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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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?
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
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?
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?
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
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?
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.
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?
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?
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?"
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
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?
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
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
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.
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