Interview with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on Hardball with Chris Matthews – CNBC

August 15, 2001

CHRIS MATTHEWS, host: For weeks now moderates in the Israeli government have been looking desperately for some way to end the violence in the Mideast, especially the wave of suicide bombings that have killed over 50 innocent civilians. Tonight on HARDBALL, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres offers to re-extend the Clinton-Barak plan of January, which he says Yasir Arafat was mistaken to reject. Meantime today, President Bush again called on both sides to end the conflict.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: The parties must, must make up their mind that peace is preferable to war. Suicide bombings have increased, too many of them. Mr. Arafat must do everything in his power to discourage the suicide bombers. And the Israelis must be restrained in their response.

MATTHEWS: Well, Israel has shown some restraint, attacking symbolic buildings. Palestinian terrorists have been bombing public places, killing women and children. There is no easy end to this struggle which has gone on for over 50 years, a time which during both sides have caused unnecessary bloodshed. Israel resents any implication of moral equivalency between the bombing of restaurants and demolishing terrorist sites. Earlier today I asked Foreign Minister Shimon Peres about Israeli troop movements on the West Bank.

Mr. SHIMON PERES (Israeli Foreign Minister): We don’t intend to reoccupy the West Bank. Only when there is a center of terrorism in one of the cities or villages our army enters in and tries to put an end to it and leaves immediately. We are not going to remain constantly, clearly not permanently, in those areas which are belonging to the Palestinian authority.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about what the Israeli government will do if these suicide bombings continue. What strength do you have to stop them?

Mr. PERES: There are two ways. One is the immediate way, namely to intercept the terrorist who has decided to commit suicide at his first station, because the minute he begins to move, he is a living and moving danger. He is not afraid to be killed. On the other hand he can kill policemen or soldiers that will try to stop him. For that is now the only chance is to get hold of him before he goes into the target or in the way to the target.

The second thing, we have to reduce the motives for terrorism of any sort. And the only way to do so is to renew the negotiations for peace and arrive at peaceful negotiation. You know, in a way, fighting terror is like fighting mosquitos. You cannot chase every mosquito individually. You have to dry the swamps, which means to really change the political situation. And our government is deeply interested to bring an end to this terrible confrontation which brings so much damage to us and to the Palestinians, and maybe to the Palestinians even more.

MATTHEWS: Does the Israeli actions by the Israeli defense force in going into the West Bank – in these excursions where you go in and you destroy a police station – do you believe that reduces the motive for terrorism?

Mr. PERES: I think it serves a signal to the Palestinian Authority. We would prefer that the Palestinian Authority will be in charge of the tranquility and the peacefulness in the territories. We would like them very much to be in charge and handle their own life as they would handle if they would have a state of their own. So this is really, in a way, a call to them: ‘Take the situation in your hand and introduce law and order for your own sake and for the sake of peace.’

MATTHEWS: Do you believe that the Palestinian Authority is sensitive to these losses to the point where it will use its influence to stop the suicide bombings?

Mr. PERES: That will not serve as a single encouragement to do so. But the Palestinian Authority understands that they’re also playing with the legitimacy of their own cause. The Palestinians worked very hard to be recognized by the world as a responsible, almost a democratic state in being. Right now there is a united front all over the places, actually all over the world, against terrorism.

MATTHEWS: How do you deal with a people where the religious leaders are encouraging people to commit suicide so that they can go to heaven, that they can experience an eternity of happiness – let me just give you a leader. Here’s how a leader of the Islamic Jihad described the process for recruiting suicide bombers: "They come once, and we send them home. If they come again, we send them home, but begin to check them out. Are they clean? Nationalist? Do they follow Muslim tradition? Do they pray at the mosque? Muslim belief is the most important thing. It just can’t be an impulse. For us, it’s important to know that life is short, but that the next life is for eternity." How do you fight people who want to die?

Mr. PERES: I think this stands against all the three monotheistic religions. They are based on respect for human beings, they are based on respect to life. I mean, those priests, imams, who are preaching

it, are acting against the gospel, the New Testament and the Koran. The Lord did not create a religion in order to permit one person to kill another person even for a political purpose. We have to fight this deviation from the very basic reason for being believers and having a religion and trusting the Lord in heaven.

MATTHEWS: Most people that are driven to desperate actions for military reasons or for political reasons, have a desperate situation in their own lives. When we were fighting World War II against the Japanese, we confronted the kamikazes. They were losing the war, suicide bombing was their only hope. In the case of the West Bank, the fact that the Palestinians have resorted to suicide attacks, does that tell you that there’s conditions – the economic conditions, perhaps, on the West Bank are so desperate that people feel life is worth giving up rather than preceding with?

Mr. PERES: The economic situation in the West Bank is a very poor state and they would like to improve right away. But the difference between the Japanese war and our struggle is completely different. You see, we have suggested to the Palestinians full independence. We have suggested to them to end occupation without firing a single bullet, they could have had it around the negotiating table.

MATTHEWS: Right.

Mr. PERES: I think they were mistaken when they have rejected it. And now we are not fighting in order to sustain or continue our occupation, but we are fighting in order to give security to our own people. We don’t want them to endanger us, and we don’t ask to be occupiers of them. It is not our intention, and for that you don’t need a war, not even a single battle. They can have it tomorrow morning.

MATTHEWS: Most Americans believe that the Barak proposal, underwritten by President Clinton and the other way around, was the most aggressive, the most positive, the most generous proposal Israel could have made under any government in January. That was rejected by Mr. Arafat. If he rejects that proposal, which gave him civil authority over Eastern Jerusalem, what offer can Israel ever make that would bring peace with Arafat?

Mr. PERES: I think Arafat was mistaken when he has rejected it. And he claims that he didn’t reject, so we don’t have to repeat the same thing. I believe if a new negotiation will start, the Palestinians may have a second thought and not commit the very same mistake. It is for the second time that the Palestinians are committing a terrible mistake that made them the victims of their own mistakes. The first was in 1948 when the United Nations has offered the Palestinians the formation of a Palestinian state on most of the land of Israel. The Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who was their leader, rejected it. To this very day, they pay the price of their rejection, of their mistake. I hope the Palestinians will not repeat another mistake. It is totally counterproductive, unnecessary and it serves nothing in the future.

MATTHEWS: Can Mr. Arafat stop the suicide bombing?

Mr. PERES: He can do more than he does. I don’t think he can stop it completely. But, you know, the United States, and actually all nations, are demanding from Arafat to show a 100 percent effort, not talking about the result, in order to bring an end to terror and to this ugly sort of terror.

MATTHEWS: Right.

Mr. PERES: And our estimation is that Arafat did not do it as yet. We continue to call upon him to exercise all the influence and authority and forces he has to stop this way of negotiation: negotiation by killing one, the other.

MATTHEWS: You say that he has not given 100 percent to stop the suicide bombing. What percent would you say he is giving today?

Mr. PERES: I can’t measure it by percentage, but it’s clearly far from 100 percent. What we are asking from Arafat to do is the following things: to order his own troops not to participate in any act of terror. We are asking that his forces will participate in the prevention of terror, including the suicidical terror. What we ask from him is to bring an end to the incitement. You know, the cessation of fire and the cessation of incitement can contribute greatly to a different situation in the Middle East. Words nowadays are as dangerous as bullets. And I thought, and still think, that Arafat, by using the right words, can gain much more for his people than by firing bullets or by using bombs or using human bombs.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you, about 20 years ago I had a chance to ask you the question of what would give a man like you who’s been fighting for Israel since the war of independence of 1948, to believe that somewhere down the road there can be peace between Israeli and Palestinian. And you said, ‘It’s an odd thing to say for a Socialist,’ which you are, ‘but I believe someday there’ll be a middle class on the West Bank which will have stakes, which will believe that they have something to lose in an Intifada-type struggle.’ Do you believe that that has been realized, that dream?

Mr. PERES: Probably so, yes. The fact is that we made peace with Egypt, we made peace with Jordan, and 20 years ago we could hardly have dreamed of. And then we started to negotiate with the Palestinians, their form is to depart from terrorism. They have recognized the state of Israel. They have undertaken to air out our differences in dialogues, in peaceful dialogues. It takes more time than I hope at that time it will take. But that’s not a reason to get lost or to give up.

MATTHEWS: Here’s a State Department statement yesterday, Mr. Peres. "The Israeli incursions into Palestinian-controlled areas are provocative and undermine the efforts of the parties and the international community to defuse the situation and stop the violence." What is your reaction to that, sir?

Mr. PERES: My reaction is, considering the provocation, Israel is showing a great deal of restraint. You know, over the last four days, there were more than five bombs in attempt to kill people. Two of them were, so to speak, successful. They killed 20 young people and women and families in Jerusalem, in another part of the country. And we are looking for ways and means to stop it. It doesn’t give us any pleasure to have any political incursions. And the United States tried to impress Mr. Arafat with the need to bring an end to the violence and terror, alas, unsuccessfully.

It is not our intention to use force when we have another alternative. We tried other means as well to punish the Palestinians or to signal to them without killing people. Like, for example, the closure of some of their offices in Jerusalem. We are really looking for an alternative. It is not our own interest to see people being killed on either side. Now we are also trying, at the same time, to renew the negotiations, to talk face to face with the Palestinians and try to use reason instead of weapons.

MATTHEWS: You mentioned that you thought that Mr. Arafat made a big mistake in rejecting the Camp David offer, which I think, and most Americans think, was very generous on the part of Israel. If he were to rethink that and come back to you, would the Unity government in which you participate as foreign minister under Prime Minister Sharon, would this government of Israel reoffer that offer from Camp David?

Mr. PERES: I’m not sure. Maybe we would suggest some alteration and some alternatives, because the offer that was given to Arafat did not hold water, and as a result of the Arafat rejection, the trust in Arafat was very much lowered in the eyes of the Israelis. Maybe we would look for more guarantees for our security. And maybe we would suggest some other proposals concerning the thorny issue of the right of a town that Israel cannot accept. And I am not sure that Mr. Barak accepted it. And also the solution for Jerusalem, which may be one variation, but there are many others.

MATTHEWS: Let me ask you about the mind-set of the middle of the road Israeli, not the person with peace now on the left, not the person who is on the right of the Likud Party, but say the moderate Labor Party person out there who you know so well. That Israeli who has been fighting this fight since the ’40s. How do they feel today about their history of Israel today in the year 2001, given this intifada?

Mr. PERES: Clearly, many of them are disappointed. They didn’t give up their support for peace, but they believe they would like to have more guarantees for security. You know, public opinion is usually more generous than governments, because governments have to make a choice. Public opinion can make a combination. If I would have to measure the present state of mind in Israel, I would say that most of Israelis would like to have the policies of the left and the government of the right, namely, that our proposals and attitudes to peace will remain unchanged, but our handling the security situation will be tougher and stronger. I believe the more that we shall be able to move in the direction of peace, maybe the less reserves will the people have on both sides.

Today I believe the Palestinians as well as ourselves are extremely angry at each other. Each of us feel deeply disappointed by the policies or attitudes that we’re shown. What we can say is: we don’t initiate any acts of terror. We only react. And what we can say also, that we do not intend to remain the occupier of Palestinian land.

MATTHEWS: Let me just ask you, should the United States become more a partner, more aggressive in its role in the Mideast?

Mr. PERES: I think the United States did some right things, which we appreciate. Number one, to introduce the Mitchell report that was accepted by the two parties and won the support of most of the countries all around the world. The Mitchell report is a sequence starting with cease-fire, and cooling-off period, going to confidence-building measures, winding up with the renewal of the political negotiation. The problem is now how to start to implement it. And together with the United States, we are looking for ways and means to enable the train to depart from the first station so to reach the second and the third station which means the renewal of the peace negotiations.

MATTHEWS: Thank you very much. Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.