From the Archives: Ex-Israeli leader Shimon Peres thinks he’ll see peace in his lifetime

Shimon Peres, former president of Israel, at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills on Feb. 10.
Shimon Peres, former president of Israel, at the Beverly Wilshire in Beverly Hills on Feb. 10.
(Bethany Mollenkof / Los Angeles Times)

These are uneasy times in Israel.

Tension between Israelis and Palestinians has escalated since the collapse of American-brokered peace talks last year.

Thousands of foreign fighters, some of them reportedly Israeli Arabs, have poured into neighboring Syria to join the ranks of Islamic State and other extremist militant groups. There is also widespread anxiety in Jerusalem about U.S. efforts to strike a deal with Iran over its nuclear program. And the deepening rift between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and President Obama is raising fear of lasting damage to a vital partnership.

Former Israeli President Shimon Peres, who at 91 remains active on the world stage and is enjoying a broad popularity that eluded him for many of the years he spent in public office, spoke to The Times about these and other issues during a stop in Los Angeles.


He chided Netanyahu for accepting an invitation from House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to address a joint session of Congress despite objections from the president, saying it was not in Israel’s interests to drive a wedge between Republicans and Democrats. But he remained optimistic about the prospects for peace in the Middle East. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

It is no secret that the relationship between Obama and Netanyahu is strained. Are you worried?

I hope it won’t become a permanent state. I think from the Israeli point of view, President Obama did a great deal. I don’t have [anything] but praise and appreciation for the way he handled a very complicated situation in the Middle East and supported Israel. He answers almost all of our requests, and I as an Israeli feel gratified for it.

Do you think the prime minister went too far by accepting the invitation to address Congress in March, two weeks before Israel’s elections?

You know it’s a time of elections [campaigning] in Israel, and there is more than one view about it. Many Israelis think it’s a mistake. Many Israelis think the prime minister is right. If the prime minister would ask for my advice, I would tell him not to do it.

Why is that?

There are rules of behavior and all of us have to respect them. They can see that in the Congress itself there is resentment. Israel enjoyed all the time a bipartisan support. It is essential that it continue to cultivate it.

What are the implications for Israel and the Middle East?

I shall make a far-reaching response. I think that we cannot achieve peace nor can we prevent war without the support of the United States. No matter if there are some people who say America is in decline, I don’t see the decline. Without the United States, I don’t see any combination or any coalition or any country that can or will do it. We should continue to keep our very close relationship with the United States for our own sake, for the sake of the region, and if you want, for the entire world.

Netanyahu has said that he has an obligation to use the platform to warn against the dangers of a nuclear deal with Iran, a country he says poses an “existential” threat to Israel.

The prime minister can speak about it wherever he wants. Even if he speaks in a small town in Israel, it will be heard all over the place. It’s proper that the prime minister will suggest to the president his views, but it should be done in a way which is accepted by both sides.

Are you concerned about the negotiations with Iran?

I think all of us share the view of the president [Obama] that we have to try to reach an agreement before any other means will be taken. I think even ... Netanyahu thinks the same way. As far as the conclusions, I don’t know that they exist already. The negotiations are still going on.

It’s not only us, it’s not only America, it’s also the Iranian people themselves [who want change]. Maybe the change will be brought by women and young people. Because both of them are the real victims. We are talking about potential dangers. They are experiencing it.

You have devoted many years to trying to achieve peace in the Middle East. Does Israel bear any responsibility for the dismal state of the negotiations?

I think Israel should keep the initiative, whether the time is right or not. You know there are many skeptics, and some of them went as far as to say that you cannot make peace with the Arabs. It’s nonsense. I remember the time when people said with Egypt we will never have peace. We have peace. They said Jordan will never participate in the peace process. They do. It’s not a little achievement. So I’m not the one that all of a sudden will say there is no sun in the world, just shadows.

With the continuing expansion of Jewish settlements in territories that the Palestinians claim for a future state, some are asking whether a two-state solution is possible.

Considering all the other alternatives, this is still the best. There was a proposal that was more or less accepted by all sides, saying that there will be changes in the borders, agreed changes; that there will be three locations for some of the settlements which want to remain in place, and the others have the chance to come back. I think it’s a good enough formula. It’s complicated to implement but not impossible.

There has also been concern about actions taken by the Palestinian Authority, including the recent move to join the International Criminal Court with the intention of pursuing war crimes charges against Israel over its settlement policies and the war in Gaza last summer. Do you still see its leader, Mahmoud Abbas, as a good partner in the peace process?

I don’t know a better one. He stood up against terror, openly, publicly, in the Arab language. He calls for peace, openly, publicly and again in the Arab language. I cannot agree with his position on all things, but basically he’s constant, he’s open, more than any other Arab leader that I know.

Do you think that you will see peace in your lifetime?

Oh yes. Things have changed. The Middle East is in a transitional period. All the world actually is going over, or went over from one age, the age of the land, to another age, the age of science. Land should be defended or extended by wars and armies. Maybe the land is the major reason for so many wars throughout history. Science cannot be achieved by wars, nor by armies. Science doesn’t have borders. There is nothing to defend.

There’s another distinction, which in my judgment is very important. We have 400 million Arabs in the Middle East, very poor and in a very demanding situation, with little hope. But there are more than 60% of this population which is below the age of 25, and the difference in age is like the difference between the digital age and the cultivating of land. It’s a major difference. I think they’re a great hope.

I don’t think the future is cutting heads. We have to seek to mobilize all measures to stop terror, because today terror became a greater danger to the Arab world than ever Israel has been in their eyes. And today there are either open or hidden joint interests [between] many Arab countries and Israel to stop terror. That’s a new element. And while I can criticize many of the steps which are being taken by the Arabs, nobody should close their eyes to the positive changes.

The Obama administration appears to be struggling to come up with an effective strategy against Islamic State and other militant groups in Syria and Iraq. What would be your advice?

My advice would be try to convince the Arab world to take charge of this fight. I don’t think an outside country can replace the Arab people. I would recommend that the United States, the Europeans, the Russians go to the United Nations and suggest that the Arab League become the key leader in the fight against terror. It’s in their interests. They have armies. They have air forces. They have money. They understand better than others what are the problems. And all of us will support them, because they’re a danger to all of us.

They have to mobilize not only the United Nations, not only nations, but also the religious leaders, to tell youngsters don’t go on the impression that if you cut some heads the world will be changed, or this is the call of the lord. It’s a sin. I think the pope can play a major role. We are lucky to have a good leader like him.

Are you concerned that the campaign against Islamic State might be playing into the hands of President Bashar Assad of Syria? You once thought his days were numbered.

Well I think Assad has done enough not to be supported anymore, and I don’t see it playing into his hands. I don’t see him governing Syria, but part of it. I don’t see him running peace, but running death.

You mentioned that it’s election time in Israel. Do you expect to see any significant changes come out of these elections?

I think if one wants to be wise in Israel, he is not to predict what will be the results of elections. I think that polls are like perfume. It’s nice to smell but dangerous to swallow.

What brings you to the U.S.?

I’ll tell you. I think that peace will be achieved less by governments and more by global companies, and my intention is to try to mobilize the global companies to play a role in bringing peace by overcoming poverty. I think we have to mobilize both sides of our existence, the material and the spiritual as well, and all the leaders concerned.