Israel’s Search for Peace:
Remarks by Foreign Minister Shimon Peres before the Council on Foreign Relations

Washington, D.C. – September 13, 2002

My mentor was David Ben-Gurion, and I learned from him one important lesson. And that is you can never solve a small crisis, you can hardly solve a medium sized crisis. It is only when the crisis becomes great enough, that you may have a solution. My message is that I believe we have arrived at that point, so maybe we can have a solution.

I would like to refer briefly to the main elements of those crises I’ve seen. What happened on the 11th of September is that we have realized that not only economy, but so has strategy has become a global performance – no longer a national issue – where after armies without enemies, there is danger without armies.

What made it global is the fact that missiles are not impressed by geographic dimensions. It is no longer the territorial proximity that counts, but the ballistic range which is telling the story. Suppose we don’t have a common border with Iran, but if Iran has missiles, then Iran is our immediate problem. And the second factor is when it comes to non-conventional weapons, you don’t have to count the number of bombs. It is the scope of the danger that decides the strategic choice. And finally, terror and terrorism is no longer a matter that is being controlled by borders. Terrorism can arrive at every place without any announcement.

So the Middle East is no longer a geographic definition, but a global challenge. Contrary to the economic globalization, where governments remained national while the economy became global by encouraging private enterprises to bridge the gap by becoming multinational and going global, in strategy you cannot have privatization. Except for the attackers – they can have privatization. Bin Laden is the privatization of strategy. Here is a man who can collect arms and money and people, attack whomever he wants. He doesn’t have to answer to any courts, to any parliament, he doesn’t have to respect any border or any norm, and he can cause untold damages. A singular situation, and luckily the United States took the leadership to defend a confused world.

America did it already in the two World Wars in Europe, sending your boys to endanger their lives, and paying with their lives, without gaining any tangible achievement for the United States, but saving the people from subjection, from an arbitrary dictatorship. And you gave back everything to the Germans, to the Japanese, and you gave them also freedom. Now again freedom should be saved, and this historic task is on the shoulders of the United States with all the consequences.

I said that terror can be privatized, but it also can become a problem. And the problem arrives at the meeting point between terror and fanatic religious justification. It’s very hard to separate, because none of us would like to attack a religion, and none of us can close our eyes to the fact that once you have a religious blessing, it’s very hard to fight terror. I clearly don’t speak against Islam, but it is a fact that many Muslims are interpreting Islam in a manner unacceptable to their own concepts, and the lives of innocent people are in danger.

So this also has had an impact on the second point, which is the Palestinian issue. There was one attitude to the Palestinian struggle until the 11th of September, and another afterwards. Afterwards the call of the free world, headed by the United States, to the Palestinians was, "Please make up your minds which way are you going. That you want to fight for independence is legal, but that you want to use terror to achieve it is wrong." Because as a matter of fact, in Camp David, through the American President Clinton, Israel offered everything that the Palestinians were asking for without terror: independence, a Palestinian state, a return of 97 percent of the land, a position in Jerusalem, and a continuation of negotiations about the other issues. Arafat rejected it. Actually the Palestinians don’t have it because they entered the domain of terror. Without terror we could have solved the problem.

The difference, so to speak, between us and the Palestinians is terror. But this is not a true story. Terror is not the difference, terror represents a difference. Because in the Palestinian case there are two major streams. One is national and political, which finally is ready, in my judgment, to make a compromise. And the other is religious and fanatic, which is unwilling and unable. The mistake of Arafat was that he tried to convince the other stream to lay down their arms by conviction, and they refused. There are 12 different organizations – the most important among them are the Hamas and the Jihad – and they are not looking for compromise. They use terror because they’re against compromise, not because they are full of terror.

As you know, Arafat has been the head of the Palestinian Authority for nine years. I was recently in Johannesburg, and Nelson Mandela asked me about it. I told him, "Look, if Arafat had done what you did, there wouldn’t be problems. I’m not saying just that you didn’t use so much violence as Arafat did, but once the revolution was fulfilled, you appointed an heir apparent, and you let him run the husbandry of the state." Arafat was a leader of a revolution, now he wants to be a leader of a state. Those are different vocations. When you’re a leader of a revolution, you permit yourself to say and do things that you will never promise yourself to do when you are becoming a state – when you have to weight every word, and judge every meaning, and show restraint and understanding in order to achieve what is so essential for a state, which is international legitimacy and financial aid. No real support if you won’t do it.

And it so happened that Arafat has today lost his credibility in the United States. He is to be blamed for it, nobody else. He had credibility, he had support. It disappeared because of the wrong behavior. He is losing this same credibility in European eyes, Russian eyes, and Arab eyes – in three countries which feel the time has come for a change in the Palestinian case. I’m referring to Egypt, to Jordan, to Saudi Arabia, who are saying actually quietly that unless the Palestinians will reform, they’re endangering their own destiny. And I think that in order to help the Palestinians, Arafat is for reform, but in the French way, which says, "Plus ca change, plus cest la meme chose" – more than your change, it should remain the same thing. A reform is not keeping the same thing, it needs to change.

What I say about the depth of the crisis: For the first time – and I’m saying it with a certain hope – we can see a serious debate taking place among the Palestinians. Democracy as a debate, democracy not as a surly consensus. It is claimed that Arafat was elected democratically, which is true, but elections is not democracy. Elections are a door to democracy. Democracy begins with the morality of the elections. Because you can elect democratically an undemocratic leader, and then what does it mean?

The reform is calling for the morality of the elections, to make sure that there will be a democratic procedure, particularly in the domain of finance. When you have a revolution, you can distribute the money in brown envelopes. When you have a state, they must be transparent. When you’re in a revolution, you can have different commanders and different arrangements. When you’re at a state, you must have one chain of command without any compromises.

I can see some indications of this debate beginning by the people around Arafat stating their views openly. The most important among them is the number two man in the PLO, Abu Mazen, who stood up publicly and said the intifada was a mistake, that the Palestinians are missing a historic opportunity. It was followed by many of the other people around Arafat. Then the newly appointed Minister of the Interior Razek Yihye called to end violence publicly, openly. Then there was a call by the two most important parties. They published their call a couple of days ago, the Fatah and the Tanzim, calling to end violence and to stop others from using violence. But what was even more interesting is that in their call they were referring for the first time to the need to establish a democratic, modern, secular, market economy Palestinian state. For me it’s good news. Maybe this is the first serious call coming from the depth of experience in the Arab world for growing democratically in a modern sense of the word.

They’ve appointed a Minister of Finance who is a serious man who tries to introduce order. And he is a real economist, he was trained here. And we are trying really to be of help. And they appointed a man that the enthusiasm around him is not as high, the Minister of Interior. I know him personally from the Oslo negotiations, and I have a high opinion about him. He doesn’t appear every morning on the CNN, but still when he says something it’s well worth listening. He is trying very hard to build a unified force.

And now that we say we are at the height of the crisis, it’s also a matter of quality. The quality represents the change of the Middle East from being a region, to becoming a challenge. With the participation of the three Arab countries I have mentioned, with the call coming from within the Palestinian camp to change, and our willingness to support it without appearing as though we are the ones so imposing or trying to teach the Palestinian democracy. This will be done by Saudi Arabia. We simply would like to be of support.

And then I’m coming to the third and last issue, and that is Iraq. I want to start by one reservation. Contrary to our inclination to be very modest, as you know, this time we really have to be modest. I mean, we shouldn’t create the impression that if something will happen vis-a-vis Iraq it is because of Israel. It’s not the case. We don’t want to create such an impression, and it’s not a true impression. It must be a United States decision.

Yesterday I was at the United Nations, and I heard the speech of the President. I found it was a very forceful speech, very convincing. Later I spoke with many of the leaders who were present there and, I must say, some of them were seriously impressed. People say Europe is reluctant. Well, I made an account, and it’s not the case. Spain said they will support it, Italy says they will support it, Great Britain says they will support it, Denmark said likewise, Poland the same. And even the Frenchmen took up the American position as much as a Frenchman can permit himself without stopping being Frenchmen. But I thought the proposals of Chirac were rather constructive, saying, "Three weeks time, and then we shall see." And even among the African countries, there was a different reaction.

Now, I think one of the pointed emphases of the President was that within the near time Saddam Hussein may have a nuclear bomb. And if I can generalize, I would say that within five to ten years part of the Middle East can become peaceful or it will become nuclear. And this is a terrible choice. We have five to ten years to conclude a world peace to save the Middle East from its own hatred. Choices or otherwise, it will be out of control.

Saddam Hussein is a very unique story in human experience. He’s the only person who initiated a war of aggression against Iran, a Muslim country, that lasted for seven years and cost the lives of a million people. And the Muslim world was paralyzed, they couldn’t stop it. Then they launched a war against Kuwait, an Arab country, that lasted for another several months all told, and cost the lives of 300,000 people. If not for the United States of America, Kuwait would today be occupied by Iraq, and I think Husseins eyes would be set on some of the neighbors of Kuwait. The attraction will always be oil. It’s either oil or democracy in the Middle East. He threw gas bombs over Iran, he used gas against the Kurds, he called his son-in -aw to come back home, and they killed him. He is a cold-blooded killer, and he has a biological reserve and a chemical reserve of weapons. And if he would be in the neighborhood of any of us, we wouldn’t sleep at night.

I think the United States is committing a mistake in saying, "Should we attack Iraq? Should we attack the bin Laden forces?" You are under attack; you don’t attack. Your choices were to defend, not to attack. Because I cannot see the United States of America conducting their own way of life if it will be dangerous to walk in the street, or to fly in a plane, or to live on the 30th floor, and eventually to drink fresh water. The attack is not against Iraq and not against the Iraqi people. It’s against a cold-blooded killer. Let’s face it. And if I would think that there is any other way to get rid of him, yes. But to postpone it is taking maybe the same risk that was taken by Europe in 1939 in the face of the emergence of Hitler. I believe you will win. And permit me to say who are criticizing the American policies or are reluctant about it: we are left without a choice.

To conclude my remarks, I can see some hope of giving birth to democracy. The child hasn’t ben born yet, but for the first time there is a democratic pregnancy. The President told me that even he will be alone, he will do whatever he has to do. Mr. President, if you will do that, you cannot be alone. The months to come are important and crucial months. I think we are not going for any wild initiatives, but we are following what always made your country strong and the rest of the world hopeful, respecting the basic values of humanity and freedom. Thank you.

Q: Mr. Minister, obviously if the U.S. undertakes military action against Iraq and there is regime change, this would be in the interest of Israel and would increase Israel’s security in the long term. In the short term is Israel concerned what Saddam Hussein might do as a preemptive action in the way of using weapons of mass destruction against Israel before action was completed?

FM Peres: We shall not make the decision, but we shall take the risk. What I mean by this is, we don’t feel that we are the commander of this campaign, but surely a loyal soldier. When somebody goes to war, he knows there are risks. You don’t do it out of pleasure, but you do it with a big conviction that by running away from what should be done, you’ve solved nothing and you you’ve made the situation worse. So we can imagine there are inherent dangers, but this is our duty. We belong to the same world, and we should not have two commands how to run the war. So I hope we shall fulfill our duty responsibly, we shall not pass the buck, but neither we shall create two wars if there will be a war.

Q: Mr. Minister, we know that Iran has supported actively Hizbullah, sent weapons, including some close to mass destruction to terrorists, appears to be harboring some of the al Qaeda members along the border, and appears also to have facilitated resources being sent by al Qaeda out of Afghanistan, presumably to be used for more terror. What do you think America’s posture at this point, especially as we’re focused on Iraq, should be towards Iran? And what is Israel’s sense of priority when it comes to Iran?

FM Peres: I’m sure they don’t expect me to be an advocate of Iran, it’s out of my profession. But may I say objectively, there is a difference between Iran and Iraq. In Iran you can see at least two camps, one that has voted for Khatami, and even Khatami didn’t deliver the goods. The parties that voted for him are very much alive, it is basically women and the young generation. You don’t have anything like it in Iraq. And in Iran we saw already some changes. It is true that Iran is arming the Hizbullah, the Hamas, the Jihad, by one of their two governments, the government of the Ayatollahs. When you have a religious, or so-called religious blessing for terrorism, it’s a very difficult situation.

And furthermore, if I can add to it, any country that harbors terror is a corrupted country by definition. There is no country that harbors where half of the nation is not discriminated against – women. There is no chance for women to get equality if there is terror. The real victims, aside from the targets of the terrorists, are their own people. There is no country that is engaged in terror that made any progress. They are poor, they are backward, and you come to the conclusion that it is not poverty that gives birth to terror. It is terror that sustains poverty. The dictators are afraid of every open wind. And by the way if you want to have high technology, you must open up. If you ask what is the greatest achievement of high technology in our time, I would say China. Nothing has reduced communism in China more than high technology.

And Iran didn’t take, at least officially, an initiative of aggression like Saddam Hussein did. In Iran there also some changing of the guard. In Iraq, it’s the same man. Saddam remained while America has changed three or four presidents. America changed four presidents, but America is all the time progressing. Iraq has the same President, and all the time regressing. So who needs this man? Moreover, probably the Iraqis are the closest to the nuclear option. They have the most ‘Ivan the Terrible’ at the head of their government, and you don’t have the time, we don’t have the time.

Q: If Saddam is ousted from power, to what extent do you see that as seriously undermining rejectionists and support for terrorism in terms of elements among the Palestinians, and perhaps with Hizbullah in Lebanon and so forth?

FM Peres: I think Saddam tried to do the maximum. He sent a check of $25,000 to every family whose son became a suicide bomber. We think he supplies oil for a low price to some of the terrorist organizations among the Palestinians so they can sell it for a higher price. And maybe, you know, the whole Arab world is beginning to ask itself whether terror really helped the Arab cause, or maybe to the contrary. But anyway, Iraq is made of three parties: the Kurds, the Shiites, andthe Sunnis. And there are the Turks who would like to see Iraq divided into three parts. I think if there will be a danger of division, you won’t have Turkey on your side because of the Kurdish issue. So I think we are at the worst point, and whatever will happen, in my judgment, will create better opportunities.

Q: Mr. Minister, in 1981 Israel single handedly carried out the attack against Osirak reactor in Iraq. I wonder if you would care to speculate about whether there might be any comparable strategy that may be applicable in 2002.

FM Peres: You ask me a professional question which I hesitate to answer. When you use reactors to produce bombs, you know where you are. The reactor was the flag. You know the minute it became radioactive. Now many of them are changing over to the new technology of centrifuges. And centrifuges are very hard to discover, they don’t create any radioactive effects. Iraq is a large piece of land. They can hide it every place without the knowledge of anybody. Generally, the inspectors are of value when you have an honest group of people. Dishonest people know how to overcome inspections. So we must understand that we are dealing with a government that wouldn’t hesitate to hide, to cheat, to lie, to camouflage. And the indications are not like the ones that used to be in the past.

Q: Mr. Minister, could we focus for a moment on the main fault line in the debate about what to do regarding Iraq, namely the difference between the objective of eliminating the weapons of mass destruction and eliminating the regime. That’s a real fault line between us and many of our close associates. Do you believe, (A), that the Chirac concept of setting a firm deadline for readmission of inspectors will win approval in the Security Council? And, (B), do you believe Saddam Hussein will continue to refuse the admission of those inspectors?

FM Peres: I think today the debate choice before the Security Council is whether to have one resolution or two resolutions. One resolution means to say: give him an ultimatum of three weeks, and then the Security Council will reassemble to decide what to do in case he refuses it. The alternative is to have one resolution saying "You have three weeks." If not, there is a second resolution inherent in the first one. So you don’t have two resolutions. I believe that this may be the compromise, and this will be the compromise I think that will pass through the Security Council. It’s a guess.

On the other issue, the regime and the arms are the same thing. I remember my first lesson in philosophy, and the professor told us that when you have a white horse, you don’t have two phenomena, but one. You cannot separate between the color and the horse, it’s the same thing. And that is the case with the regime – it’s one horse.

Q: Mr. Prime Minister, how do you interpret and what is your reaction to the resignation of the Palestinian Authority Cabinet? Is this a serious development, an opportunity, or is more of the same?

FM Peres: In one of my talks with Arafat, he told me, "Democracy, my God, who invented it? It is so tiring." I’ve seen a necessary fatigue which is part of a democratic system. I think they have resigned, because for the first time Arafat and his friends discovered that they don’t have a majority for a confidence vote. And that’s why I say that I consider the present debate a serious one. I think the Palestinians need it not in order to please the United States or to please Israel. They need it for their own destinies. They cannot continue having a one man show. He doesn’t function. After nine years, the economy of the Palestinians is in a terrible shape. They didn’t establish a single chain of command. They lost their position in the United States of America and Europe. All this was totally unnecessary if they would have had the right management and the right system.

Q: Don’t you think, Mr. Peres, that a positive statement by the Israeli government at this time about the settlements and the long range prospects for the removal of the settlements would have a positive effect on the part of the Palestinians that are trying to reduce the terrorism?

FM Peres: The present government, which you know is not a Labor government, undertook not to add any more new settlements. We estimate that 21 settlements, or outposts, were added illegally, and we feel it is our duty to dismantle them. We cannot say one thing and do something else. And I think they will be dismantled. About a permanent solution for the settlements, a proposal was introduced in Camp David, and that was namely to concentrate all the settlements of the West Bank in a small piece of land, 3 percent of the West Bank, and to have a swap, namely to give the Palestinians 3 percent elsewhere. My impression is that the Palestinians were ready to accept it. So once we shall enter the permanent negotiations, these again, in my judgment, have been put on the table and may serve as a solution. But this will happen once the permanent negotiations will begin.

Q: Mr. Minister, we’ve been talking a lot about war and all that sort of thing. Let’s talk about peace a little bit. Could you characterize the relationship between Israel and the countries with which it has peace, Egypt and Jordan? And specifically on Jordan you have a new king, how are your relations with the new king? And I know you like imaginative projects, they’re talking about an imaginative project of a canal or a pipeline from the Red Sea to the Dead Sea to generate water, potable electricity, and refill the Dead Sea. Could you talk about that a little bit?

FM Peres: Well, I would say about those relations what was said about the music of Wagner – it sounds better than we think. But there are some clear limitations, and I don’t want to go into it. There is the idea of having a conduit of water between the Red and Dead Sea. It will be basically a project with the participation of Israel and Jordan, because 70 percent of the conduit will pass through the Jordanian part of the Arava. Jordan sees in it a major project that can affect their future and their economy. I would second this thought. We shall participate completely in this attempt to build such a conduit. The conduit is necessary for the following reasons. First, the Dead Sea is dying, and when the Dead Sea begins to die, it may become an ecological catastrophe, and we want to prevent it. We have to re-compensate the Dead Sea with more water. We are now checking if the water of the Red Sea and the Dead Sea can co-exist peacefully. I hope it will happen. Secondly, such a conduit can lead salt water to the slopes of the mountains. The transportation of water is almost as expensive as the production of water. To convey the water to Amman is quite a costly story, but then we can use maybe a little bit also the electricity that can stem from the difference in the altitudes. So for Jordan it may be also a solution for fresh water, for desalinated water, for energy.

And then our hope is to transform the whole piece of land, which is something like l20 miles between the Red and the Dead Sea, into a garden – for agriculture, tourism, and otherwise. It’s a beautiful piece of land. You know, many people say that it’s hard to live with the Palestinians. We have a good example that this is not the case. Many of the citizens of Jordanians are of Palestinian origin, and basically we have shown that we can co-exist. There are two nearby cities, Eilat and Aqaba, on the Red Sea, the distance between them being four to five miles. In the last 54 years, since the creation of the State of Israel there wasn’t an exchange of a single bullet between us. The whole piece of land called the Arava, between the Red and the Dead Sea, 120 miles, is without fences, without trenches, without infiltration, and they live together. These are exactly the same people. And in my judgment, this gives the hope that under a different leadership and system on the Palestinian side, we can have exactly the same relations with the Palestinians that we have with the Jordanians.

Q: There have been reports of Israeli concern about Lebanese diversion of river water that feed into the Sea of Galilee system, in statements by Defense Minister Ben-Eliezer and Prime Minister Sharon. I wonder if you could comment on this, and do you see this as an impending crisis? Second, if you could say something on Israeli internal politics. There’s been talk of a budget crisis leading possibly to early elections. Can you say a word about the stability of the coalition government?

FM Peres: There was a sort of a status quo between us and the Lebanese concerning water. Actually those are Jordanian waters. We are supplying a small amount of water to some of the Jordanian villages near our borders all the time. And now there is an attempt to take away the sources of the Jordan River from Israel, which supplies 30 percent of our water. It’s a very serious issue. The problem is not so much with the Jordanians, they don’t intervene in it, but very much with the Lebanese. And this is becoming a hot potato that we have to solve very soon.

About the internal politics of Israel, they have a tendency to be very surprising, and whoever will try to guess takes an unnecessary risk. What I can say about our voters is that usually they prefer to vote against a government rather than to vote for them. In the recent elections, governments were changed because people were disappointed with the last two governments. But today is almost a year before the elections, and in Israel a year is an eternity. There can be so many changes, that I really wouldn’t like to guess. But I can assure you that Israel remains a highly dramatic country, there isnever a boring day. But when the need will come, we shall stand together. And when the opportunity will arrive to make peace, there will be a clear majority for it.