Interview with Foreign Minister Shimon Peres on NBC Meet the Press

April 21, 2002

MR. TIM RUSSERT: The President of the United States, the United Nations, has requested, demanded that Israel pull back completely without delay from the so-called occupied territories. When will Israel pull out completely from Ramallah, Bethlehem, everywhere?

FM PERES: But for the special situation in Ramallah that Secretary Powell has mentioned and the hope we shall find a solution to the situation in Bethlehem today or tomorrow, we should be out of all the places. I hope it will happen this week.

MR. RUSSERT: How long will Yasser Arafat be, in effect, under house arrest?

FM PERES: It depends very much upon two things: if he will respond to the call to propose or support a cease-fire, and we shall solve the problem of the persons who have killed our minister of tourism, who are now with him, and we ask for their extradition.

MR. RUSSERT: Many people in the region, around the world, have asked a question: What is Israel’s strategy with the military incursion? Do you run the risk of creating a whole new generation of terrorists as opposed to arresting a few hundred terrorists?

FM PERES: No, sir. There are things that Israel does because we don’t have a choice and there are things that Israel wants to do because we have a choice. We carried out the incursion in the West Bank because we didn’t have a choice. Actually, Arafat was supposed to do the things that we are doing, namely, to collect the illegal arms, to arrest the people that are engaged in terror, to put an end to the nest of terror and violence. He’s supposed do it by commitment, by agreement. He didn’t do it and we were left without a choice.

Now, our choice is to make peace. We don’t want to be even for a moment, if we can help it, the dominator of Palestinian life. It’s a moral question; it’s a political question. We didn’t change our minds. By the way, we gave back to the Egyptians all their land and all their water – without terror. We did likewise to the Jordanians. We offer the Palestinians an independent state, their full land actually, a position in Jerusalem. Believe me, nobody in Israel understands why the deal was rejected. That is the heart of the problem as far as Israel’s concerned. But our choice is to make peace, pay the price, painful compromises every moment.

MR. RUSSERT: A fellow member of your Labor Party, the transport minister, is quoted in the London papers today saying that Ariel Sharon wants to annex half of the West Bank land. Is that accurate?

FM PERES: It’s accurate for a while, because that’s what Sharon suggests as an interim agreement. My judgment that is he is wiser than that, and knows that this is not a solution. But that is his official or unofficial proposal. We’re all the time engaged in discussions with the Palestinians. Actually, I brought a plan that was agreed with the Palestinians, and it calls for much more than that, and I don’t think that Sharon was so much against it.

MR. RUSSERT: Prince Bandar, the Saudi Arabian ambassador to the United States wrote an op-ed piece in The Washington Post. I want to read part of it to you and our viewers: "I can guarantee that a desperate and oppressed person whose dignity has been insulted and who is willing to die cannot be stopped by any means. I am convinced that the government, army and security agencies of Israel have lost the war regardless of how many battles they win."

FM PERES: We don’t want to win a war. We want to gain a peace. That’s what the Prince doesn’t take into consideration. If we wanted to win a war, we would have employed our army totally in a different manner. But we are sincerely looking for a way out of the present situation. We don’t want to humiliate the Palestinians. We don’t want to deprive them of their rights. They are not our enemies. We understand perfectly well that the future is a right and good relations between the Palestinian people and ourselves, and good relations are better than good guns.

MR. RUSSERT: When the operation began, Yasser Arafat had about a 40 percent approval amongst the Palestinian people. It is now over 80 percent. Israel, other than the United States as an ally, seems to be isolated in the world community. Has this been less than successful than you had hoped for?

FM PERES: We knew it wouldhave a political price. We didn’t do it, as I have said, gladly, or that wasn’t our preferred position. But polls are coming and going. Leaders should lead, not follow polls.

Yasser Arafat was given a chance by the United States like never before. He was told, actually, to issue certain declarations. Where the United States asked tangible matters from Israel, they asked from Arafat atmospheric situations. They told him, "Declare that your force is fair, in your own language. Call upon the troops under your command – there’s 30,000 policemen – to stop violence. Call for the reduction of incitement." All this he can do without any effort, and alas, he didn’t do it.

MR. RUSSERT: Has his capacity to do that now been dramatically reduced because of the loss of the Palestinian Authority infrastructure?

FM PERES: No, because his voice today is more powerful than ever before. Maybe the number of his troops has come down, but his voice is stronger. I think he is committing a mistake. I am not against Arafat. I negotiated with him and I don’t try to speak with him without respect.

MR. RUSSERT: Should we negotiate with him or should he be exiled?

FM PERES: Exile is a foolish proposal, because if he wants to make trouble, he can do it in exile even more than in his confinement. We cannot appoint the Palestinian leaders. It’s wrong. What we are asking for the Palestinians is not to change their leaders, but to change their policies. If Arafat would go into a real effort – and the Secretary has said, what we have asked him is to do his best: namely, to judge him by his efforts, not by his results.

I think what should be done, really, is that the international community, what is now called the "quartet" – the United States, the United Nations, Russia and united Europe – will stand up and tell Arafat, "Look, we want you to be independent. We want to see two states. The Arabs, the Palestinians are not our enemies. You have to make a choice between speaking against terror and permitting terror, in fact."

MR. RUSSERT: What about countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt? What role should they play?

FM PERES: Saudi Arabia made an important effort. But, you know, even now in Israel we have a situation, a candle without a light; with the Saudis, it’s a light without a candle. They made a proposal. We don’t know how to approach them, because the Saudis don’t suggest the day will come to negotiate. They don’t suggest who will be the negotiator at all. So in principle we accept this change for the good and the Saudi policies, but we have to sit down and look what are the venues, what is the mechanism and what are the terms of making peace. It’s a complicated matter. And just by a gesture of goodwill, which is important, yet it is not sufficient.

MR. RUSSERT: The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is very symbolic to the Christian community around the world. Priests and Palestinians are together in that church. They say they’re out of food and out of water. What will happen? Will they, in effect, be starved out of their situation?

FM PERES: We don’t suggest it. First of all, let me make it clear: we shall not penetrate the church by force. We shall respect its holiness. We shall keep it intact. What we have suggested to the people there, is that they come out. The ones who are innocent, go home. The ones who are accused of murder, we are ready. They will leave their arms and leave the country. I think a fairer proposal than that, I cannot think of.

MR. RUSSERT: You said the other day with Secretary Powell, "We do not have as long as people think to achieve peace."

MR. PERES: Yes. Right.

MR. RUSSERT: What were you saying?

MR. PERES: I say that time is running out. I agree, by the way, that terror is a psychological matter, a mental matter. When a girl commits suicide and kills other people, the infrastructure is not made of hardware but of software, namely of feelings, of an economic situation. And if you shall not take the situation in hand, it will deteriorate. We are deeply and sincerely interested to see an all-embracing improvement inthe life of the Palestinian people – the mental side, the psychological side, the political side, the economic one – because it’s an all-embracing situation.

MR. RUSSERT: Twenty-two years ago, you were on this program and this is what you said:

(Videotape, December 2, 1979):

MR. PERES: I believe that it is to our interest to solve the Palestinian problem. We do not want to become a dominating nation. We do not seek to govern anybody against his own wish.

(End videotape)

MR. RUSSERT: Twenty-two years later, have you become a dominating nation?

MR. PERES: Against our will. First of all, in the 22 years, we made peace with Egypt. We gave back everything. We made peace with the Jordanians. Late Prime Minister Rabin and myself went to Oslo. We did something that the Arabs didn’t do. The West Bank was under their authority; they never gave it to the Palestinians. Gaza was under their authority; they never gave it to the Palestinians. We were the ones who went to Oslo, offered to Arafat and the Palestinian people that they will have the land and the future, and they will enjoy at the beginning, autonomy, and later on, independence. I think I was true to what I have said.