Shimon Peres at UCLA Meeting Calls for Negotiating with Existing Palestinian Leadership

Shimon Peres at UCLA Meeting Calls for Negotiating with Existing Palestinian Leadership

Former Israeli prime minister calls for negotiating with the Palestinians "as they are."

Shimon Peres, former prime minister and foreign minister of Israel, and a leading figure in the opposition Labor Party, speaking on the UCLA campus October 14, declared that "You cannot make peace without the Arabs," adding, "You have to have a partner. . . . You cannot change a nation and you cannot change the atmosphere. You have to negotiate with people as they are."

When some members of the audience suggested that there first needed to be a new Palestinian leadership more committed to peace, Peres responded that the Palestinians were not very happy negotiating with Israelis either: "Their punishment is that they have to negotiate with us as we are. Negotiations [means] no change in the people. Negotiations is a change in the position and moving toward a compromise."

The meeting was hosted by UCLA Chancellor Albert Carnesale and Vice Provost of the UCLA International Institute Geoffrey Garrett. The meeting was sponsored by the Ronald W. Burkle Center for International Relations.

Shimon Peres has had a distinguished career in leadership of the State of Israel. His family emigrated to Tel Aviv from Poland in 1934, when he was eleven years old. Peres served as director general of the Defense Ministry, 1953-59. He was a central figure in Israel's Sinai campaign in1956, and was the founder of Israel's nuclear program. He served as prime minister, 1984-86 and 1995-96, and as foreign minister, 1986-88, 1992-95, and 2001-02.

Early in the question and answer session Shimon Peres declared, "Let me say one thing: let us make peace." He said that the peace process is slower and less dramatic than the military battles. "This does not create a great deal of enthusiasm. War really makes people feel wide awake. Peace is like going down the river. Peace is slow growing, like life. War is fast growing, but without life."

The U.S. Invasion of Iraq

Several questions probed Shimon Peres' views on the U.S. war in Iraq. He replied that "The United States had to make a choice on where to make war. One direction was against the terrorists and the other was against countries that may provide weapons of mass destruction or other support to terrorist organizations." He said that he considered it necessary to strike a blow against the state infrastructure that supports terrorist activities in various parts of the world.

The Labor Party leader noted that the U.S. could have chosen to strike against North Korea or Iran instead of Iraq, but he concluded, "I think the choice of Iraq was the right one, because if they would select Iran, the division between America and Europe, especially Russia, would have become a chasm. One additional reason is that there is a movement for reform in Iran, which doesn't exist in Iraq." On North Korea, he said, "my impression is that they are trying to do business."

Peres said he thought the United States was not strong enough to wage two or three wars in different parts of the globe, but that it could leverage pressure against other state supporters of terrorism through the use of economic sanctions. "Economic sanctions are slow, but you cannot say that they are totally ineffective. They made a change in South Africa."

At one point the discussion turned to the widespread hostility toward Israel and the United States in the Muslim world and the calls for remembering the Crusades. Peres said that he felt that efforts to amalgamate this old grievance with contemporary events was not reasonable. "I would remind you," he commented, "that there was not a single American or a single Jew in the Crusades."

The Strike Against Syria

One questioner asked Peres his opinion of the October 5 Israeli air strike against a Palestinian Islamic Jihad camp in Syria in retaliation for a Palestinian suicide bombing attack that killed 19 Israelis in the port city of Haifa a day earlier. Peres replied, "I think it was a mistake. I would have postponed it."

Another member of the audience expressed concern about the growth of anti-Israel sentiment in America as well as in Europe. Shimon Peres answered, "I think it is a problem and we are going to have to face it." He said that the mass media have a tendency to offer equal time to causes that are not really equal and choose to frame certain discussions, but not others, in a particular way. They do not insist on giving equal time to Chechen terrorists every time a Russian official is interviewed or gives a talk, he pointed out, but they tend to do that for any person who speaks positively about Israel. Then for "balance" they "interview a suicide bomber going on his way." Presented this way "the viewers can hardly understand why we have to fight."

At this point Chancellor Carnesale commented with respect to understanding of the Middle East on college campuses that "This year's freshmen were born in 1985. They became aware of this struggle, maybe five years ago. They have no sense of what came before. From their viewpoint there are these poor people struggling against this country. That is why education is so crucial. There has to be a context for today's events."

Did Arafat Deserve the Nobel Prize?

Yasser Arafat was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, jointly with Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin, for their role in the Oslo Peace Accords of 1993. In the late 1990s there was an effort by some supporters of Israel to have Arafat's prize revoked. Shimon Peres opposed such a revocation then, and was asked at the UCLA meeting if he still considered awarding the prize to Arafat justified, particularly in light of Arafat's undercutting of Abu Mazen's (also known as Mahmoud Abbas) efforts to implement the road map to a settlement with Israel.

"Arafat is fighting for his survival," Peres replied. He added that "I think he deserved the Nobel Prize. First, because he accepted the existence of the State of Israel, which no other Palestinian leader had ever agreed to. Secondly, because he said he would abandon terrorism, which he did for a time. And third, because he agreed that peace would be based on the borders of 1967 and not 1948."

Peres added that in his view Arafat's strengths had been as the leader of an underground movement. "When he failed was when he was supposed to go over from the position of the head of an underground to the head of a state. He treated the state as an extension of the underground organization, which was made around coalitions, where salaries are paid in brown envelopes and nobody knows how much is inside. You don't have rules, you don't have regulations." He compared Arafat to Ben Gurion, who, in the early days of the Israeli state after 1948 did not hesitate to use force to crush all continuing Jewish underground terrorist groups such as the Stern Gang and the Irgun and establish a modern state.

Dismantling the Settlements

Asked if he favored dismantling the Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Peres said that he did, as part of a general agreement with the Palestinians. "We cannot seem to get out of our commitment to the settlements and the Palestinians cannot get out of terrorism."

The Lessons of the Twentieth Century

Geoffrey Garret asked Peres about his views on the role of the United States in the Middle East, looking back and looking forward. Peres responded by analyzing the last hundred years of human history. "The bloody twentieth century was dominated by ideas of territory and ideology," he said. Countries believed that agricultural land was at the heart of their strength and were swept up in ideologies such as fascism, communism, and Japanese militarism. "History was written in red ink." The issues "were borders and size." In the twenty-first century, he continued, agriculture is only 1% of the labor force, borders and size have become far less important, and the old ideologies have been discredited.

The fading of the old issues "should have ushered in an era of peace. Unfortunately it did not." The new issues, in his view, are mainly a struggle by traditionalists of various religions against modernism. "Now the message is to destroy the foundation of the world economy and return to traditional ways." Peres said that while such struggles could be very destructive, he doubted they had a chance of being victorious. "They cannot restore agriculture to the dominance it had a hundred years ago. Their program of pushing women out of the public sphere is also likely to fail."

"Fight Terror in Every Form"

The discussion closed with several questions about the U.S. war on terrorism and the future of U.S. policy in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East. Shimon Peres was diplomatic here. On the specifics of the effects of the U.S. war in Iraq he responded, "I come to the United States as a guest. I really can't speak on this." But on the issue more broadly, he said firmly, "Now when you fight terror you have to fight terror in every form. For the United States, you have to understand that it is not enough to fight terrorism in Iraq."

Published: Friday, October 24, 2003