MAY 7, 1996
PERES: In my judgment, we are way ahead. We have achieved a great deal. We are now under attack, because of the elections, by those forces that want to topple the peace and the government that leads to peace. I am referring to the Iranians, to the Jihad, to the Hizbullah, and to the Hamas, that have developed a strategy not to let us win the elections. We have to take some countermeasures. I feel that we are going down a road, and all of a sudden you discover one mine, a second mine, and third mine. You can be worried about the mines, but there is no reason to give up the road. The road is still being followed and we are going to continue to travel ahead to the target, which is a comprehensive peace in the Middle East.
LEBANON AND KFAR KANA
Q: Moderate Arabs have been vital to the Middle East peace process. I’ve met them on the streets of Riyadh, Amman, even on the streets of Damascus. These are people who had high hopes for the peace process. And yet these moderate Arabs seemed to have lost faith after your military incursion into southern Lebanon. I’d like to ask you, the well having been somewhat poisoned in their minds, how you think you can win back the head and heart of the moderate Arabs throughout the Middle East who did believe in the peace process. How do you propose to do that?
PERES: Politics is like swimming in a sea of skepticism. The water is neither warm nor cold, but always doubtful. People always question, Can you really go ahead, can you really achieve it? I do believe that after the elections, we will return full-fledged to continue the peace process, and those people who today became skeptical or doubtful will regain their confidence and see the full vision.
Q: Did the Israeli intelligence know beforehand that there were hundreds of Lebanese civilians hiding in the U.N. camp?
PERES: The answer is definately no. We didn’t have the slightest idea and we think that it is a scandal that they were permitted into the camp without letting us know about it. I think that the Hizbullah people themselves, after shooting and before shooting, used the UNIFIL camp as a hideout for themselves and their families. I think the United States has remarked on the fact. But the orders were strict and our soldiers were convinced that we have to do whatever we can, not to hurt but to save civilian lives.
Q: Why did the officers in charge of this bombing not receive reprimands?
PERES: They were acting in self-defense. People forget the story. For seven days and seven nights Israel was bombed by Katyusha rockets without any provocation, without any reason. We tried all the political ways before we reacted. What we did in Lebanon was an act of self defense that we had no choice but to take. The Israeli unit was trying to intercept the group that was launching the missiles against us and all of a sudden they were shelled and bombed from a position which was 150-200 meters from the UNIFIL camp. That’s the reason. People forget the beginning of the story and they start with this tragic accident, which makes us full of sorrow and regret. We have nothing against the Lebanese people and there is no sense of purpose for our army to kill a single person in Lebanon, but when we have to defend ourselves, we have to do what is needed.
Q: Israel has asked the Palestinians and many other Arab parties to guarantee no more military attacks and no more suicide bombings. What do you say to many Arabs and the average man on the street when they ask whether Israel can guarantee no more attacks on another country and what they see as their civilian population mainly every time there is another election around the corner?
PERES: Again, my answer is very clear. We can guarantee it if in the country there is only one military authority. But if you have two military authorities like in Lebanon, our guarantees are of no value. What is happening today in Lebanon is that you have the official Lebanese government, the official Lebanese army, and you have another organization which has its own strategies, its own politics, and its own guns, the Hizbullah. The Hizbullah is a group, in my judgment, whose engine is Iranian and whose brakes are Syrian, and the Lebanese have very little, if any, impact upon it. I would say to any Arab country, if you want to guarantee the safety of your land and the unity of your territory, please try to have unity of military authority, of your guns. If you have two guns, and each gun is shooting in a different direction, you put us in trouble and you put yourselves in trouble.
Q: Many of those guns were targeted at civilians, however, in Lebanon. They weren’t targeted at military posts or sights. And many have called that state terrorism. The militant attacks have been called terrorism. But the Israeli offensive has been called state terrorism. What do you have to say about that?
PERES: I don’t know why it is being called state terrorism. We didn’t hit any civilian target. Our planes hit only places from which Katyushas were sent or launched, that’s all. You must also ask yourself why should we attack civilians. What is the sense on our side? It doesn’t serve any purpose, it doesn’t have any reason and it is against our basic positions.
Q: I would like to say that for the last two decades, Israel has been bombing the villages of south Lebanon. Since the Israeli officials have already said that they have no intention of remaining in south Lebanon, what is stopping them from withdrawing from Lebanon and at the same time from stopping the bloodshed in that part of the world?
PERES: If the Lebanese government disarms the Hizbullah terrorist organization, there’ll be no reason for us to be there. You forget again. In our minds, Lebanon and the Lebanese are basically a friendly neighbor, we have nothing against them. We have not the slightest ambition, neither territorial nor political, regarding Lebanon. But since 1980 or 1981, I think, Lebanon committed a mistake. They permitted them to create a state within a state and an army within an army and they lost control over their land and over its aggression. And that is what forced us to really take measure of self defense. Once the Lebanese army takes control, we don’t really have any reason to be there.
Q: Is that enough reason to bomb civilians whenever things go wrong between northern Israel and southern Lebanon?
PERES: No ma’am, we didn’t bomb civilians. We have a problem and that is that the Hizbullah is cynically hiding itself in civilian villages, and the choice before us is either to separate the civilians from Hizbullah or to try and target the Hizbullah positions. If the Hizbullah were out of those places, we wouldn’t touch them, we wouldn’t have any reason to do so.
Q: As a result of the cease fire, was there any agreement by which Hizbullah would leave the villages of south Lebanon, or are they back in those villages, seeking refuge by day and engaging Israeli soldiers in the occupation zone by night?
PERES: According to the agreement, no side has the right to fire on the civilians of the other side and if this does not happen, we have no reason to react. People abroad may accuse me of taking the measures we took, but people at home say, Why did you wait a week? Why didn’t you reply on the very same day? The attack started when President Clinton called for the conference in Sharm el-Sheikh. While we were meeting in Sharm el-Sheikh, the Hizbullah started again, without any provocation, without any reason to shoot. The only reason is serving the Iranian strategy to destroy the peace process and hurt our government.
Q: Your country has charged that there are Hizbullah bases in some countries in Africa. Have you been able to substantiate this?
PERES: If we have charges of this nature, you should approach the government. I cannot be responsible for all the charges that go around.
THE HAMAS TERROR
Q: The Palestinian Authority has cracked down on Hamas activity and has changed its charter calling for the destruction of Israel. What more assurances does Israel need to lift the closure rather than slightly ease it?
PERES: There are still some important leaders of the Hamas running free in Gaza and on the West Bank. I want to tell you, I receive on my desk every morning five or six warnings about possible attacks and I believe that the Palestinians understand this very well themselves. We are in full coordination and we started to lift the closure a little but by allowing 10,000 workers from the age of 40 and up to come in. We have to take the necessary measures not to create another provocation that may completely kill the chances for peace. It’s a strange story, we are being attacked because we make peace and we are being accused that we endanger peace. I know it’s a bit of a strange arrangement, or occurrence, but we really have to do it if we want to save the peace process for the future.
Q: Israel couldn’t deal with Hamas when Gaza was under Israeli control. How do you expect a newly elected government to deal with Hamas? Don’t you think that Israel should lay the blame also for Hamas being there?
PERES: We don’t put the blame on the Palestinian Authority and we don’t ask them to be one hundred percent successful. What we are asking them is to be one hundred percent responsible for doing whatever they can. Just a few weeks ago, they really started to arrest the responsible leaders of Hamas, the terrorists themselves, and we appreciate it very much and we said so. Like in Lebanon, if there are two armed authorities in Gaza, there won’t be peace either for the Gazans or for us. It will be dangerous both for the Palestinian Authority and for the Israeli Authority. You cannot run a country if you have an organized group with their own guns and their own policies. You wouldn’t agree to have it in Jordan, in Egypt, in the United States or in Israel. I think that this is the basic malady. One should see it with open eyes.
Q: Do you think that the peace process is bigger than you, than Mr. Rabin or Mr. Arafat? Do you think the process would survive if you were defeated on May 29th? Would the peace process survive a Netanyahu, Arik Sharon, or would it die if you were to lose the elections?
PERES: The peace process is not a robot activated automatically. You have to push and fight. If people do not take the necessary measures it won’t stand on its own legs. For example, if there is a renewal of the settlement policies in the West Bank, I imagine that the peace process will be in danger. All of the difference between the Likud and ourselves is that we look at the autonomy in the West Bank as a transitional station on the way to peace and we’ve started already to negotiate a permanent solution with the Palestinians. The Likud sees the autonomy as a permanent solution. That leaves it wide open for more settlers and more settlements. In my judgment, this will be a real problem for the continuation of the peace process.
ISRAEL AND SYRIA
Q: You have carefully avoided blaming Syria in these latest attacks. With the ongoing process, do you really see that Syria has put the brakes on Hizbullah and do you see them as a real partner after the elections?
PERES: I’m not so sure that Syria always puts the brakes on the Hizbullah and I can make some accusations against the Syrians, but I want to explain something. If you want to have peace, contrary to what most people believe, the problem is not to come up with a good plan, but to develop a partner for peace. Now, the raw material for partners is enemies. You have to take an enemy, and with great patience transform his suspicions and hatred into a beginning of negotiations. That’s what we did with the PLO and now we are trying to do the same with the Syrians, to see if we can replace the animosity, the hatred, with a new beginning. That is why we are so restrained in our language and why we are so careful in making accusations.
Q: Everybody has their own truth but at the end of the day, it all has to do with people. I come from a country of which 40% is occupied by Turkey. Your country occupies the Golan Heights and southern Lebanon. Wouldn’t it be simpler if we are talking about people if states like yours simply withdrew from occupied lands and then we can talk about peace?
PERES: We consider Cyprus a dear friend of Israel. We have excellent relations with the Cyprus Government. Personally, I believe that the Cyprus conflict can be solved. I had many talks with the leaders of Cyprus, and in my judgment the problem there can and should be solved.
I feel the same about us and Syria. We are not going to make the conflict eternal. We can and will solve it. The problem is a problem of people. While you should separate the two peoples, you don’t have to occupy and govern another people. That’s our basic reasoning. We are the only country in the world that won all the wars and gave back all the territory. We gave back territories to Egypt, to Jordan, we gave back authority and territories to the Palestinians. Nobody imposed it upon us, nobody forced us to do it. It is our own choice.
THE AGREEMENT WITH TURKEY
Q: The latest agreement between Israel and Turkey is on defense cooperation. Lately, the Egyptian foreign minister Amr Moussa had expressed his concern over the agreement. Do you see a secular block rising in the Middle East? Is that what Israel and Turkey and the other countries who would have a similar agreement are aiming for?
PERES: This is not an agreement against anybody. It is an agreement against danger and not against countries, since all of us are facing a common danger, armed fundamentalism which permits terror and killing and cheating. I can see in the Moslem world itself two factions, one led by Iran, which tries to make the ayatollahs the governors of our lives, permits acts of terror and is attempting to get a nuclear option, and I can see Turkey leading a trend of modernism, of democracy, or understanding. Naturally, fundamentalism is not a country, it is a movement that overflows boundaries and that doesn’t respect sovereignties and I think that Turkey is on the right side. Not only Turkey, but every country that wants to bring an end to terror, to violence, to aggression, to the government of ayatollahs, should really come together and stop the danger from spreading.
Q: You have repeated that Iran is the terror of the Middle East. How should Israel and the West confront a militant Iran?
PERES: First of all by being the West, by having a united policy. If the West agreed to see Iran, as it should, as a danger to peace movements all over the world and as a danger that may grow with time, then the West could develop the necessary policies to contain this danger. The problem is that the West is divided. The United States, under the leadership of President Clinton, understands it fully. I do believe that Great Britain understands it, and there are some other countries that understand it. On the other hand, there are countries in Europe that are calling for a critical dialogue, half-believing the Iranians, and there begins the problem.
RABIN’S LEGACY AND MR. PERES’ PERSONAL SAFETY
Q: You mentioned Israel and Syria and the search for peace between the two nations. What will be the price of the peace? You mentioned the fundamentalists, more bombing in Israel or even your life as it was with Prime Minister Rabin.
PERES: We will not submit to any threat and we shall not give in to any danger. Prime Minister Rabin did not, and I shall not either. Whoever is afraid cannot move ahead. I know that they are moving on a road full of dangers, but I also know that this is the right road, the best road, the only road upon which we have to move.
Q: Do you trust the security around you? With the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin, it was evident that the security failed.
PERES: Thank you for your worries, I think I am in good shape.
Q: Are the threats still coming in as rapidly as they were a few weeks ago? Are you still receiving personal threats?
PERES: I don’t like to refer to it. It s a personal matter I would like to keep to myself.
Q: What do you think is the greatest legacy of Prime Minister Rabin to the Israeli Government in facilitating the Middle East Peace Process?
PERES: I think Mr. Rabin was not just a head of the government, he was the leader of a revolution. We are in the middle of it. It called for a great deal of courage and vision to start such a deep change against so many opponents and doubts and disbeliefs, and still while we are moving ahead we are being attacked by all sides. We started, he started, he achieved a great deal, he has left a great deal, and we are going to continue it.
Q: You said on many occasions about Jerusalem as the sole capital of Israel. Since this issue is going to be discussed during the final negotiations, don’t you really consider it a capital of two states, Palestine and Israel?
PERES: I don’t know any capital that is the capital of two states. There was a divided Berlin. I think that the Germans, rightly, were quick to unite it. You cannot have two countries share the very same city. Jerusalem was never in history an Arab or a Palestinian capital. On the other hand, the Jewish people have never had any other but Jerusalem as their capital. We do recognize that the Muslim world looks upon Jerusalem as a holy city. That is perfectly okay. Jerusalem is considered holy in the eyes of the three major religions, Christianity, Islam and Judaism. I believe that while politically you must have one authority, religiously Jerusalem will remain an open and welcoming city to all leaders from all different faiths.