The Middle East's eternal optimist
Peres still confident Arabs and Jews can live in peace in the Holy Land
May 16, 2006
After more than half a century fighting for peace and security for his country, Shimon Peres has earned the right to be bitter.
The Oslo peace process he helped launch is as good as dead. The Palestinians just elected a terrorist organization, Hamas, to lead them. Iran's President is threatening to wipe Israel off the map.
But asked if he feels discouraged or disillusioned, he jumps in even before the question is out, raising his chin in defiance and uttering an almost disdainful "No."
At 82, Mr. Peres is the Middle East's eternal optimist, realistic about the challenges and dangers Israel faces, but confident that Arabs and Jews can one day live in peace in the Holy Land.
It is not a popular view back home. In a March election, Israelis elected a new party, Kadima, that argues Israel must wall itself off from the Palestinians and draw final borders of its own if the Palestinian leadership will not negotiate reasonably.
The results were seen as confirmation that, after five years of terrorist attacks and then the election of Hamas, Israelis have given up on a negotiated peace.
Not Mr. Peres. Israel's Vice-Premier insists that it is still possible to strike a deal leading to a secure Israel and a viable Palestinian state side by side.
"Our first choice is to proceed by negotiation, and only if this fails and we are left without a choice should we proceed in a unilateral way. Unilateralism is not an ideology, it is a last alternative."
He would have nothing to do with Hamas, rejecting the idea that the organization will moderate its views in power and calling on the international community to keep its ban on direct aid to the Hamas-ruled Palestinian Authority.
"Politics are based on timetables," he said in an interview yesterday before speaking at a Toronto fundraiser with former U.S. President Bill Clinton. With a religiously oriented group like Hamas, "the only timetable is eternity."
He thinks Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, a moderate who opposes terrorism, could be a partner for eventual peace talks. "So we shall allow for time to negotiate." Meanwhile, he says, Israel will follow last year's pullout from the Gaza Strip with a broader withdrawal from the West Bank -- in effect, an end to the four decades of Israeli occupation.
"We did not leave a house of slaves in Egypt to build a house of masters somewhere else," he says.
Mr. Peres speaks with the authority of a man who has seen and done it all. Born in Poland and raised on a kibbutz, he has held every major post in the Israeli government: foreign minister, finance minister, defence minister and prime minister (twice). He built up Israel's defence forces, helped start the Jewish settlement movement, led Israel's nuclear program and directed the clandestine peace talks that produced the 1993 Oslo accords (an effort that won him the Nobel Peace Prize).
But he was never fully embraced by the Israeli public and was voted out as Labour Party leader in 2005.
When former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a devastating stroke in January, Mr. Peres was left as the last major figure from Israel's "founders generation."
Despite everything that has happened over the past decade -- the collapse of the tantalizing Camp David peace talks in 2000, the violent Palestinian uprising that followed, the rise of Hamas -- Mr. Peres insists that his dream of a New Middle East tied together by commerce and modern communications is not dead. "On the contrary, it came to life again."
He wants to convert Israel's eastern border into an economic corridor run jointly by Israel, Jordan and the Palestinians. According to plans he has sketched out, it would include a new international airport, a water desalination project, a copper mine and a new industrial park.
"We want to privatize the peace," he says, letting companies and investors form the ties that governments have failed to make.
Mr. Peres's heady visions are scorned by many Israelis, who call him a washed-up idealist. To which he replies: "I prefer to be an idealist than to be cynical." Besides, he says, pulling out one of the aphorisms he is famous for, "Pessimists and optimists die the same way, they just live differently."
When asked how he can remain an optimist when the Middle East is so filled with hate, he answers: "So was Europe in 1944, and look what happened.
"The French and the Germans and the Poles and the rest -- for a thousand years they were at war and killing each other. But once you reach an agreement, things can change."
When that agreement will come, he can't say. "It takes time, it takes time," he says, in his signature baritone, grown softer with the years. "We are getting old, but history remains young."
On his first visit to Canada in 1951, Shimon Peres got 30 cannons and a new pair of socks.
He was 28 when he arrived in Canada to buy weapons for the struggling new Jewish state, which had to repel seven Arab armies when it was born in 1948. Desperate to arm Israel against another attack, Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion sent his sharp young protégé to New York to head up the government's effort to acquire weapons in North America -- a tough job, because Washington had imposed an embargo on arms sales.
Mr. Peres heard Canada had 30 surplus artillery pieces for sale, but the price was steep: $2-million. So he decided to approach liquor tycoon Samuel Bronfman, head of the Canadian Jewish Congress, showing up unannounced one day at the gates of the Seagram's plant in Montreal.
When Mr. Bronfman heard the $2-million price, he said "too much" and placed a call to Canada's "Minister of Everything," the formidable C. D. Howe. The next day, the two men drove to Ottawa in Mr. Bronfman's Cadillac, stopping at a tavern to fortify themselves against the winter cold with a drink -- Seagram's VO.
"When we arrived at the office of C. D. Howe, Bronfman immediately went on the attack," Mr. Peres recalls. "He said, 'How dare you take $2-million from people who are at war and don't have a penny.' " Mr. Bronfman talked the formidable Mr. Howe into halving the price.
On the way back, Mr. Bronfman turned to Mr. Peres and said, "Do you have $1-million? I said no. 'Then how are you going to get it?' " Mr. Peres replied: "From you."
After recovering from the shock, Mr. Bronfman called his wife Saidye and said "tonight we are having a party."
Seventy prominent people came to the fancy fundraiser, but there was one problem.
"He looked at me," Mr. Peres said. "I had on white socks. I was from the kibbutz. He told me, 'You can't go with these socks. I'll buy you some.' So in addition to the artillery I got a pair of socks.
"Since then we have had excellent relations with Canada."