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Shimon Peres

Peace is still possible

The Israeli Minister of Foreign Affairs says that it is necessary to end the current wave of skepticism in order to reach an agreement with the Palestinians.

Tania Menai, in Jerusalem

It is difficult to separate the history of the State of Israel, founded only 53 years ago, from the personal trajectory of Shimon Peres, 77 years old. The current Minister of Foreign Affairs and one of the leaders of the Labor Party, he was twice prime minister and has participated in almost all the governments since 1948. A political leader in a country in constant conflict with its neighbors, Peres built a self-image of being a moderate and a conciliator. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Prize for Peace with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and with the Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the peace process signed in the previous year. When Rabin was murdered in 1995, Peres took over as Prime Minister, but lost the elections the following year. As Minister of Foreign Affairs, Peres tries to be a moderate voice in the government of the tough right wing Ariel Sharon, an especially hard task given the Palestinians rebellions and the collapse of the peace process in the Middle East. Married, father of three, grandfather of six, Peres is the founder of an institute that has his name to promote dialogue and projects between Arabs and Jews. In a very busy week of negotiations in search for a cease-fire, Peres spoke with Veja in his office, in Jerusalem.

Veja- Will Israel ever stay out of the news?

Peres – We were 600,000 people in 1948. Now we are 6 million. We made a desert flourish, we were attacked by all our neighbors, we won wars, we built an army and an educational system. Even with danger, we’ve remained a democratic place. Israel has always been a drama. It is more a drama than a country. Fifty years ago, Israel started a singular way of making politics. It’s interesting to live such a demanding life. This little piece of land has always been an enormous news provider for the rest of the world because of its strength, its singularity, the intensity of its experiences. I love this country. I can’t imagine myself living in any other place. It would be so boring. When I look back at 50 years and compare it to today, I see that now we have one million Russians, 100,000 Ethiopians, Jews, non-Jews. That’s fascinating.

Veja- The peace process is paralyzed. What is the responsibility of Israel in the collapse of negotiations?

Peres- Both the Israeli right and left made serious mistakes in the past. Today it is very difficult to repair them. The right occupied too many territories, making an impossible map to live. The left, to please everyone, had made too many concessions. We have to learn from the past and understand that we have to offer the Palestinians enough to reach the peace. But also make whatever it’s necessary not to lose support from the Israelis.

Veja- What is the role of religion and of Jerusalem in the dispute with the Palestinians?

Peres – Well, politics are based on agreements. Religion is based on compromises. One cannot divide religious goods. But can share it. The political issues are based on a division of territories, strengths or positions. In religion, what matters is the right to pray for God, each one in its own way, own voice, without censorship. Sovereigns control politics. Jerusalem must be open to all faiths, religions, without monopoly. Everyone has the right to visit the sacred places.
Veja- Madeleine Albright, the former American Secretary of State, said once that “the future of the Israeli youth depends more on their knowledge than on how much territory they occupy”. Do you agree?
Peres – I have no other option, but to agree. We will never have enough territories. And, traditionally, the Jewish people have more knowledge and history than territory.

Veja- Once you mentioned that “when it comes to facts, the Palestine leader Yasser Arafat resembles floating elements in a Chagall’s painting” - which means, he lacks of objectivity. Is today’s Arafat the same one who shared the Noble Price for Peace with you in 1994?

Peres – Yes, he is the same one. He changes his rules, but can’t change his personality. The same way he’s able to make important decisions, he makes wrong ones. And while we criticize his wrong decisions, we underestimate his capacity of making the right ones.

Veja– Since the current Palestinian rebellions started, nine months ago, the tourism income in Israel has dropped at least 70%. The negative impact on the economy could serve as an incentive to the search for peace?

Peres – From an economic point-of-view, we have to end the conflicts as soon as possible - the sooner, the better. But there’s another issue: the Israelis are very upset. Unable to respond to all Palestinians’ demands, people become skeptical. There’s a wave of skepticism, which makes transition to peace difficult. However I still think the peace is something possible.

Veja – Do you think the international public opinion is now more or less sympathetic to the Palestinians?

Peres – The Palestinians have a great enemy: terrorism. Actually, the world is stuck together against both sides. That’s an attitude with no precedents.

Veja -But would you agree that the international image of Israel has never been so bad?

Peres – It’s not the image that defines the reality. The image is partial, unreal. The television shows the story, but it doesn’t tell it. Its news is based on fast speed, with no depth or sophistication. The humanity is divided in two parts: in people who read books and people who watch TV. People who read have more time, participate more, contemplate more. This slow pace is what creates the aristocracy of a civilization. It’s too bad that most people are always in a hurry. The fast pace of TV doesn’t help people understand the complexities of the Middle East.

Veja- You always mention a “New Middle East”, without wars and with economic development. Is this possible?

Peres – The Middle East is stepping into a new era, changing prophets for technology. The profitable regions of the worlds are those which produce technology. We can’t escape from that. In the past, the world was connected by sea and by land. Today, the air makes this connection. And in the air there’s no geography and no sovereignty: only communication, which is an important way of transportation. The class’ divisions are no longer defined by the haves and have-nots, but by the connected and disconnected. The disconnected ones will remain poor. A big part of the Middle East remains disconnected from the rest of the world, living in the past. Those are places where you find hatefulness, exaggerated nationalisms and underdeveloped economies.

Veja- You say that it is Israel’s interest that the Palestinians build a modern society, not only cheap labor for the Israelis. How would it be possible?

Peres – Through education. Modernization starts in the classrooms. The same way the Army is trained in brigades, kids are trained in schools. It’s necessary to take care of kids since they are small. It’s possible to correct them in their mother’s womb, feeding them and providing the right education. Not always parents do that. It’s our mistake, our fault. Later, we have to prepare them to enter universities. We have to keep learning during all our lives. We shouldn’t be eternal students, but teachers of ourselves.

Veja – So, we are far from the ideal situation, as the Palestinians classrooms are teaching Intifada, the popular rebellion, to their kids. How to change this situation?

Peres – If the students learn to hate, they won’t learn to care to technology. Hatefulness is conflicting with science. Science is the intransigent search for the truth. There is no way to combine science and lies. Political propaganda destroys one’s capacity of learning objectively. We can’t attract investments if we don’t have transparency. We can’t have research, if we’re not a free society. A country cannot have scientist if the nation is corrupted. If the system is corrupt, the government will always be arbitrary. It is not enough to buy computers and provide Internet access to create a high tech society. It’s necessary to have the right mentality. Science will lead us to democracy. More and more science is in the private companies’ hands. It’s the role of the State to combine scientific freedom with social freedom, and to combine technology development with transparency.

Veja- How do you imagine the day after of a peace agreement between Israelis and Palestinians?

Peres – I don’t know. The right to be equal as an individual, maintaining one’s own personality is the essence of peace. I believe that democracy has two meanings: the individual right to be equal and the individual right to be different. Our grandchildren will know how to appreciate peace. However, that won’t refrain them from hating other children. They have to learn about their skin, religion, life, past and legacy. Their challenge is to make them know they are different and accept the difference in others.

Veja – The community Neve Shalom, or Oasis of Peace, located between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, was created 30 years ago to test companionship between Arabs and Jews. There are 50 families – half of each origin – living in this place. Another 300 families are on the waiting list to join them, but there’s no space. Do you see solutions in initiatives like that?

Peres – I see solutions in ways of coexistence between them, but not necessarily living in the same village.

Veja – Having a Nobel Prize for Peace in your hands, how you define peace?

Peres – It is the right to express one’s talent without suffering any kind of repression.

Veja – Some Israelis say you are visionary. Others think you’re a dreamer...

Peres – A visionary is someone who sees the future. A dreamer is the one who likes to live fantasies at night. But it’s not possible to dream during the day. The day belongs to the visionaries. The night, to the dreamers.

Veja- You have participated in several governments, with different visions. What’s the ideal government, in your opinion?

Peres – The power is something empty, an illusion. The government is not as powerful as people think. Actually, what counts is the vision and not the power. There are conflicts between different visions, but there were agreements that helped us go through different moments together, despite our differences. This is a national need, because the danger is so big and the opportunities so little, that we have to keep ourselves united.

Veja –Are you a religious person?

Peres – Let’s make a distinction between religion and faith. Religion is an organization, with rabbis, bishops and priests. To have faith doesn’t mean necessarily to recognize any of these organizations. We are directly connected to God without needing the intermediation of rabbis or priests. In this sense, I am definitely not religious, but I have faith. I don’t know where God is. Maybe in heaven, maybe in our hearts or in our souls. But a soul without a God is a poor soul. So, let’s have God in our souls, in a way that he makes us more nobles, believers, engaged and delicate. God doesn’t ask us for anything specific. We can live according to our conscience and our mentality. So I don’t have too much to question. Why not adopt a God in my heart?

Veja - What brought you to politics?

Peres – We have to choose one side. We can’t remain neutral. I don’t like neutrality, which is a way of escape. We have to make choices, and I had made mine. I was born in an age where part of the people was Marxists or Communists. I was against that. I chose Socialism. And my socialism came from the bible. I didn’t see need in promoting violence. Part of my generation supported the sharing of the land, as long as Israel was an independent state. While I was Minister of Defense, there was the Independence War. I fought for diversity. In the future we will have to live under our spiritual legacy, our talent for sciences and transform ourselves in a nation provider for the rest of the world. People that produce peace and hope.

Veja - Are you afraid of dying like Yitzhak Rabin, murdered by an extremist Israeli in 1995?

Peres – No. Whoever is afraid of death never enjoys life.

Published in VEJA Magazine, Brazil, on the week of July, 4th 2001.
Circulation – 1,3 million copies.

[ copyright © 2004 by Tania Menai ]