ABC "NIGHTLINE" INTERVIEW WITH:
ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER SHIMON PERES
MONDAY, APRIL 29, 1996
TED KOPPEL: There is something a little bit bizarre about the fact that Yasser Arafat is coming here tomorrow to be with you and President Clinton. President Hussein of Jordan, who decided sometime ago, a couple of weeks ago, not to come, is not going to be here. In a sense, that symbolizes how drastically things have changed in the Middle East over the last few months even.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Yes. But still, I may say that our relations with King Hussein are excellent. We don’t have any problems. And I believe that Arafat made some important decisions in his life. He changed the destinies of the Palestinian people and he became a partner to the peace process. Once he made peace with Israel, we became the same camp and we faced the same dangers.
MR. KOPPEL: Among those dangers, I would assume that at the moment you would still have to count Hafez el Assad. How do you interpret what Assad is about?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I think basically he made a decision to have peace, to make peace. You know, for many good years he claimed that he wants to achieve a strategic equilibrium with the Israelis. He gave it up. He knows that he cannot match us militarily. Now he wants to have an economic equilibrium with Israel. The problem with Assad is that while he made a strategic choice, he didn’t select any tactic that leads to the fulfillment of that aim.
MR. KOPPEL: If one looks at the tactics that he has been pursuing I mean, I find it a little hard to understand that you are as benevolent in your public utterances about Assad as you are, because you understand better than anyone the Lebanese government has very little power to act on its own unless Assad gives his permission. The rockets, the Katyusha rockets that were fired against northern Israel, came through Syria, could not have gotten into the hands of Hezbollah if Assad had not given his permission. Why are you so nice to him publicly?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I’ve learned the hard way something which is very important, and that is in order to achieve peace, more than you need a plan, you need a partner. A plan without a partner is just a piece of paper.
MR. KOPPEL: Your predecessor, the late Prime Minister Rabin, said you can’t end war, you can’t make peace or you don’t need to make peace with your friends; it has to be with your enemies. I’m not quoting him precisely. But using that as the logic behind a strategic policy, would have you following the same kind of strategy toward the Iranians, the Iraqis, the Libyans? Why not?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: No. There is a difference. Maybe in the tactics, there is a similarity between Syria and Iran. But while the Iranians are declaring publicly that they want to destroy Israel, they don’t say they are ready to have peace. They don’t say they are ready to compromise. They finance, they arm, they push all the terrorist organizations to cause death, to create troubles, to destroy the peace process. You know, where religion begins, logic ends. And they’re above reason. They’re above dialogue. They’re above any process.
MR. KOPPEL: All right, why not try to deal, then, with Saddam Hussein and Iraq? Saddam Hussein is a very practical man, whatever else you may think of him; in many respects like Assad.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: When you say so, you have to explain to me what is the difference between being a crazy man and a practical man.
MR. KOPPEL: You think he’s crazy.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: He is crazy. He’s cruel. He’s a killer.
MR. KOPPEL: So is Assad. He may not be crazy, but he’s cruel and he’s a killer. PRIME MINISTER PERES: He used to be today I’m not so sure. I mean, he tried to achieve many things in one way. Today he knows that it is unachievable. You know, Assad was sure probably that without him, nothing will move in the Middle East; that there won’t be any peace process. He was even probably sure that Arafat will not go our way, that Hussein will not make peace with us. He was a little bit surprised. And since he’s very far from being a fool, he’ll draw his lessons.
MR. KOPPEL: Mr. Prime Minister, talk to me for a moment about what your personal feelings were and I don’t mean now as prime minister of Israel, but your personal feelings as a father and a grandfather when you heard about the consequences of the attacks on that U.N. center in Lebanon where almost 100 Lebanese men, women and children were killed.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I regret it deeply. It was a shock to me. But that’s one side of the story. I must be also responsible. If I, as the minister of defense, sent the Israeli soldiers deep into Lebanese territory to intercept the launching of Katyushas, and they’re being attacked, I cannot tell them, "Don’t defend yourselves." And then they defend themselves, and unfortunately six shells overfly the target, and they didn’t have the slightest idea that there are civilians, what can I tell them?
MR. KOPPEL: The U.N. says differently. There were U.N. personnel there who say they called the Israeli military, that the Israeli military did, in fact, know that there were many civilians in that camp.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: That’s the first time that I hear something like it. The UNIFIL spokesman actually said that they witnessed the attack upon our force.
MR. KOPPEL: That is true.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Yes. And the Israelis, if they would know, I assure you that no Israeli officer would shoot at women and children. Many of our officers lost their lives because they didn’t want to shoot at children and women.
MR. KOPPEL: Are you telling me now that Israel cannot do that in the future if the Hezbollah breaks the agreement? Let us say that rockets do come from a civilian center, as they most certainly will if Hezbollah breaks the agreement.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: The answer is yes.
MR. KOPPEL: Yes what?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: We shall try to separate between attacking the terrorists and touching the civilians. We are telling the Lebanese, "Make up your mind. Either you want to serve as a shelter to the Hezbollah, and then you will have to separate, because we don’t want to have civilian casualties, or prevent them from coming in in the midst of your own existence."
MR. KOPPEL: All of that presumes, Prime Minister Peres, that the Lebanese government actually has the capability of doing what you demand of them, which brings us back once again to the puppeteer, Hafez el Assad. He is the one who controls the actions of the Hezbollah in Lebanon, not the Lebanese government.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I would say that concerning the Hezbollah, Iran is the engine and Syria are the brakes of it. I do not believe that the Syrians have ordered the Hezbollah to attack us. They can prevent it.
MR. KOPPEL: But they allowed the Katyusha rockets to pass through Syria.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Yes, they did. And they will have to also learn in the future that it carries a price, because what happened, really? Why did they agree finally to have a truce, a cease-fire? Because we told the villages, "Leave the village. We want to stop the shooting of the Katyushas." There are hundreds of thousands left.
MR. KOPPEL: But you destroyed a lot of civilian infrastructure.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Now, we didn’t destroy houses, but positions that they house in a village from which they use to shoot Katyushas. We were careful not to cause any destruction in infrastructure. We did not destroy roads. We control the roads so Katyushas will not be able to go from the north to the south. It was a very thought-out operation; don’t make a mistake about it.
MR. KOPPEL: Prime Minister Peres, a lot of what has happened, obviously, has been going on within the political context of your elections, our upcoming elections.
Mr. Prime Minister, you had an image problem only a few months ago in your own country in the sense that Benjamin Netanyahu is perceived as the tough guy; Likud is perceived as being much tougher in terms of representing the interests of Israel. The Labor Party, you in particular, do not have that tough an image. Indeed, I mean, worse things can be said about a man than that he is perceived as a peacemaker, but that was losing or apparently losing votes for you as far as the polls were concerned. One could argue that this operation in Lebanon served your purposes very well politically. Respond to that for a moment.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I think it’s totally wrong, because before the operation, I had had an edge of 16 percent, with all the shooting and with all the fighting. Because of the shooting and the fighting, I lost. I didn’t win anything.
I mean, if you ask for my really sincere view, that I am engaged in two campaigns; a domestic campaign, which is okay I have an opposition, we have an opposition; they oppose. I’m trying not to let them become unemployed and have their own portion. But then, all of a sudden, we have a second campaign by the intervention of the anti-peace forces in the Arab world. I cannot do things in order to be liked or disliked. Finally, at my age and my position, you cannot buy me off by power or prestige. But if I have to make a choice between being re-elected and performing correctly as a prime minister and as a defense minister, my first call is to my duties and not to my elections.
But, Ted, let me say something more serious, if you want to have my real view. There is a race between two convoys in the Middle East the fundamentalistic one, which wants to mobilize the Muslim world against Israel, to destroy it, that uses terror, that tries to acquire non-conventional arms, that feels that they have the right to lie and cheat and kill because such an important goal justifies all means and our convoy, which is a convoy of creating a new strategy, creating a new coalition. I think we have only four years to win this race or to lose it.
MR. KOPPEL: Why four years? PRIME MINISTER PERES: Because I believe that in four years we may reach nuclear weapons. You know, it’s not for the first time that you have an evil movement in history. It is the first time in history that an evil and malicious movement, covered by a religious lining, may acquire these terrible weapons. Imagine what would happen if Hitler would have a nuclear bomb. The whole history would be different. And I feel convinced and committed to win this race, not to let it to anybody else, not to say somebody will do it. If I compare it with Hitler, at the time of Hitler we didn’t have a state. If we would have a state, maybe things would also be different. Here we don’t have much time. We have a real competition, a real danger, a short time, and much is at stake.
MR. KOPPEL: Prime Minister, we have come almost to the end of my allotted time. And I’m sorry, it’s my fault, because we have come to the most important part at the end. But let me just try and ask you a couple of quick questions then. When you talk about a four-year timetable and the acquisition of nuclear weapons, you’re talking about Iran?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Yes.
MR. KOPPEL: A number of years ago, one of your predecessors, Prime Minister Begin, launched or ordered the launching of an attack against nuclear facilities in Iraq for precisely the same reason. Are you telling me that the same thing might happen now with Iran?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Not necessarily. I would rather see an earlier attempt to intercept this danger, because even since then, things have changed. Today you can produce nuclear bombs without having reactors. You can do it in caves. You can do it by centrifuges. It’s not a simple proposition.
MR. KOPPEL: And there’s also nuclear technology leaking out of the former Soviet Union.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Exactly so.
MR. KOPPEL: Is it your understanding that some of that technology has made its way to Iran?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: In the way of knowledge, I’m afraid yes. It surely made its way to Iraq. I think Iraq today, if it wouldn’t be for the campaign against Iraq, Iraq would have already a nuclear bomb, you know, in spite of our bombing the reactor. MR. KOPPEL: When you say "in terms of knowledge," are you suggesting that former Soviet scientists or military people with nuclear knowledge are now working with the Iranians?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: I can’t say it with certainty, but you know there are 150 Russian experts trying to build what the Russians are saying is a civilian nuclear capacity. But the difference is so thin and so worrying, and it is because of it that I think that a united policy by the western world and Russia to prevent the Iranians from having a combination of a fundamentalistic movement and a nuclear capacity is essential. It is better to prevent it by, say, an economic pressure than by a military confrontation.
MR. KOPPEL: Would it be fair, then, to say would you make the argument that one of the reasons that President Clinton has been as supportive of you and he’s been extraordinarily publicly supportive of you is not so much the personal relationship even, but that the United States sees its national interest equally threatened?
PRIME MINISTER PERES: It goes together. You know, President Clinton, if you ask me, is a moving friend. We are moved by him. He visited Israel, contrary to all protocols, twice; once to participate at the funeral of the late Yitzhak Rabin. Then again he came when we had the bombs in Jerusalem. He met our youth. He conquered their heart. This is not in the contradiction of really trying to create a coalition against the greatest danger in our time after communism and Naziism, which is fundamentalism.
MR. KOPPEL: Fundamentalism armed with nuclear weapons, you say.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Exactly so.
MR. KOPPEL: Prime Minister Peres, as I say, we got to the most interesting part at the end; my fault, but I thank you for raising it. And I thank you once again for being a guest on Nightline. I appreciate it very much.
PRIME MINISTER PERES: Thank you very much.