Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Shimon Peres

No Israeli public figure has served longer, nor had a more profound influence on the nation's strategic posture, than President Shimon Peres. From his pre-state management of materiel and manpower for the Hagannah - the precursor to the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) - to his decade (1949-59) in the Defense Ministry at the right hand of David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding prime minister, Peres helped craft the doctrine and the technological/industrial base that still support the state. But the civilian warrior who fought to realize Israel's nuclear deterrent, Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI), Israel's space program and Israeli settlement of the occupied West Bank has become better known, in his later years, as a champion for peace. From his high-profile presidential post, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate represents Israel's kinder, gentler face - a back channel of sorts for Russian, European, Arab and even U.S. leaders who are finding it difficult to deal with the nationalist, right-leaning government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. In parallel, the idealistic Peres has not forsaken his vision for a new cooperative Middle East shaped more by nanotechnologies and innovative civilian space developments than the defense industrial base he helped create.

Q. Can the strained no-peace/no-war situation with the Palestinian Authority continue without a political horizon, which appears unlikely under the current government?

A. Why unlikely? I'm convinced the prime minister wants to have peace. In large part, a political horizon already is being provided through economic and security initiatives like that of [U.S. Lt. Gen. Keith Dayton]. Dayton offers the horizon, along with improvement of the West Bank economy. He's doing a very good job in supporting the path toward peace.

Q. What about Palestinian Prime Minister [Salam] Fayed's two-year plan toward statehood? Is it reasonable?

A. That's actually only an estimate. It will take them some time to build up institutions of their own.

Q. In Gaza, Hamas is rearming while Israel is condemned for excesses in its fight against the rockets earlier this year. Should Israel investigate allegations of war crimes, as demanded by the U.N. Commission on Human Rights' Goldstone report?

A. There wasn't a single war where the Israeli Army itself didn't investigate all accusations. Even in the past, defense ministers and generals were fired as a result of these investigations, because we want to keep our Army clean. But when it comes to other nations judging us, we expect fair and equal treatment.

If all other fights against terror were scrutinized and investigated - in Afghanistan, in Chechnya, in Iraq or elsewhere - people would discover the inherent difficulties when a lawful country fights lawless terrorists who elect to operate among innocent civilians.

Q. Should there be a global effort to codify norms for asymmetrical wars against nongovernmental combatants?

A. When it comes to classical war, there is a code of conduct and clear rules. But when it comes to anti-terror war, there is no such code. I very much support a worldwide effort in this regard, but it must be binding on all other parties as well, not just Israel.

Q. So you oppose a non-IDF investigation, even if it can provide a platform through which Israel can explain the actions it took in Gaza?

A. When it comes to investigation, we shall do it on our own, and not under pressure of a body that is essentially anti-Israel and only chose us to attack and to smear. It's absurd that countries like Libya, Afghanistan, Somalia and Iran will judge Israel's record on human rights. We are deeply disturbed that this illustrious body does nothing when a member, Iran, is publicly calling to destroy a fellow U.N. member. Why don't they investigate this Holocaust-denying leader [Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad] who calls for our destruction?

Q. Is Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan leading his country away from partnership with Israel and toward radical Islam?

A. Turkey is the only country in the world where a nondemocratic institution, the Army, was in charge of preserving democracy. And they did it. Now the role of the Army has changed, and the question is whether Erdogan will lead his Muslim population toward democracy or whether democratic forces will demand a more Islamist state. For a long time, Erdogan himself wanted a good relationship with Israel. But what happened? I'm trying to see this in a broader perspective.

The Turkish leadership very much wanted to become a part of united Europe, and the Europeans dragged their feet, and there was a sense of disappointment that caused them to look for another domain where Turkey could play a role. Turkey also wanted to play a role between Syria and Israel, which was accepted by our former prime minister. And when you become a mediator, you leave your closeness to one side and go to the middle place between the two countries. So that, too, has had a certain effect. How far does Erdogan want to go in his push in different directions? I don't know.

Q. Should Israel be providing front-line military technology to Turkey when Ankara is seeking closer strategic ties with Syria and Iran?

A. We need to be very careful not to undermine a cooperative, mutually beneficial relationship built up over many years. Turkey is a very important nation in our region and a respected member of NATO. We need patience and to read the map correctly and not fall victim to momentary tensions between our two countries.

I think it will be very hard for Turkey to jeopardize its world standing and discredit itself by becoming too actively aligned with the Iranian agenda. Iran is financing Hizbollah and sending arms to Hamas and to Hizbollah by way of Syria, and now they're trying to finance destabilizing forces in Latin America.

Q. Is Moscow the key to halting Iran's nuclear weapons drive?

A. I've had long talks with [Russian Prime Minister Vladimir] Putin and also [President Dmitry] Medvedev, and they made it clear they cannot live with an Iranian bomb. But there are still doubts about Iranian intentions with regard to uranium enrichment. I think that they finally are discovering Iran's true intentions and will be ready to support tougher sanctions.

I've told them inspection is one thing and prevention of a nuclear bomb is another. I suggested that another option is to control the missiles. If they don't want to build a bomb, why are they building missiles? If you don't believe in Allah, why do they need a Mohammad?

Q. If the focus turns to missiles, wouldn't that shift the agenda to containment or deterrence, rather than prevention?

A. Not at all. It's just another option to consider in a layered approach to this international problem. Since it is the policy of the United States to prevent a nuclear-capable Iran, why should Israel have a separate policy? On this, we and many other countries in the region and beyond see eye to eye. Now is the time for tests to see if negotiations will bear fruit.

If not, you can't try indefinitely to rely only on the political approach. Our first choice is to see the U.S. president succeed in his efforts. But at some point, you have to say we tried. If diplomacy fails, we'll have to move on to Plan B.

Q. Are you referring to military strikes akin to the 1981 operation in Iraq and the 2007 action in Syria?

A. There's a difference between those two operations and what we're facing in Iran. The reactor in Iraq didn't concern the world as such, nor do I think the attack on the Syrians was a world problem. These were local problems. I think Israel must be very careful not to monopolize a global problem and make it our own. The options that exist globally are wider and more varied than the options that are under proposal in Israel.

Q. How can Israel improve cooperation with Russia given U.S. objections to advanced defense sales to Moscow?

A. Arms are of a passing nature and only a small part of an overall strategy. I think Russia at times unwisely plays the role of an adversary through some of its positions vis-à-vis the United States and its arms trade in this region. There are ways to harmonize our respective national security agendas short of selling arms by focusing on common threats like nuclear proliferation, international crime, world poverty and radicalism.

With its tremendous land mass, natural resources and scientific advantages, Russia could take the lead in alleviating world hunger and thirst. There will be 100 million more people in the world in the coming decade, which means more hunger, more thirst, more problems. So I ask my Russian friends, why don't you become a major provider of water to the rest of the world to make you great?

I tell them just as they can't escape from their greatness, Israel cannot escape from its smallness. We don't have land, nor water, but we have a thriving agricultural industry that is purely scientific and innovative in nature. In Israel, we have 100,000 cows that produce the same amount of milk as the 4 million cows in Ethiopia. I'm urging them to work together to increase yields.

In 1980, the population in the Middle East was 150 million people, some 20 percent of them below the poverty line. In another five years, it will reach 400 million. Sadly, it's easier to produce children than to produce water, but if you produce children without water, it's a strategic catastrophe.

Q. Israel's foreign minister and others have spoken of the need for Israel to balance its relationship with Washington with stronger ties to Russia and China. Your view?

A. Our first priority for many decades has been and should remain the United States. We don't hide it. With other countries, we can develop agriculture, food and other technologies. But we are not going to endanger our rapport with Washington. It must be based on total trust. ■

- By Barbara Opall-Rome and Vago Muradian in Jerusalem.

Career Profile

Born in Belarus in 1923, Peres emigrated to Israel in 1934 and was acting head of the Navy in 1948 during the War of Independence. Career highlights include:

■ 1953-59: Director-general of MoD.

■ 1959: First elected to parliament.

■ 1974-77: Defense minister.

■ 1984-86: Prime minister.

■ 1994: Awarded Nobel Peace prize with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat.

■ 1995-96 (following Rabin's assassination): Prime minister, defense minister.

■ 1997: Created Peres Center for Peace.

■ 2007: Elected president of Israel.

Source: Defense News research.

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