Shimon peres was on a visit
to the Qatari capital, Doha
David Foster: You met Mahmoud Abbas at the world Economic forum, he said ‘we have a road map for peace, we need to start negotiations’, is there room for compromise on both sides?

Shimon Peres: Yes and I think it is possible and I think we are near it. I think today the problem is rather the spirit among the Palestinians and the conflict between them and us. And once they will unite and establish a government, and even before, we are ready to negotiate with Abbas right away.

On your website, you quote Nelson Mandela as saying ‘if you want to make peace with your enemy you have to work with your enemy’. Does that mean you would work with Hamas if they were in a unity government with Fatah?

We are not the enemy of Hamas, Hamas is refusing to participate in the peace process. They do not want to talk with us, they do not want to recognise Israel, they do not want to respect the signed agreements, and they said even if we give back every inch of land they won’t make peace. So if Hamas will change its policies why not? But if they don’t what can we do?

It makes for a very difficult position if there is then, a unity government with Hamas in it, from Mahmoud Abbas' point of view. Does he go for a unity government which may well solve his internal problems but may then exacerbate the problems he might have with dealing with Israel?

We see eye to eye with Abbas, because he is really for peace, we respect his position and he is negotiating with Hamas. He too understands that you cannot have a unity government without agreeing on the union, what is the unity government for? You can have two governments if you want and call it one government, if you two have policies you don’t have one government. Now if Hamas will turn in the direction of peace they have nothing against our name or persons.

Now on current form when Tzipi Livni says ‘compromising with extremists will not mend anything’, this is in the course of meetings in Davos, is that a warning to Mr Abbas not to form a unity government?

Let’s escape a little bit from the world of formulas, and return to the ground as it is. Israel gave back completely Gaza, we dismantled the settlements by force, so Gaza is already in the hands of the Palestinians completely and fully. In the West Bank, Mr Olmert suggested as an opening position, to give back to the Palestinians almost 90 percent of the land and about the rest to have a swap, and he says also it will be down as contiguity…it won’t be sliced as pieces.

I mean the differences are minor and I think we can move ahead and I think what prevents moving ahead is really the division among the Palestinians because right now Hamas has turned with its face to Iran rather that with its face to peace. That’s the problem.

But I return to my question, was Tzipi Livni actually warning, have you said to Mahmoud Abbas there is a danger of forming a unity government, that it would be better for you perhaps to hold out for early elections rather than get into bed with Hamas at this point?

I think we are very careful not to intervene in the business of the Palestinians, and not to appear as we are intervening. We are listening and watching the positions of Mr Abbas and we fully respect it and support it. We don’t have to put our own conditions.

Let’s turn now to last summer and the war in Lebanon. Israel has received criticism for its use of cluster munitions and the number of civilian deaths that there were in Lebanon and it is believed by some researchers that uranium-tipped devices were used.

Uranium-tipped devices were not used, this just a fantasy, totally unfounded. About the cluster bombs, to be short and clear we committed a mistake, regrettably. Apparently it was done without the knowledge even of the chief of staff. You know it so happens that in war there are many mistakes, so the greatest mistake is war itself. And  the best way to prevent  mistakes of war is to not have the mistake of war.

I think Hezbollah provoked an unnecessary war, they suffered, they made Lebanon suffer, they made Israel suffer, they didn’t achieve anything. Today Lebanon is more divided than ever, they’re a foreign body within Lebanese politics, an army within an army, a state within a state, representing Iranian interests more than Lebanese unity. Who needs them, what for? What are they serving? They want to pray to the god they don’t need guns, and even not missiles. So for us it is very hard to understand what is this intervention of Hezbollah necessary at all. Whom do they serve? What do they serve? What is there destiny?

But their support on the streets of Beirut, and I have been there in the last six weeks to see what it is like, has certainly grown since the war in the summer. So in that sense they are strengthening.

It is tragic when the streets are running the state. The state has to run the streets. And you cannot have winds and wildness prevail, and it is tragic. And the majority of the Lebanese, without being there, are supporting Siniora. He is being supported by the rest of the world, a couple of days ago he got 7.5billion dollars. Everybody wants to reconstruct Lebanon, who prevents it again? Hezbollah. They want to topple down Siniora, what for? Why? He was properly elected. The Hezbollah does not claim to be the majority, they are a minority and the only way for a minority to govern is to use force, that way they use force.

So when you look about it from a general point of view in a war there are mistakes and it costs lives and it brings tragedies which I regret very much.

And indeed the suggestion is that Israel carried out the war so badly it has hurt you within the country domestically too.

I don’t know, you know  in a democracy you are being criticised and you don’t hide and you have the right to voice criticism. In Hezbollah nobody criticizes, everything there is Ok. But Nasrallah himself says that he admires Israel, that we are airing out our mistakes openly, publicly and try to correct them. He tries to hide them and to continue to make them, that’s the difference. Nobody says that a democracy is perfection, a democracy is a freedom, in a freedom you unfortunately make mistakes, admit them and correct them.

Israel has a history of feeling threatened by its neighbours and some of those disputes have been resolved, but right now the biggest headlines seem to come out with Israel’s relationship, or relationship it doesn’t have with Iran. Where do you go from now?

Not with Iran, with Ahmadinejad. You know first of all Iran is not a homogenous country, the Persians are not more than 50 percent, and Ahmadinejad represent a Persian ambition to govern  the Middle East religiously. Most of the people in the Middle East are against it, then again he puts all the emphasis on the prestige of the nuclear capacity but the economy in Iran is tragic, it is poor.

They have added 40 million people to in the last 15 years to Iran. In 1990 there were not more than 30 million Iranians, now there are 70 million. Many of them do not have food to eat, you know 40percent of oil support goes to supply food. Unemployment, drugs, people are not happy and I am not so sure Ahmadinejad will hold on forever, he does not answer the needs of the people.

And ironically I can say he did a good job for the west Ahmadinejad, nobody would unite the west but Ahmadinejad. He so crazy, he is so extreme, he is so exaggerated, that it brings many parties together and if he will continue it will continue.

How much do you feel threatened by what he is saying?

We have to take it seriously as it happened to us once already in our history so we do not have the luxury to take it with a smile and we do not have the wish to take it a s verdict of heaven, no, we think it can be prevented but we have to take it seriously and we do not want to monopolise the problems of Iran, we don’t want to make it an Israeli-Iranian conflict, it is not. Iran is a problem for the world and Israel is not the leader of the world, and we do not have the ambition to become the leader of the world.

But Israel has often in the past in the face of public opinion and world opinion taken unilateral action, would you consider that against Iran?

When the threat was unilateral not this time, its universal and we don’t want to monopolise it, nothing whatsoever. We think it is a problem the world has to solve not for us.

But it is a unilateral problem in a sense when Ahmadinejad says Israel should be wiped off the map, that is a very personal one-on-one problem.

We watch it very carefully, and we make it public and we criticize it and we watch what he is doing yes, and we are careful and we are alert. But we do not take it as the overall position of the Iranians and the permanent position of the Persians, not a bit of it. He won’t hold on don’t forget.

One of the suggestions has been to him, with regard to Iran’s nuclear ambitions, that he allow in with proper inspection rights, members of the UN body, the IAEA. I’m sure that is something you believe he should do to inspect what is going on, would it not be a step in the right direction if Israel also allowed in UN atomic agency inspectors?

Israel never announced an ambition to produce bombs, Israel said we shall never be the first to introduce a nuclear bomb in the Middle East. Israel does not refer to the nuclear position as such, but as a psychological deterrent. We know that Israel is being suspected of having such an option, and we say suspicion is enough.

If you have suspicion which means you have  a deterrent, and you don’t need more and let me say Ahmadinejad and the Iranians are saying they are not interested in nuclear bombs, they just want to enrich uranium I don’t know exactly what for. But then they are producing missiles of long-range, what for? If they are not going to have bombs what do they need the missiles for. It is like believing in Allah but not believing in Muhammad.

So I think the west should develop a campaign against them producing and collecting long-range missiles. There was even an agreement between the Russians and the Americans to limit the range of the missiles. So I mean the story is not yet unfolded completely. And I think the problem with the Geneva institution is they couldn’t have prevented the dispersion of nuclear production, how are they going to control the use of nuclear weapons.

It is becoming very serious and I don’t even believe Putin who helped build a nuclear reactor, under control, in Iran, would like the idea that the nuclear bomb can arrive to Chechnya. And I don’t that Great Britain will agree that with 500-700 terrorists on her land that are ready to bring down with planes with passengers, or Paris or Spain, nobody is. And I think every responsible is trembling at the idea that terrorists may get hold of a nuclear capacity. For that reason I say it is just not an Israeli problem.

But there also other people that are concerned by the fact, as you say, that there is a suspicion that Israel does have a nuclear device, is it not time to just own up and say ‘we do have a bomb’?

Why should we do it? We don’t have an ambition to have a bomb. Look our ambition is to see the Middle East free from wars and free from bombs not the other way round. Till now it has served a purpose, why should we go further than that.

You know Amr Moussa yesterday, the secretary-general of the Arab league, used to be the foreign minister of Egypt – we were rather friendly  and he came over to me in reception and says ‘We’re such good friends Why won’t you take me to Dimona and show me what you are doing there?’ and I say ‘Amr are you crazy, Dimona I will take you there and you will see that there is nothing there and you will stop being suspicious and stop being worried about war and I will be out of my job. I don’t mind that you are suspicious.’ And that is it we never went further than that, Israel never for example tried a bomb, never tried to test a bomb, the minute we reached the limit, or the purpose of having a deterrent we stopped.

You have a second portfolio, as well as the deputy prime minister’s one, and that is the minister for the development of the Negev and Galilee, and looking back a couple of years to the original aims of this it said by the year 2010 one third of Israel’s population could be living in these areas, is this still a realistic ambition? And if it, is it not provocative to the Arab population?

No we made it clear that it will go hand in hand with the promoting of the standard of living of the Israeli-Arab citizens. Now we have a budget for Galilee, in Galilee there are half and half, half Jewish, half Arab. We decided that a third of the budget will go to promote the Arab economy, a third the Jewish, and a third common, so we are very clear in our ambition to respect an Arab citizen like an Israeli one, and you know what? there is a silent revolution taking place, it has not been reported in the press so much, among the Arab citizens of Israel who are 1.4 out of seven million people. They have already 50000 academicians, every year there is a registration of 19000 young Palestinians to the universities, most of them women, which is another indication. Now many of them are doctors and nurses in the Israeli hospitals…

(Cuts in) But there is a feeling of discrimination nevertheless no matter what you say. Just a few hours before we sat down for this conversation, Arab properties in east Jerusalem were demolished allegedly because there was no panning permission but the catch 22 is they cannot get planning permission, so they feel like there’s one law for the Israelis and one law for them, how can you promote equality on that basis?

No, in the Galilee and Negev, you are talking about Galilee and the Negev - Jerusalem is a different story – why not? First of all, you know maybe they have less land but more income because Israel economy is a very sophisticated one. You know we have increased the yield of our agriculture 18 times in  27 years, so if you have an eighteenth part of the land possess you have more income and they are excellent farmers. But you cannot live on the land anyway because agriculture went down from 60percent in the world economy to one or two percent. What we are now trying to do, in order to achieve real equality is to build industrial parks, high-tech parks, in Arab vicinities jointly or separately.

But you continue to build settlements against international law…

We stopped it and we look for a solution. When I said Mr Olmert has suggested 90 percent of the land and the rest is  to concentrate all the settlements  in the West Bank in three locations, to limit  the settlements elsewhere and to compensate the Palestinians with other land. You know this conflict started before there was one Jewish settlement in the West Bank, what really brought the Jewish settlements was the ongoing attacks. When you are being attacked your consideration is security.

But again I want to repeat clearly there will not be the slightest discrimination of an Arab citizen in the Negev or Galilee, not because we are afraid of the Arabs but afraid of ourselves. We were not born in our concept to be the masters or controllers of another people it stands against everything that we stand for you must understand it. If you take away the moral foundation of the Jewish existence you don’t have a Jewish existence, and do not take it lightly. We don’t like what we were forced to do, we never looked to become a military force.

We never wanted to have military victories, but we were forced because otherwise we would disappear as a people. But if we have a choice and for us to bring equality is in accordance with a basic Jewish obligation to respect every human being as though he was born in the image of the Lord. We are not masters, we are not the lords.

Are these the words of a man who wants to be Israel’s next president?

Well if you challenge me like that 80 percent supports me, I think because of my views. I am not in a beauty contest and I do not hide my views, which means that a better majority, a lion majority of Israelis, think what I am saying makes sense and know exactly that I represent something that is deep and profound.

Source: Al Jazeera