If there's one thing you can't take away from Shimon Peres it's his infamous optimism, unfailing even in the face of threats either domestic or foreign, concerns of a social or defense nature or even the leadership crisis in Israel. The latter, the president refuses to acknowledge.
"As opposed to what some are saying, there are so many talented people here," Israel's ninth president tells Ynet in a special interview as the country prepares for its 60th birthday. For my generation, the political and defense arenas were the epicenter. Today you have academics, high-tech, art… for instance I was overjoyed to see Israeli cinema beginning to spread its wings, that's really something."
Could it be, we asked, that quality leadership has abandoned politics for other plains?
"It's not that it moved on," said Peres, "it has merely spread out. It's not as centralized as it used to be. Those who remained in politics are people who engage in a different kind of politics, not that of their fathers. The fathers used to sit in seminars and deal a lot with ideology.
"This also had its drawbacks. For instance, it developed a tendency to ideologize every problem, and when you ideologize every problem you can't resolve it anymore. The young people say: Lets differentiate between ideology and problems. They are more pragmatic because of this. Being pragmatic is differentiating between philosophy and what requires a solution on a daily basis."
Referring to the new investigation launched against Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, the details of which have yet to be revealed in adherence with a court-issued gag order, the president said, "I know nothing on this issue and I do not intend to respond. All my life I believed that some matters should be left to the judges - not to the ministers or the president – and therefore I will not address the matter."
Is the media responsible for a demystification of Israel's top leadership?
"I believe it is responsible for an open visual demystification. When there were only newspapers, a lot was left to our imagination. Today you see every morning… Look, I'm watching Hillary Clinton, a remarkable woman. A year after appearing on television every day, she is no longer admirable, she no longer creates surprises… For how long can one maintain the suspense?"
What dangers are lying in wait for the Israeli society?
"A loss of values, a worsening internal rift, lack of ability to compromise or support each other. There is no such thing as the belief that there are formal solutions for mental or ideological issues… What happened is that when we established the State, we thought rules would solve all the problems. We neglected the need for civilization in relationships; we trusted the rules too much. First of all, we must define what needs to be done."
Are you not worried about the next 60 years?
"There was not one day in which I was not worried throughout these past 60 years. I am more worried, but also more certain, because what we achieved had seemed unachievable. So I know that we have hidden forces. But it is clear that Israel is not perfect. It's an amazing thing – but not perfect.
"Iran is the most difficult problem we are facing, a really risky and dangerous problem. The only comfort we have is that this is the first time Israel is facing a problem which is not only Israeli but global.
"But we must give credit to (Iranian President Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad for managing to irritate the entire world and not just us. He created a situation which the world cannot ignore, because the combination of a fanatic religious leadership and a terror center and nuclear weapons threatens the entire world, the ability to control the world. And therefore, the world will eventually fight them together.
"We must be patient; we mustn't take the first move. If we take the first move, we will be left alone. But it is beginning to be a global problem, and the more radical he gets the shorter his remaining days are."
Turning his attention to poverty and the socioeconomic gaps in Israel, Peres said, "there are three main 'pockets' of poverty: The Orthodox community, the Arab-Israeli sector and the youth. As for the haredim, they should be permitted to join the workforce on their terms. If women don't want to work at an office, we will provide them with computers so they can work from home.
"There is no reason to poke fun at a Jew who wears his tassels outside his shirt. He wants to pray, let him pray, it's his prerogative. Before preaching to the haredim, I would preach to (the secular community). We must first change our condescending attitude – it isn't prudent," said the president.
"Democracy is the right to be different. Would you laugh at someone who grows his hair long, like a woman? Let him grow his hair! Why should it bother you? He sticks something in his ear? Let him; you want to wage a battle over this? Everything is fine as long as he acts appropriately, goes to work and remains moderate."
Peres continued to say that if the Israeli-Arab sector is denied equality "there will not be peace. Any discrimination must be uprooted. They conduct their lives at a pace that is slightly different than ours – they are overly reliant on agriculture, when today's world is a high-tech world.
"The most important issue is the treatment of women in the Arab sector. A society without equality for women isn't modern. Not only is there no equality for women in the Arab sector, but their children are also discriminated against. The Arab woman lacks the education to educate her children."
Peres concluded by offering his vision of the country's future 60 years on: "I would like us to be as ancient as the Ten Commandments and as modern as nanotechnology."
Aviram Zino contributed to the report