peace with any Arab country. We made peace with Egypt; we made peace with Jordan. We started to make peace with the Palestinians. And, as a matter of fact, there is a Palestinian Authority, and there is sort of a relationship.
SPIEGEL: What are the chances that you will live to see successful negotiations concluded between the Israelis and Palestinians?
Peres: One-hundred percent. It may take a little bit more time than I wish. We have to be patient, we have to be constant and we shouldn't listen to pessimists. They make as many mistakes as the optimists.
SPIEGEL: One could also see your constant optimism as nothing more than a fig leaf for a government that lacks sufficient will to compromise.
Peres: Such accusations are nonsense. In my long political career, I have participated in doing unbelievable things for this country. What I did are real things -- not fig leaves, but figs, the fruits.
SPIEGEL: Some see Netanyahu's current term as prime minister as four lost years in terms of reform and important changes. During his term, the climate has also become more hostile toward African immigrants and Israeli Arabs.
Peres: I'm not so sure that everything is so bleak. Look at relations with Arabs in Israel itself: It looks like an impossible relationship. But if you look a bit closer, there are islands of peace between us. For instance, take health care. There is not a single hospital in Israel that doesn't have Arab nurses, doctors, patients and Jewish doctors, nurses and patients working together without problems. It's complete peace in the hospitals.
SPIEGEL: Many in Israel view the Arab Spring as an "Arab winter." Do you share that view?
Peres: I see it as a "world spring" rather than an Arab spring. The climate of change is global, not national. And you can't come to a world spring dressed for winter.
SPIEGEL: To what extent have the revolutions in the Arab world influenced what happens in Israel?
Peres: Not everything that happens in the Middle East is connected to Israel. The bloodshed in Syria is not connected to Israel. Egypt has nothing to do with Israel. And the same goes for Tunisia and Yemen. There are some fanatics who try to introduce the conflict between us and the Palestinians as an excuse for their extremism, but they are a minority. So I think we have to disconnect ourselves from this transitional period in the Middle East.
SPIEGEL: You have spoken about a "new Middle East" for decades. Is the Middle East that is currently taking shape like the one you have envisioned?
Peres: There is not yet a new Middle East. There is a divorce from the old Middle East, but not yet a new Middle East. We're in a period of transition. But they are building governments; the process has started. The young generation has already achieved something. First of all, they got rid of their dictators. They pushed their countries to elections. They didn't know how to win elections, but they did introduce elections.
SPIEGEL: Four months ago, shortly before you celebrated your 89th birthday, you publicly warned Israelis against making a unilateral strike on Iran. What worried you so much that you chose to speak out?
Peres: The problem of Iran is a global problem. Israel doesn't have to monopolize it.
SPIEGEL: Does that mean you don't trust your country's current leaders to make the right decision?
Peres: I respect leaders, but I respect realities as well. And I prefer to go with a coalition led by the United States. President Barack Obama, in my judgment, is a serious and constant leader. He is against Iranians having a bomb because it's a danger to the world.
SPIEGEL: You recently complained about losing sleep because you're so worried. Should we be worried, too?
Peres: Sure, I am worried and therefore I expressed my views. Even Russian President Vladimir Putin told me he can't stand a nuclear bomb in the hands of the Iranians. So why do it alone? I don't understand that.
SPIEGEL: Your positions on this and many other issues are contrary to those held by the current government and Prime Minister Netanyahu. Why aren't you more openly critical?
Peres: I prefer to express what I am for, and not what I am against.
SPIEGEL: Many Israelis were expecting to see you run as the head of the opposition in the upcoming elections. Why did you ultimately choose not to run?
Peres: I was elected for seven years as president. I want to fulfill what I took upon myself. I don't lack opportunities. I don't feel that I am idle. I think that I have to tell the story of my country and where we are heading.
Peres: I feel that I can influence just as much with goodwill as with administrative power. I think I have, in a way, an educational responsibility to tell young people where we are heading. I hope I'm not exaggerating, but I hope that people are listening to me very carefully.
SPIEGEL: President Peres, we thank you for this interview.
Interview conducted by Hans Hoyng and Juliane von Mittelstaedt
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- Peres began his career in 1947 as an arms purchaser for the Haganah, the Jewish underground army in the British Mandate for Palestine. He would later launch Israel's nuclear program and support settlement expansion. However, for the last two decades, he has advocated negotiating with the Palestinians.
- Since becoming president, Peres has only rarely criticized Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in public. However, it is no coincidence that he recently chose to speak out, right before Netanyahu traveled to Berlin last Wednesday for high-level talks with the German government on a wide range of issues. Netanyahu views the recent UN vote that essentially recognized Palestine as a state as something akin to the Munich Agreement of 1938, when Europe's major powers allowed Nazi Germany to annex part of Czechoslovakia. At the time, British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain praised the agreement as offering "peace for our time," but history has come to view it as a classic instance of misguided appeasement -- with horrific consequences.