Remarks by Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres at the Annual Meeting of the American Jewish Committee

Washington D.C., May 3 2001

The Moral Motivation of Peace Process

I feel very deeply that whatever we do is not in service of passing strategies or political expediencies. What we are really trying to do is to follow a great Jewish tradition that its main message is the preference of the moral code upon all other attractions.

I believe that the late Prime Minister Rabin and myself went to Oslo not because of strategic convictions only, not because of political opportunities alone; we went there because we wanted to correct a mistake. In our history, in our 4,000 years of existence, we have never dominated another people. We didn’t leave the house of slaves in Egypt to build a house of masters in Israel. It goes against everything we stand for.

And while the Palestinians say they want to get rid of our occupation, we want even more so to get rid of our role as occupiers. We don’t want to occupy anybody. It is so hard to occupy the Jewish life, why should we try our hands with other people? But we weren’t born to be masters, we weren’t born to be dominators; we were born already with the message against slavery, against mastery, against domination, and that’s what kept us historically. And that, I hope, will keep us in the future.

Shortcomings of the "Land for Peace" Formula

We entered the real historic trial to bring an end to the conflict in the Middle East. We were successful with the Egyptians. We were successful with the Jordanians. I don’t say it’s perfect, because, you know, when people are saying, "Land for peace," we gave back all the land. We are not sure that we got back all the peace. Land is tangible. Peace is airy or, shall I say, moody. So when you give back tangible real estate, that’s it. But when you hang on the return, you have to follow the passing and changing winds, some of them very unpleasant. The same goes about our withdrawal from Lebanon.

Palestinian Historical Mistakes

With the Palestinians, it’s complicated. The Palestinians are not our enemies. We don’t want to dominate their life. We don’t want them to remain second to best. We think they’re an able people. They can reach the ranks of modern economy. But they were unlucky in the way they have led their lives. They committed two major mistakes that we didn’t have any role in it.

In 1947 they were offered to build a state. They rejected it. It was a resolution of the United Nations that gave them 80 percent of the land. And to this very day, nobody can seriously explain why did they do it, because seriously you cannot explain a mistake. Mistakes are inexplainable. And it brought tragedy upon the Palestinian people, including the creation of a refugee problem, which haunts to this very day, as a shadow, our capacity to make peace.

And the second time was right now in Taba and Camp David, when President Clinton was the longest possible way, with the indirect agreement of Prime Minister Barak, to offer the Palestinians practically everything.

They were offered 96 percent of the land plus 3 percent of a swap, which brings us to 99 percent. And when I follow the American commercials, I saw that you can buy something and the price is always 2.99, it’s never $3.00. (Laughter.) So when you get 2.99, it’s actually the $3.00.

Why did they retract again? Nobody can explain. Not only did they retract, they reacted with violence and terror. And we are again in an uninvited confrontation with them we wish we could have avoided, prevented.

Israel in the International Arena

Now we are in a struggle on three different fronts. One is the international front. Numerically, the Palestinians have an absolute majority. We don’t stand a chance. In a few days there will be the conference of the non-aligned nations, 110 of them. They are a bloc in the United Nations. They will vote on every occasion automatically against us. We don’t stand a chance. If the Palestinians will suggest that the world is square, they have a majority, no problem.

And the non-aligned nations became, and may remain, an alliance against Israel. When they call themselves ‘non-aligned’, it’s not true. It’s an alliance against us. The only thing that has remained from the original ideas of having the non-aligned nations — because the non-alliance was when there was a Cold War between the Russians, the United States and the Soviet Union. The war is over; the neutrality remains. How can you be neutral if you don’t have a war?

And I talked personally with Nelson Mandela, and I called his attention to this. The Prime Minister told me a few minutes ago that he called up the president of South Africa, Mbeki, with the same message, and we have to make it clear.

Then there is the struggle in other countries. Among the non-aligned nations there is India, which is one of the two largest nations in the way of population, over a billion — a billion, hundred million people. Our relations with India are — they are best, they are very good.

You know, it is so strange, Israel was a lost case, agriculturally speaking. The land was a desert, dry, refusing, small, burned-down, destroyed by changing forces, and the land without water; we have two lakes, one dead; we have one river, richer in history than in water. It’s not a river for irrigation — it’s a river for public relations. And yet we were able to make out of these negative conditions one of the best agricultures in the world.

The story I always like to say is when the Russians have renewed their relations with Israel, the first thing they bought from us — you wouldn’t believe it — were cows. Why cows? Because it came out that the Zionist cow produces three times as much milk than a Communist cow. And believe me, the difference is not in the animals — the same horns. The difference is really in the system. And the moral of the story that you can’t have from the system more milk than you can have from the animals.

And that impressed, I think, two great countries, the Chinese and the Indians. They are so much after the Israeli agriculture experience, which is unbelievable. When we have an agriculture exhibition in Israel, we have over a thousand Indians coming — well, they can commit themselves to do so, and Chinese, and so on, and so forth. We just agreed to provide the Chinese with a model village in the west of China where they are trying to cultivate the land. But again, there are traditions, and we have to overcome them and to break the anti-Israeli norm. Not less is it important with the Europeans.

Europe is basically a complicated continent. I can understand the forefathers of the United States that decided to escape Europe. I can see the reasons for it — considering the many variations and sophistications. But again, we are friends and if people are criticizing us in Europe, we cannot depend on a constant European support.

Israel-US Relations

The American support is really one of the greatest miracles that happened to Jewish life and Israel. Since the formation of Israel, we enjoyed such a moving support because it wasn’t just the administration, just the Congress; needless to say, the Jewish community that was in the center of it, but also the churches, the unions, the press. There was a sort of a biblical identification, underneath connection, that really colored and typified our relations. And for us, it’s very dear for all of us.

And I think also, to be fair, the support was basically bipartisan, with Republican presidents and Democratic presidents that were exceeding friendly to Israel; and not only them, but many other members of the administration; the Congress was all the time very much supportive. Even to this day, yesterday we paid a visit to the Hill, and they made me embarrassed because I came with a list and they complained, Why don’t you have a list? They say, What can we do more and more and more? Really, I wasn’t expect that to happen.

Present Policy

Now, the American position of the Bush administration is comfortable, as far as we are concerned. It consists of two major items; one, to fight, in an uncompromising manner, terror. By the way, it’s not only Palestinian terror, it is terror as such.

Terrorism, in the eyes of the United States, became a danger similar to the Bolshevik danger, or the Communist danger of 20 years ago.

I think today, terrorism is considered an un-American act, namely not just a crime but a sin, an ideological sin. I think it’s comfortable because we don’t want to fight the Palestinians. We want to fight the terror, even if it’s Palestinian.

There are some experts suggesting to ‘reduce’ the terror; we insist to end the terror, because if you reduce the terror, it’s like reducing a flame without extinguishing the fire, and that may be very dangerous. So we would like to put an end to it.

On the other hand, when it comes to the negotiations, they suggest, and we agree, the negotiations would be face to face, and the United States would be a facilitator not the chief negotiator. We think this is the right division of labor. We did it is Oslo. We did it with the Jordanians. We did it with the Egyptians. The results were fair, and I think that’s the way to go, because if the United States become a negotiator, they will all the time have to be even-handed instead of reaching over, supporting whenever support is needed, saying a word of criticism whenever a word is needed. Now we are coming to the real issue, and that is the Palestinian position.

The Palestinian Violence
The Palestinian Attitude toward Israel

The Palestinians are extremely angry with us. They’re angry for reasons that no matter what, we can’t understand. In their eyes, it’s inherent. Their angry basically because of two things: First, the conditions in the territories, which are very difficult, to be honest. Because of the Intifada, they lost 50 percent of their income; there is 40 percent of unemployment; there are a million and a half people below the poverty line, the poverty line being $2 per person a day, which is a shame.

Politics is politics, but we are human beings. We don’t want them to suffer. We don’t want them to live in shame or in want or in starvation. And again, it goes against everything that we stand for.

Secondly, because of the Intifada, they suffered a great deal of loss of life. Although it’s their fault, but they would accuse us. When they shoot and we react and people are killed, they forgot that they started the shooting. The Israelis never initiate an act of terror, but we cannot stand without any reaction in stopping it.

The Israelis are very angry with the Palestinians because we don’t understand their rejection of our proposals. They say they fight against ‘occupation’, if only we could have the end of the ‘occupation’ without fighting. But you were offered it. Why are you fighting? And then again, they not only rejected it, but also they started the intifada, the shooting and the indiscriminate killing.

Israel’s Expectations of Arafat

And we demand that their leader — they are electing their leaders, and we are not trying to undercut it, we are not the ones that will elect the leaders of the Palestinians, as they will not be the ones that will elect our leaders — and we call upon Arafat to take a clear-cut stand. We don’t ask him to produce miracles, we don’t ask him to do things that he is incapable of doing. But we ask him to do things that he can do and that he has committed to do; for example to stand up against terrorism. He doesn’t need the permission of anybody; he can stand up and say it. Some of his forces are participating in the shooting and killing. They are under his control. He has to discipline them.

Basically, a leader must understand that you will never have one country or one government or one people if you will have three armed forces. Imagine the if the American Civil War would never have ended — you would never have America. We would never have Israel if Ben Gurion wouldn’t insist to unite all the different armed groups. Now in Lebanon too, three different armed groups are destroying Lebanon, not us.

Arafat, like all of us, needs the world’s support, politically, to convince his people that he’s an accepted leader worldwide. And secondly — not less important — he depends upon foreign aid to build an administration, to build an infrastructure.

And in the United States the anger about his behavior is so great in Congress and in the administration that he may lose his position here, and that will be tragic for the Palestinians and him.

We are not after punishment. We are not after revenge. We don’t want to repress anybody. We would like to see the Palestinians having a fair life, like any other human being. But it must be clear that you cannot have a little bit of terrorism to make the life of Israel miserable and a little bit of diplomacy to convince the outside world that you’re against terror. You cannot put in the same glass a cocktail of water and fire, I know.

Israel-Palestinian Negotiations

We are trying to negotiate. We have a little bit of the support of the Egyptians, the Jordanians. We have much support of the United States — its people, its institutions, its administration. I was really heartwarmed when I read that 67 percent of the American people are supportive of Israel. It’s a very high amount and very important support.

And we are trying to negotiate. We are trying to negotiate discreetly, because we feel if we shall be able to achieve a cease-fire, then we shall be able to return to the agenda of peace, the sooner the better.

I won’t go into many details. I can say only that this is the very early beginning. Maybe there is a slight indication for an opening, but very far from being a completed agreement. We shall have to work very hard.

And every day we have 30 acts of terror. And no other country would show so much restraint and patience in our reaction as we do. But ladies and gentlemen and dear friends, we can win in both ways. We can overcome terror. We are strong enough. We can reach peace. We are willing enough. We would like to wind up the conflict in the Middle East peacefully, not forcefully. We went through in 52 years five wars and much terror. We won each and all of the wars and all of the terror.

I told Arafat — on many occasions I told him: Look, you must understand; bullets will unite the Jewish people. Bombs will bring us tougher. But peace will provide you with the greatest opportunity. The important things in the Middle East were achieved around the negotiating table, not on the battlefield. And we don’t suggest a return to the battlefield.

So we are again at the crucial point. I am not pessimistic. I am concerned because I would like, like each of you, to save lives — ours and the lives of others.

Israel’s Achievements

We celebrated this year our 53rd anniversary. And let’s face it, it’s a remarkable achievement. We started with 650,000 Jewish people; today we have 5.2 Jewish and 1.1 Arab. Never did we have so many Jewish people in Israel, historically speaking. Never did we have in the world so many Hebrew-speaking people. There are more Hebrew-speaking people in the world than Danish-speaking people, in Denmark and elsewhere. We are having a fine agriculture, which is all the time improving, becoming more modern.

We have a good army. My mentor was David Ben-Gurion, and like all of us, he was a very modest Israeli. So he used to say, "I don’t know if the Israeli army is the best in the world, but I don’t know any army in the world which is better than the Israeli army. And with this modest description, we can go ahead.

We have quite a successful high tech, and high tech is changing life. It makes us less dependent on territory, more dependent on science, technology, brains. The world today is no longer connected by sea or land, it’s connected by air. In the air, you don’t have flags or history or geography or sovereignties or borders; you have real, net competition of brains. And this is the competition that I think Moses was awaiting all his life. So now it came. And we shouldn’t lose it.

And I think that the world is no longer divided between have and have-nots, but between connected and disconnected. People who are disconnected will remain poor and backward. We would like to see the Arab world being connected as well. And you cannot be connected unless you understand that the connection is not done by bombs, it’s being done by education, it’s being done by investing in the human being and enabling him to take out from himself the most he has; that within each of us is by far a richer enabling intelligence — the secret of our talents. And instead of dwelling in the history of the past, we have to look to the history of the future.

And Judaism, from the very beginning, belongs to the history of the future. So let’s look upon the past with satisfaction, let’s look upon the present with a sober eye, and never give up the great hopes of a better world, of a contributing Jewish people.

Economic Cooperation and Peace

We have suggested now to the Palestinians that they will build the desalination plant on their land, under their jurisdiction, and we shall buy from them water. I mean, eventually, one must remember that most of the globe is covered with water. And we did so many things with nature, that we do not see any reason why we cannot take out the salt from the water on a more reasonable cost. And this will happen sooner or later, in my judgment.

The great lesson of Europe is that you cannot solve serious political conflicts that goes on ages after ages, but in the economic domain. Europe is an economic answer to political hatred. And the founder of the Common Market, Jean Monet, did a greater service to Europe than Napoleon. Napoleon left cemeteries; Jean Monet opened windows. Better windows than tombs. And this could happen in the Middle East. You know, I should take one moment to extend the answer.

One important example is what happened here with the NAFTA organization when Canada and the United States took in a poor relative — Mexico — as a partner. It was a lost cause. The relations between Mexico and America were terrible. And Mexico repeated calling "Yankees go home". And all of a sudden you have a friendship. Since then Mexico has changed their economy. Before NAFTA 80 percent of the Mexican exports was oil and 20 percent industrial goods. Now it’s the other way around, and they have increased their exports three times. It has affected the Mexican democracy.

Until NAFTA Mexico had a very special democratic system — which in essence was that the government appointed the opposition. Believe me, this is a very original idea. But only now they have elected a member of the opposition as the president. It’s a major change. And I think what happened between Mexico and the United States and Canada can happen in the Middle East.

I am telling my European friends, I said, "Gentlemen, you have to make up your mind. Either the Middle East will become an extension of Europe, or otherwise — and I suggest that you will be careful — Europe will become an extension of the Middle East". Europe is short of young people, short of workers. They cannot support old age. The Middle East has hardly old age because of the shortage of life expectancy. And there is an ongoing emigration of great historic meaning from the south to the north. Even in Switzerland they have a million foreigners.

And as you are doing in America, I think in Quebec something very serious has happened.

Thirty-six countries of America and Latin America decided to have a free trade agreement, which means it will be a community of 800 million people and, instead of having the United States of America, you are going to have the America of the United States. It’s a major change. So the world is changing. It will change in our area, too.