Voice

Present Throughout the Creation

Turning 90, Shimon Peres talks peace, politics, and the limits of leadership.

Interviewing Shimon Peres earlier this month, I had the distinct feeling that I was talking to a man 30 years younger than the Israeli president actually is -- full of life, energy, and still ascending the mountain of a career yet to reach its peak. Indeed, it's hard to believe that the world -- and I mean that literally looking at the guest list for birthday celebration in Jerusalem this week -- is gathering to mark Peres's 90th.

That a man entering his tenth decade still appears so vibrant isn't all that unusual these days. Frankly it's becoming a dog-bites-man story. My father and father in-law both turned 91 this year. Henry Kissinger just celebrated his 90th earlier this month. Maybe 90 is the new 70.

What distinguishes Peres isn't his longevity but his centrality and relevance to Israel's remarkable story. He has had his share of political setbacks, most notably his unrequited quest to become an elected Israeli prime minister in his own right. He served twice as prime minister -- once in a national-unity government, in which he rotated the top job with Yitzhak Shamir, and again in the wake of Yitzhak Rabin's assassination -- but he never won a popular mandate.

But this omission makes Peres's career even more extraordinary. I'd be hard pressed to identify another political figure who played such a critical role in any democracy over such a long a period of time despite not winning its top leadership post. In our own history, Benjamin Franklin comes to mind. And so might Alexander Hamilton, had not Aaron Burr cut his life and career short.

Charles de Gaulle famously said that the cemeteries of France were filled with indispensable men, though he clearly would have counted himself (with good reason) as one of the truly indispensable. And it's hard to imagine Israel's story without Peres. Peres did not found modern Israel as de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic, but if you took him out of Israel's national narrative, the country would have been much the poorer.

Peres has been there and done that in nearly every aspect of Israel's political, security, and economic life. He was a member of the Knesset for 48 years, longer than anyone else. He served in 12 cabinets, including as deputy minister of defense under David Ben Gurion, treasury minister, defense minister, foreign minister, and vice prime minister. In 2007, he was elected Israel's ninth president. And Peres wasn't just serving time. He's considered to be the father of Israel's nuclear program and has been central in matters of Israel's security and peacemaking for well over half a century.

His detractors believe his contributions exaggerated and in the case of his signature effort -- forging the Oslo accords -- dangerous. They mock his narcissism and political ambition. But deriding a leader for ambition and self-regard, particularly after 70 years of public life, is thin criticism. Peres is Peres. And, despite all his flaws and imperfections, for the most part he has transcended his detractors.

Peres may never have the grandfatherly authority of Rabin or Ariel Sharon, or the true greatness of Ben Gurion, his mentor. But he has won the affection and gratitude of his country and a central place in Israel's history. On the eve of his 90th birthday celebration, Peres generously agreed answer my questions -- both over email and in person -- about peace, politics, life, and the future. What follows is an edited version of our exchanges.

FP: What are the three greatest threats facing the state of Israel today?

SP: First, the lack of peace. Israel is a small political island in a stormy sea. And today it is more stormy than ever, breaking against the shores. There is a distinct lack of stability, aggravated by a large arsenal of dangerous arms, a great deal of which have made their way into irresponsible hands. Israel is not the reason for the events. But it may become an excuse for them. I do believe that if we conclude our peace negotiations with the Palestinians, and try to enter into a peace agreement with the Arab world, Israel may overcome the greatest danger. In my view, the real danger is to fail to try to overcome the obstacles while peace is still possible.

The second threat is the new character of modern security; Terror that has replaced classical warfare. Terror is not a policy but a crime. It does not respect laws or human lives, nor does it have a clear goal and policy. It does not require great masses of fighters but rather it is the weapons and scale of destructive intent of the terrorists that determine the magnitude of the dangers. The central danger today in this respect is Iran -- its ayatollahs, its weapons, its attempts to build nuclear arms, and its declarations that it is their intention to destroy Israel. Terrorism and the Iranian position is a danger to the whole world. Israel is perhaps under a more direct threat than anyone else, and Israel is also a part of the international coalition to bring that danger to an end.

Third, Israel has a long history. It has paid a heavy price for being alone, with no parents to her faith, no brother to her language, no sister to her history. But Israel is also respected for her moral choice of negating slaves and masters, and clear in her basic belief that every person is born in the image of the Lord. The threat is to fail to sufficiently look to the future and to lose sight of the value of the Ten Commandments. Israel can and should combine her values with what the future has to offer.

FP: Will 2013 be a year of war or diplomacy with Iran?

SP: The answer to that rests with Iran. The door of diplomacy is open for the Iranian regime, and everyone prefers a peaceful solution. However, the ayatollahs must know that all options remain on the table. The immediate victims of the Iranian regime are the Iranian people; it is them that suffer from a lack of freedom, a lack of economic prosperity, and a lack of human rights. Iran cannot feed children on enriched uranium; the regime must choose between enriched uranium and an enriched nation. Iran also has a hand in the situation in Syria, and there too conflict can be avoided if the regime chooses diplomacy over violence.

FP: Is the two-state solution still achievable?

SP: It is the only alternative to make and keep peace with the Palestinians and maybe the entire Arab world. It is achievable because all nations have to live both in the past, which is unchangeable and dividing, and the future, which calls for a globe where economics and security are borderless. So every independence is at the same time interdependent as well. We can keep our identity within political borders, and live in a global society free of racism and national hatred.

The two-state solution already has a master plan, a beginning and a conclusion. We have to overcome the disagreements and focus on the implementations. I believe it is possible and achievable, and I see in the president of the Palestinian Authority a real partner.

FP Does the world judge Israel by an unfair double standard?

SP: Israel is judged differently by two distinct groups of people. The first are those who maintain the age-old prejudice of anti-Semitism. They judge us differently out of hatred for the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Anti-Semitism is a non-Jewish sickness and it is for non-Jews to overcome. But there are also those who expect a higher moral standard of the Jewish people because of our heritage, our prophets, and our teachings. I believe we must judge ourselves by these high standards, always striving to be better, always striving to live up to the expectations of our prophets.

FP: The Palestinians bear their fair share of responsibility for the absence of peace. What's Israel's responsibility?

SP: I don't think we can learn much from past mistakes. The mistakes of the past are far less relevant because they are unchangeable, like the past itself. Today is less historic and more future-oriented. We have to do our best not to make new mistakes; that is our responsibility. Today, both sides have a responsibility to sit down at the negotiating table and finalize a peace agreement that will benefit the future generations of both peoples.

FP: Why is it important that there be a Jewish state?

SP: This is not a question which you would address to any other state. Today, the world is both global and individual. Our world would not exist as we know it if it consisted of only one flower or one human brain. The Jewish people are small in number and great in concept. Judaism was the first example of a rebellion of the people. It started with the exodus from the house of slaves and a journey to the Promised Land. That journey is not yet over. There are still houses of slavery, and we are still engaged in making the Promised Land an island of promise. Judaism started with "Briat HaOlam" [Genesis] and it continues with "Tikkun Olam" [Healing the World]. In my judgment, Judaism is intrinsically never satisfied with the way things are, but aiming to improve endlessly.

FP: Will the state of Israel exist in 2113?

SP: Of course. The Jewish people have faced great struggles in their history and overcome them. The state of Israel will not only survive, but it will flourish.

FP: How important is the United States to the survival of Israel?

SP: Very. I believe vision precedes strategy; not only for Israel, but for the entirety of humanity. Many nations became great or attempted to achieve greatness by taking from the other. The United States became great by giving, not by taking. The one that contributes generates friendship, which is always wiser and cheaper than creating animosity.

The Jews were born with the notion that there is nothing wiser than the moral call. One can summarize Judaism in these words: "Love others as you would yourself." The takers built empires and then went bankrupt. The givers built homes for themselves and shelters for others, and you don't get lost when you are building, not destroying. When the first pioneers arrived with the Mayflower, they called their destination New Zion. New Zion and Old Zion have a moral and historical affinity.

FP: What's the greatest regret of your life in public service?

SP: The failure of the London Agreement, which I believed at the time could have been a catalyst for peace, security, and stability in the region. I do not believe in dwelling on the past, but rather that we should always look to the future. In life, one must learn to be modest. More than rule, we were ruled. For that reason, early in my life, I told myself: "Don't try to rule. Try to serve."

FP: What's been your greatest joy?

SP: There is no greater joy for me than bringing joy to others. The greatest joy I feel is to be surrounded by my family; my children, grandchildren and great children, who are a source of pride and inspiration for me. There is nothing that can bring a smile to your face quicker than that of a happy child.

FP: What impact did President Obama's visit have?

SP: A tremendous impact. He was wise, sincere, and friendly. He brought a fresh breeze to the Middle East, which reinvigorated public opinion in the region and encouraged everyone to believe that we can achieve a better tomorrow. The people of Israel want peace and are willing to pay the price for peace. President Obama's visit encouraged them to believe that it can happen and made clear to the people of Israel, once again, that the United States is a true, dedicated, and loyal friend of the state of Israel. It was a historic visit and a hopeful moment for us all.

FP: What does it take to be a good leader?

SP: To be wise to self and not to be foolish to all. I think nowadays there is very little room for leaders, because leaders have had a role when we used to live on the land and have to defend it and have armies and have commanders and all was fractured. Now, in the age of science, what can a leader do? Armies cannot conquer science. Police cannot arrest innovations. And, you know, a leader today appears -- he says, "I'm strong, I'm great, I'm this, I'm that." And then people ask him, "Really, are you? Can you bring an end to terror?" He says, "No." "Can you bring an end to deficit?" "No." He cannot because the deficit is not only financial, but also a deficit of expectations. The more you have, the more people expect of you. So they say, "Who needs you?"

If you want to be a leader, serve, because what you can achieve by goodwill, you cannot achieve by power. I don't think soft power -- that's nonsense. You have today two administrations, one which is in trouble, the old government administration, and the other which is thriving, the global companies, because they don't use force and because they understand that globality is vis-a-vis the world, but each of us remains individual. And they try to answer the expectations of every individual person. And they are listening; they are not ordering.

As a result, they brought an end to racism. You cannot be global and racist. They brought an end to nationalism to a high degree, because you cannot be nationalist and global. On the other hand, they enhanced the importance of the individual. To be a good marketer, it's not enough to have a good product, you have to have good relations. You don't have to lead; you have to help, to facilitate, to enable. And people will be sure that you don't want to take advantage of them, but to help them to advance.

FP: If you could choose to have lunch or dinner with any historical figure, who would it be and why?

Other than Ben Gurion, I would like to have it with Lincoln. Because the man showed peaks in strength and peaks in understanding. He went through a civil war, but for the right purpose. Okay, really you don't have a choice but to go to war, but never go to war which is unneeded. And he really knew how to express himself. His language had not legs, but wings. They are flying throughout history.

FP: The Woodrow Wilson Center and the Peres Center are partnering on a project called YaLa-Young Leaders, the largest Facebook organization in the Middle East, with 400,000 members. Do you have hope for the next generation?

SP: Very much. First of all, because life expectancy has doubled and so has life effectiveness. Today, boys or girls at 14 or 15 are ready-made people. They are better informed. They are confronting more challenges, yet we don't let them play a role in our life? We look upon them aschildren. They are not children. They are educated, excellent people that can start to create at an early age.  On the other hand, the so-called old people are not so old. Today, a women or a man at the age of 65 and 70 can work easily. We have to change our itinerary. So you have more time and you face more challenges and you cannot bluff so much, because in the Internet age you have to be brief and honest. So, we have a new age with an old mind.   

FP: What worries you most about the future of the state of Israel? 

SP: Ignorance. Ignorance. Yes, I think politics is suffering from ignorance. The communication became so fast and so flat and the people are becoming victims of fast food and fast information. They are not cooked enough.

MENAHEM KAHANA/AFP/Getty Images

Reality Check

The New Problem From Hell

Obama's options in Syria are awful. But the United States is headed for intervention anyway.

Speaking from a refugee camp in Turkey last year, Middle East scholar Fouad Ajami told CNN that, like Bill Clinton, who felt ashamed for not intervening to stop the Rwandan genocide, Barack Obama will look back with regret at his refusal to use American power in Syria.

By any standard, Syria is a disaster.

But it's not Rwanda, where 800,000 Tutsis were massacred within a period of eight months. Nor is it Obama's disaster in the sense that he's responsible for what has transpired there by not intervening.

Obama has avoided intervention not because he's insensitive, incompetent, or even uninterested. He has done so because his options aren't just bad, they're terrible. Syria is already a disaster, but a ham-handed intervention could make matters worse, certainly for America.

The commentariat is looking for ways to press the administration to act. Their arguments are largely correct: Syria is indeed a moral, humanitarian, and strategic disaster. But their prescription for action is long on generalities and short on specifics, and even fuzzier on how the United States could stabilize the country and then extract itself from yet another entanglement in the Middle East. No analogy is all that relevant here -- not Rwanda, not Libya, not Bosnia. The Syrian calamity is unique.

The American experience in Afghanistan and Iraq looms large over the Syrian conflict. The parallel that's worth paying attention to isn't boots on the ground -- it's the question of connecting means to ends. In the Syrian case, the central question is: How does militarizing the American role -- through providing arms to the rebels, creating a no-fly zone, or even launching military strikes -- pave the way for a successful outcome?

None of the incremental steps that have been proposed so far have answered the following questions: Can these actions degrade Syria's military power so that President Bashar al-Assad's regime collapses? Or, alternatively, can they produce a stalemate that would force the regime, the Russians, and Iran to accept a negotiated transition?

Even if Assad falls, why do we believe that the battle in Syria will end? In the wake of the regime's collapse, the Syrian war may well expand -- Alawite militias will continue the fight, opposition groups will struggle among themselves for control, and foreign powers will continue to meddle in the hopes of emerging on top of the new Syrian political order. If America wants to play in this war, so be it -- but experience suggests it's the kind of arena in which we can't win.

It's not that America can't intervene militarily in Syria, or even that the options on the table are too risky. The problem is that the incremental steps being considered probably won't work without a much more sustained and aggressive military intervention. And after America's baby steps into the Syrian war don't resolve it, Obama will face a choice: He can either stand down and reveal we don't have the will to stand up, or he can escalate. On this front, I agree with my former colleague Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who argued that being heartless is better than being mindless.

Those are all good reasons to avoid intervening in Syria -- but I doubt they will carry the day. By the end of the summer, more than 100,000 Syrians are likely to have died in a calamitous civil war that shows no signs of abating. As a result, the pressure to intervene will mount on the risk-averse Obama administration. Here's why we are headed for a militarization of the U.S. role in Syria.

Time's starting to run out

The Syrian crisis might go on, in one form or another, for years. But the Obama presidency won't. The president's awareness that the clock's ticking -- and that there's no third term on the horizon -- will increasingly weigh on his decision-making.

Yes, we're only six months into Obama's new term. But second-term presidents -- not to mention their advisors -- quickly start to focus on what's important and what's not, because they know time is now limited. How a president will be remembered becomes critically important.

History -- an important commodity for presidents -- is likely to judge Obama very unkindly for his passivity. From where we sit today, it is easier to reach the conclusion that Syria is a trap for America. But once Obama's term concludes, there will be a different evaluation. People will forget the details and circumstances -- they will only see the dead and the wounded, the refugees and the physical devastation. They will want to know why America wouldn't or couldn't do more. And that's partly why the pressure to do something will grow. Obama knows that Syria is the key story line in the so-called Arab Spring and that his own legacy will suffer unless he moves to counteract the negative appraisals currently gathering force. So, does he want to share the legacy of the last Democratic president, who failed to intervene in Rwanda and almost in Bosnia, too?

No diplomatic track in sight

The arc of the Syrian civil war seems pretty well set. These kinds of conflicts end either when one side triumphs, or when a third party intercedes to impose its will.

From the beginning, the conventional wisdom has been that the regime could not survive. That logic was partly driven by the fact that no other autocrats survived the Arab Spring. But it was also driven by what seemed like simple arithmetic: The regime looked increasingly weakened (subtraction) and the opposition seemed to be gaining in strength (addition). At some point, situation would reach a tipping point, and Assad would be overthrown.

That hasn't happened. We have a military stalemate -- or perhaps even a situation where the regime is gaining strength, while the opposition is losing it. Still, it appears that there's no military solution, and that only a political deal can end the conflict. Last year, the United Nations gave the diplomatic track a name: the "Geneva process." It has now been reenergized by the active participation of the United States under the leadership of Secretary of State John Kerry.

Whether or not the United States thinks this can work is irrelevant. What's important is that its strategy, at this point, is to get the Russians to force the regime and the rebels to the negotiating table. If Washington and Moscow can accomplish that, they just may be able to convince the warring parties to negotiate a political transition that eases Assad out, while bringing a coherent group of opposition elements to power. Such an accomplishment would go a long way to stopping the killing and preempting the need for U.S. military intervention.

But the odds that Geneva will succeed are long indeed. To paraphrase poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning, let me count the ways it could fail: Will the Russians really pressure Assad to leave? Will the Syrian dictator agree, particularly at a time when his regime is scoring military gains? Can anyone really speak authoritatively for the rebels inside and outside Syria? Will they risk a situation that leaves Assad in place -- at least for a time?

The paradox of Geneva 2.0 is that it could pave the way for the very situation the United States has tried to avoid. If (or when) diplomacy fails, it will be clear that there is only one remaining option to stop the bloodshed: military intervention. Pressure will grow on the Obama administration to shoot, not talk.

The tough ladies are back

Individuals do matter in forging the U.S. government's response to an international crisis. And the ascension of Susan Rice as Obama's national security advisor and Samantha Power as America's envoy at the United Nations increases the odds of intervention in Syria.

Those two appointments have raised public expectations for the administration's foreign policy. Even I was surprised to see last week's Washington Post headline following the announcements: "Obama signals new approach on national security: A bigger U.S. role abroad." The implication was clear: There's a new sheriff in town.

I wouldn't dismiss this line so quickly. Rice is smart, tough, disciplined, and reportedly risk-averse on Syria. But she has a new job, and expectations for new and bolder initiatives are mounting. Combined with her own determination to make a difference, one of the pieces of the puzzle for intervention may have just fallen into place: She is closer to the president than any other foreign policy adviser. Should she join the chorus of those in the last term who pressed for bolder action (Hillary Clinton, David Petraeus), Obama will now have counsel to act from someone he truly respects and trusts.  

It's lonely at the top. Sometimes you need close company to make tough decisions. Obama may now have it.

The other tough lady, Samantha Power, wrote a book about the Balkans (and other mass slaughters) called "A Problem From Hell." That of course describes Syria, too. This problem isn't going away. Indeed, it will likely get worse -- before it gets even worse.

Too much blood has flowed in Syria to imagine a quick, negotiated settlement. The longer the conflict continues, the greater the odds that some new kinetic element -- an Israeli-Syrian confrontation, massive use of chemical weapons, or some atrocity that surpasses previous horrors -- will occur.

The steady drumbeat of death in Syria will increase the pressure on the United States to do something, anything, to stop the violence -- even if it's out of good options for doing so. For better or worse, the Obama administration seems headed for military intervention in Syria, with all the risk and uncertainty that entails.

AFP/Getty Images