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Peres at President's Residence. 'I feel like this house owns me' Photo: Yonatan Blum
Peres at President's Residence. 'I feel like this house owns me' Photo: Yonatan Blum
 
 

Peres: I will get to see peace

On eve of his 87th birthday, Israel's president is more busy and optimistic than ever. In revealing interview, he talks about missed opportunities of his life, mistakes made by Netanyahu and Obama, suggests creative ways to deal with Iranian threat, and touches on a painful personal issue – separation from his wife Sonia. 'These are the happiest years of my life because of my work, but I really miss her'

Amira Lam
Published: 08.02.10, 19:02 / Israel News

"There are moments when I miss my home in Ramat Aviv," President Shimon Peres says. "Sometimes, when I wake up at dawn in the quiet hours, a thought crosses my mind that the difference between then and now is that there I felt like I owned the house and here I feel like the house owns me."

 

Not so long ago, Peres defined his first three years as president as the happiest of his life. Now, after two long meetings at the President's Residence, he sharpens the distinction.

 

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"They were the happiest in terms of my work, but not in terms of my personal life. I am happy in the presidency because its entire authority stems from goodwill, and I find myself wandering the country like a little Columbus, who discovers a small America in every corner. In these past three years I have met populations I've never met in my life. But on the personal level I'm not as happy, because I really miss (my wife) Sonia."

 

President Peres wakes up every morning at 4 am. He begins his day with one-fourth of a cup of squeezed lemon juice and gymnastic exercises which he has been doing for years. He spends the hours before work reading.

 

At 8 pm he tries to get back to his residence to watch the news. He ends his day at 11 pm. His schedule is packed. My meetings with him are squeezed between meetings with the Greek prime minister, the Military Intelligence chief and the Ukrainian foreign minister.

 

Throughout the week your daily routine is very intensive. Do you get lonely on the weekend?

 

"Yes. Sometimes I feel very lonely. I use Shabbat for reading."

 

Are these the moments when you miss Sonia?

 

"Yes."

 

"The smell of the house, her chicken soup, her stewed fruit?"

 

"I miss her company. She was the love of my life and has remained the love of my life.

 

"Family relations don't begin with chicken soup. We have children, grandchildren, great grandchildren. When you're 16 you're different from an 87-year-old person. Why should we hide it? We lived together for 70 years. I miss this big gathering of the entire family.

 

"I have a lot of respect for her and for her desires. But just like she can determine her agenda, I can determine my agenda. It reached a situation in which it no longer felt right."

 

Do you still hope for a deep, real reconciliation between the two of you?

 

"Look, I definitely wouldn't want a separation. But it's more important for me to honor her opinion than to try to disrupt it. I would like her to share my opinion, just like she would like me to share her opinion. But at this stage it's impossible.


With Sonia. 'The love of my life' (Photo: Nati Hernik, GPO)

 

"We have very nice, very pleasant relations. The children have grown up, moved out of the nest. Each of them has a family. All of us sit together cheerfully and happily, each time at a different child's home. There are three families, so both Sonia and I don't have to spend too much time alone."

 

Are you disappointed that none of your children went to politics?

 

"Each person is entitled to choose. I wouldn't try to force any of my children to do things just because I like them. Grownup and calculated people have different, personal inclinations: Yoni likes animals, Tziki likes words and Chemi likes science. So that's what they have to do. That's what I've passed on to them."

 

What would you like to pass on to your grandchildren?

 

"I would tell them to be independent, to understand that each person is as big as the goal he serves, and not as big as the fortune he's made. The most important thing in life is to dare. The most important thing in life is to dare. The most complicated thing in life is to be afraid. The smartest thing in the world is to try to be a moral person. There's no greater wisdom."

 

Do you have any insights about relationship and family that you would pass on to them?

 

"I would tell them that a relationship is where love peaks and clashes peak. If you want the clashes to decrease and the love to grow stronger, you should be the one to give up. Don't ask the other one to give up."

 

But in your relationship with Sonia, you didn't give up.

 

"True, but I don't think that in my case it would have helped. I think it would have made things difficult. I don't know. I don't think she would have been happy having me sitting at home all day. I definitely wouldn't have been happy about it. The business between us had to do with a different vision.

 

"There is a difference between men and women, a huge difference. Women get insulted from things men don't even think can be insulting. Every girl is born a mother and every man never grows up. The man sees himself constantly facing enemies. The woman sees herself facing children. Sometimes the men don't understand where they are. They think they're in the battlefield rather than in the family circle."

 

And what would you pass on to young leaders?

 

"I think a leader's biggest problem today is not his rank, but the level of trust people have in him. People can feel if you are serving an idea, serving them, or just hanging up there because you like to be on top.

 

"I think leaders sometimes have a problem making peace, because they don't want to be unpopular. Peace begins with negotiations with your people, not with your enemies. It's the biggest problem. All people are in favor of peace. But they will also say, 'Why are you conceding so much? Why are you giving so much away?'

 

"If you want peace, you're willing to give things which will bring peace, without which you believe there won't be peace. And it's painful and unpopular. Those who want peace must be brave. Forget about their popularity a bit. It will come after peace is achieved."

 

And when you look around, do you see such a person?

 

"In the meantime, unfortunately, I don't see leaders around me who are doing that."

 

Peres was informed about the helicopter disaster in Romania by the military attaché and military secretary. At the same time, he says, a team from his bureau was in Romania preparing his visit to the country next week. During the visit, Peres was slated to discuss ways to expand the military cooperation between the two countries.

 

"My people, who were sitting in the consulate there, updated me," he says. "It was difficult. When I see a soldier in uniform I can't forget for one second that this young person is in a life-threatening role. Unfortunately, we cannot guarantee security without a skillful army and cannot train an army without necessary risks. The commanders must do everything to guarantee safety in the training, but training sessions cannot be held without taking risks.

 

"A civilian plane doesn't have to pass through mountains and fog. A military helicopter takes risks. I am proud of the army and feel pain over the victims and their families."

 

Your son Chemi was a pilot too. Are you familiar with this fear among parents?

 

"My son Chemi flew an assault helicopter and even received a citation. I know this fear parents have for their children. For the people it's the army. But for the mother and father, for the wife and children, it's the son, husband and father. The price claimed from them is heavy."

 

'Am I supposed to fight with the PM?'

The president is about to celebrate his 87th birthday. The position does him well: He's popular, charming and is receiving more compliments than ever. Only last week he was defined by Yedioth Ahronoth's economic newspaper, Calcalist, as the strongest brand in the world.

 

US President Obama asked him not so long ago during a meeting, "Mr. Peres, you must tell me, what is the secret of your charm?"

 

Peres is well aware of this popularity and feels free to say whatever is on his mind. "This freedom," he says, "stems from the fact that I have no political agenda or campaign. I'm not chasing after money and I can serve the State without any limitations."

 

You know, some of your old friends in Kadima are angry with you. They say you are "whitewashing" (Prime Minister Benjamin) Netanyahu's image in Israel and in the world. "The public thinks," they say, "that if Shimon Peres supports Netanyahu, he can really be trusted." What is your answer to them?

 

"I tell them that my goal today is a national unity government. We must do everything we can to emerge from the crisis we are in. National unity is required at tough times. I am aware of the fact that not everyone agrees, but the united stand is stronger than the divided stand. Every prime minister must aspire to have two wings rather than one, particularly if he wants to fly towards the peace process."

 

People say you are trapped in "Bibi's claws…"

 

"What do they suggest that I do? Launch a war on the prime minister? As president, I have to help the government and prime minister, just like I have to help the opposition. Clearly, the government has more options, so the help will be richer. I'm not here to decide between them or replace them."

 

Let's put the cards on the table. Do you think Netanyahu made a mistake by choosing (Yisrael Beiteinu Chairman Avigdor) Lieberman over (Kadima Chairwoman) Tzipi Livni for his government?

 

"If I wasn't the president, I would answer that question. As president, I can't do that. I can only say about Tzipi Livni that I have had thorough discussions with her, that she's a woman with experience, who can be a leader."

 

Can there be real cooperation between Netanyahu and her?

 

"There has to be cooperation. No one serves himself. The question is from the point of view of the country's best interest. Uniting forces during tough times is the best thing for this country. The problem is people are holding on to their opinions. Each one sees from there what we don't see from here.

 

"Bibi, I suppose, wanted to establish a government with parties closer to him. I'm not sitting here to change people. I can't do that in any case. All I can say is that instead of them I would settle for fewer conditions, and I'm talking about both sides."

 

Before Netanyahu's latest meeting with Obama, the prime minister met with Peres three times. They both hoped that the meeting with Obama would be a turning point.

 

What do you talk to the prime minister about?

 

"Our relations are not intellectual, but more political. They have less to do with gossip than people think. We don't laugh about people and don't engage in manipulations. We talk less about tricks and more about moves.


Netanyahu and Obama. 'He met us halfway' (Photo: AP)

 

"His latest meeting with Obama was truly more significant. There was nearly a rift between us and America, which badly influenced the State of Israel's situation, and it was largely healed. Obama met us half way publicly as much as he could. I see this as Netanyahu's achievement."

 

What do you think about Obama's first year?

 

"This year everyone – the Americans, Netanyahu and the Palestinians – all sides did their best to make mistakes. This year was a tournament of making mistakes, a circus of mistakes."

 

And what was Netanyahu's mistake?

 

"His mistake was the settlement building. During Vice President Joe Biden's visit, they had just published the construction of 1,600 housing units. It wasn't an intentional mistake, but was perceived that way by the world.

 

"I think that the entire Jerusalem construction issue should have been presented differently. Netanyahu said we have been building in these places for 44 years and will continue to build. He should have added that there are places we haven't built in for 44 years and we'll continue not to build there. There are 21 Arab neighborhoods in Jerusalem, which neither (former Prime Minister Yitzhak) Shamir nor (former Prime Minister Menachem) Begin or (former Prime Minister Ariel) Sharon – no one – built there. This must be continued after the ultimatum ends in September."

 

Do you believe Netanyahu wasn't sensitive enough on this issue?

 

"I don't want to discuss psychology, but the prime minister is not running reality. Sometimes reality runs him. Netanyahu's problem today is very serious. Up to now, almost throughout all of the State of Israel's history, the two big parties had a majority together. Today, the two big parties don't have a majority. The majority is in the hands of the small parties. Today every prime minister must consider the small parties more than the big ones. It makes it very difficult to run the government. Netanyahu has to maneuver through huge difficulties. He can't talk as freely as I can."

 

Let's go back to this tournament of mistakes you referred to? What were Obama's mistakes?

 

"Making the demand to completely halt construction. For 44 years America has been against this construction, but accepted it. Now the Americans have made a condition of it and put Bibi in an impossible position. Even if Bibi had wanted to do it, he couldn't have given it to him.

 

"Obama must also take into account that the Israeli prime minister has parliamentary constraints. You must consider everything thoroughly before demanding things and ask yourself if this can even be fulfilled."

 

And where did the Palestinians go wrong?

 

"They thought America had taken their side. They exaggerated and began acting as if America supports them automatically and opposes all Israeli stances. It made them climb a high ladder which they are still having trouble getting off."

 

You have worked with quite a few American presidents? Is Obama really different?

 

"Obama didn't change America. America changed and elected a president symbolizing change. He represents the new composition of American society, which ignores black and white.

 

"There is also his new orientation towards relations with the Muslim world. He expects them to change and fights for Islam without terror, without extremists and without discrimination. He is trying his luck. We want new relations with the Arab world as well."

 

Will you get to see peace?

 

"Yes, I believe I will get to see peace in my time. Neither the Palestinians nor we have any other option. We have no choice. Without peace there will be more nuclear armament. It's true that the human advantage still counts, but it will decrease because of the 'war of buttons,' and the button doesn't care who pushes it.

 

"They have no choice because their conflict is not just between them and us. The Arab conflict is mainly against the Iranian camp. They are more worried about that than about their conflict against us.

 

"We must look at 1,000 years of Arab history. For 700 years they were under an imperialist regime – Muslim, Iranian and Turkish. They don't want to be under that regime anymore, not even in the name of religion. This, as far as they are concerned, is the greatest threat. And they know that Israel is one of the forces preventing the takeover of the former enterprises on their hegemony, even if they have no formal dialogue with us."

 

London Agreement: A missed opportunity

To this day, Peres views the Oslo Accords as the most important thing he has done in his political life. He feels uncomfortable and even angry over the Education Ministry's decision to remove the Oslo Accords from the curriculum.

 

"Oslo was a success, even THE success. Without it we couldn't have reached peace. We mustn't forget that the states' size was determined in Oslo. Before Oslo, the Palestinian state's size should have been according to the 1947 map, the UN map. In Oslo (former Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser) Arafat moved from the 1947 map to the 1967 one. He gave up on 22% of the West Bank. I don't know any Arab leader who would give up 2 or 3%. He gave up on 22%. This was our greatest achievement."

 

So why does this agreement have such a bad image?

 

"Because it wasn't completed. Only half the work was done. Only after it is completed, everyone will understand its importance. It hides the future core of peace. Whoever made the decision at the Education Ministry to remove it from the curriculum did not understand it. It was an erroneous move. The Education Ministry can change the curriculum but it can't change history. But I'm not so impressed with history. We should use our imagination more than our memory."

 

What do you see as your greatest missed opportunity?

 

"The London Agreement. I reached an agreement with King Hussein, which everyone thought was the best agreement. But it was sabotaged, and this was the State's greatest missed opportunity."

 

The London Agreement was signed in 1987 between Peres, who was foreign minister at the time, and Jordan's King Hussein, during a secret meeting. According to the agreement, Jordan was to regain control of the Palestinian population in the territories and sign a peace treaty with Israel. The two leaders agreed that this would be sponsored by an international convention and brokered by the Americans. Those were the days of the national unity government, and Peres reported the agreement to Shamir, who sabotaged it.

 

Syrian President Bashar Assad told Lebanese newspaper as-Safir recently that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev had relayed a message to him from Peres, stating that the Israeli president offered to withdraw from the Golan Heights in exchange for Damascus severing its ties with Tehran and the terror organizations. So far, Peres has avoided responding to this claim.

 

Did you relay a message to Syria through Medvedev?

 

"I told Medvedev that on the Syrian channel we should launch negotiations. I assume the Syrians would demand the Golan Heights, and they must assume that we will demand that they halt their participation in the axis of evil.

 

"I have never offered results of negotiations before even launching them. This is where the report wasn't accurate. Peace with Syria is important today because the alternative of war is a bad one. Syria almost built a nuclear weapon, we mustn't forget that, and now it's rearming."

 

Do you think that in exchange for breaking this axis of evil – Syria, Iran and Hezbollah – it would be right to withdraw to the 1967 borders?

 

"I'm not the only one who thinks so. All prime ministers have made this offer to Syria. Netanyahu, (Yitzhak) Rabin and (Ehud) Barak. Peace cannot be made during war. Syria cannot have missiles directed at Israel in Lebanon, in Hezbollah's backyard. We cannot accept that."

 

Do you see a peace agreement with Syria as the most urgent political move?

 

"The most urgent issue in my opinion is the Palestinian issue. It's being used to create an anti-Israel front in the world. All of the wording by the Turks and the Iranians and everyone are part of a competition who will be more anti-Israel. I would like to take this luxury away from them."

 

How concerned are you about the axis of evil?

 

"We must calm down. There's nothing which divides them more than the attempt to reach understandings. It's an artificial axis, which has no shared logic. The religious contradictions between Syria and Turkey or between Syria and Iran are deep. I'm not just talking about Sunnis and Shiites. There is a division among the Shiites as well. The Shiite-Iranian faction is not like the Shiite-Arab faction. There are differences of opinion there as well.

 

"Besides, each has many minorities. In Turkey, for example, 20% are Kurds. They are the balance pivot and there are some among them who feel tied to Israel. We must always remember what Tolstoy said, that happy families are all alike and every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way. The Arab world is not one big happy family."

 

How do you think the world should act against the Iranian threat?

 

"I would create a defense umbrella-envelope of anti-missile systems around Iran. Like we did with the Iron Dome now, I would create such a regional dome around Iran, which would stop long-range and short-range missiles. The Americans have similar measures against missiles in Alaska. It must be an international initiative, and I am certain there won't be one country which won't want to take part in it, including the Arab countries."

 

If we do it, the rest will be less important.

 

"It has to be a global initiative. Iran puts the entire world in danger. It should not be turned into an Israeli monopoly."

 

'Turkish propaganda exaggerated'

Peres recently found himself playing a key role in the political drama of Israel's deteriorating relations with Turkey. It began with his meeting with Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan at the World Economic Forum in Davos. Erdogan stormed off the stage after an angry exchange of words with Peres, and his wife Emine later told Palestinian women she could not stop crying after hearing "Peres' lies." Then came a poster hung in Istanbul, which showed Peres bowing to Erdogan.

 

How did you feel about this declaration?

 

"I'm used to it. I've experienced a great amount of slander in my life. I'm unmoved by it."

 

Were you moved by Emine Erdogan's tears?

 

"I don't know what there was to cry about. Instead of arguing with Erdogan, I took the Hamas charter and read out that they say they want to destroy the Jewish people. I asked Erdogan how he would react if 10,000 missiles had hit Istanbul.

 

"There was no provocation on my part. He spoke before me. His speech was very harsh. When I ended my speech I received a huge round of applause, which the others did not receive."

 

So what exactly happened with the Turks?

 

"Turkey has changed its attitude towards Israel. Israel hasn't changed its attitude towards Turkey. I suggest that Israel remains in this place, and we'll see what happens with Turkey. I'm waiting patiently. I don't think we have to respond immediately to anything and I don't think we have to appoint enemies."

 

How wrong was (Deputy Foreign Minister) Danny Ayalon when he sat the Turkish ambassador on a low chair?

 

"Israel could have lived without and nothing bad would have happened."


With Erdogan in Davos. 'Turkey changed its attitude' (Photo: AP)

 

In recent years, Peres has developed a special relationship with Israel Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gabi Ashkenazi. When Ashkenazi took office, during one of their first meetings, he told Peres, "The army today needs your backing as a president. We would love to see you on the ground."

 

Peres responded, "See me as a partner," and began visiting the battalions. During these visits Peres appears to be reliving his youth. Once of twice a month, Ashkenazi arrives at Peres' office at the President's Residence and the two sit together for an hour.

 

Would you like to see Gabi Ashkenazi in politics?

 

"I have respected Ashkenazi from the first day I met him. When I was defense minister and he was in charge of the Operations Directorate, we would meet often. I gave him the major-general rank. There's no use discussing politics while he's the chief of staff. He certainly wouldn't want to be the subject of political speculations. In any event there is a cooling off period of three years."

 

Does this cooling off period seem right to you?

 

"No. I don't understand why a person who did a good job in the army must wait so long. Politicians have no cooling off period before they move on elsewhere. I think they are preventing a person from going to politics just because of his good reputation. I think it stems from jealousy, and that's a shame.

 

"Good people are needed in politics. We are not doing a favor to people. Good people are doing a favor to the State by serving it. I would like as many people as possible to join. After all, there is no enthusiasm today about entering politics."

 

In their latest meeting, about a week ago, Ashkenazi and Peres discussed the flotilla affair and its ramifications. Major-General (res.) Giora Eiland's report about the Navy raid is on his table and he has read it thoroughly.

 

"I agree with the conclusion that there was a need for conceptual cooperation between the political and security echelon. There is no other way. We need this cooperation, because the most sensitive field is the undefined field between policy and strategy. As long as there is security danger, it cannot be divided and requires cooperation. We must have a dialogue in which the prime minister, defense minister and army representatives sit around one table."

 

What do you think about the Israeli PR efforts on this matter?

 

"There was intentional, exaggerated propaganda, and we didn't deal with it right. I would settle for a simple saying: Those who want Gaza to be open don't need ships. They should telephone Gaza's rulers and tell them to commit to stop firing, buying weapons and threatening Israel, and then Gaza will be open. We must say that these ships are foolish. Because today you can bring in as much food as you want. 'If you want to change the situation,' I would tell them, 'send telegrams to Hamas instead of ships.'

 

"I was in the Socialist International for 20 years. There were 15 vice presidents, and I was one of them. Fourteen wanted Arafat to join, I objected, and they didn't do it. But they pressured me in private. They asked me then, 'Why are you objecting?' I said, 'Today Arafat is a terrorist today; turn him into a socialist and democrat. Instead of pressuring me, change him.' They made him accept 242 and declare that he would quit terror. They did it. The world can do it with Hamas too."

 

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman is suggesting a second disengagement from Gaza. What's your opinion?

 

"It raises many questions. First of all, we’re cooperating with the Egyptians around Gaza. I wouldn't give up on that cooperation. Second, if we lift the naval blockade, Gaza will be flooded with weapons and missiles. In other words, without an agreement we can't disengage.

 

"The disengagement was right, but not perfect. At the time I thought, and I told Sharon, that the disengagement should have been done in cooperation with the Palestinians. I thought they should have guaranteed, before we left, that the PA and not Hamas would be in charge."

 

Was it Sharon's mistake?

 

"I don't know who else, besides Sharon, was capable of doing what he did. It took a lot of courage."

 

Do you miss him?

 

"Yes. Sometimes I find myself thinking about this situation he's in, between life and death, and about the injustice he suffered."

 

'Conversion law will cause a rift'

President Peres was approached recently by kidnapped soldier Gilad Shalit's parents, Noam and Aviva, who have asked to meet with foreign diplomats at the President's Residence. Peres will be a dominant figure in any future deal, as he will be the one to sign the amnesty for Hamas prisoners.

 

What is your stand on Gilad Shalit?

 

"The government has gone a long way. It reached the conclusion that at some point a break must be taken. Now we're in a waiting period, with all the pain, because otherwise the pain will be even greater. Tomorrow there will be more demands.

 

"Everyone agrees that he must be returned. But not all the measures we think will bring him back will indeed bring him back. There are measures which will endanger him. It's possible that we won't have any choice and will need a military operation to bring him back."


Noam and Aviva Shalit. 'Military operation may be needed' (Photo: Guy Assayag)

 

In the past month, the president received dozens of appeals from leaders of the American Jewish community, who pleaded with him to intervene and prevent the new conversion bill from being approved by the Knesset.

 

What is your stand on the new bill?

 

"Let me tell you something that not many people know. In 1988 I gave up on the premiership because I was asked to change the conversion law. The religious approached me and said, 'If you change the conversion law, we'll go with you. I said thank you very much and didn't become prime minister. So you must understand my stand. It's not just words.

 

"It's unthinkable that a Knesset, which does not represent half of the Jewish people living in America, will make decisions about them. In fact, with this law they are cancelling US Jews' ability to convert, unless they do it according to the orders of rabbis in Israel.

 

"It's a problem from a democratic point of view as well, and creates a situation of two people: One people with conversion according to the Knesset law, and the other people which does not accept the Knesset law. Creating such a rift is a disaster."

 

At the same time, the idea of a pledge of allegiance to the Jewish state in order to get a citizenship has been raised again.

 

"Those who believe in Israel don't need to take an oath. Those who don't believe in Israel and take an oath, it won't be worth a penny. Citizenship is not a matter of oath, but a matter of treatment. It's important to create good relations within, and then there is no need for an oath. (Minister) Dan Meridor made clear remarks and quoted (Revisionist Zionist leader Ze'ev) Jabotinsky. In this case I agree with Jabotisnky."

 

Do you still have an internal dialogue with (former Prime Minister David) Ben-Gurion ? Do you talk to him in your mind sometimes?

 

"Not so long ago I found a letter of his which I kept, a letter he wrote to this father. His father wanted to immigrate to Israel and asked his son to help him. The son wrote, 'Father, I'm sorry, I can't help you. Not because I don’t have any influence, but because I do have influence. If I help you, it would be favoritism. So don't ask, because I won't help you.' That's cruel."

 

Would you say there was a streak of cruelty in him?

 

He also had a measure of what he referred to as 'the truth is above all.' You can call it cruelty. He told the truth. Ben-Gurion was always afraid that we were making compromises when it comes to the truth and he thought it would lead us to bankruptcy in the end. He demanded from others what he demanded from himself."

 

Perhaps when we started compromising about the truth we reached the big corruption cases?

 

"There is a war on corruption here. Presidency takes me many places where life doesn't take me. I see people on the edge. The most miserable people, with heart-rending requests. And on other hand, I see wealth which cannot be described.

 

"When I receive the pardon files, I see that in many cases there is a link between life's hardships and crime. It all begins with broken families, with nature's cruelty against people. There are heart-rending things. It's a combination of the cruelest circumstances, and the judge judges."

 

It seems that in the education field we're facing a very big problem.

 

"The problem in Israel is not the average, but the lack of average. In other words, we have three different societies. There are societies which are against the basic subjects, they don't teach mathematics. So there's no wonder the average has gone down. As opposed to the accepted belief, I think level is not just a matter of knowledge, but of character. Those who have the courage are as important as those who have the knowledge."

 

What did you think about what happened in Emmanuel, about the surge of ethnical discrimination there?

 

"It's unacceptable. I won't accept any discrimination based on color, gender, religion or faith. Every person can be a haredi. It's none of my business. I regret the fact that there are religious parties. The moment religion becomes a party it takes on the disadvantages of the party. Religion must be clear of political considerations, and haredi or religious people must integrate in the other parties and have an even greater influence. I see that (former Shas Chairman) Aryeh Deri is in favor of this."

 

Do you welcome Deri's return to politics?

 

"Yes. He has loyal followers and supporters and he has talent and it's his right. Politics is a dynamic thing."

 

Don't you ask yourself sometimes about the Labor Party's whereabouts in this dynamic?

 

"What is there to ask? I know the answers. I don't intervene in the Labor Party. It's going through a rough time. I hope it finds the power to regain its status. The vision of the Labor Party was a social vision, which said that socialism is not just an economic issue, but a civilization… The Labor Party must return to its social, moral perception and rise up against social discrimination. It has abandoned its historic role."

 

'Death doesn't bother me'

Up to this day, Peres' closest friends are the ones he met during his years with the Labor Party. He talks to author Amos Oz on the phone every Friday afternoon.

 

"My life has always had a certain disadvantage. I was always the youngest among adults and now I'm the oldest among young people. I have almost never been with people my own age. I can't say my friends from the Working Youth are the friends I have in the presidency."

 

Do you think about death?

 

"Death doesn't need my thoughts. I don't bother it and it doesn't bother me. It's part of nature; every person is born with a death machine inside of him."

 

You know people always say, "Peres will bury us all."

 

"That's a nice sense of humor."

 

Everyone is interested in (Egyptian President Hosni) Mubarak's health at the moment. Are you concerned about his health?

 

"I think we shouldn't talk about it. We don't know what the condition is, we're just guessing. No one likes people to talk about their health. Even healthy people. There was a doctor, a friend, who told me that the goal of medicine is to let a person die while he's still healthy."

 

You've reached the age of nostalgia. Which era do you miss the most?

 

"I don’t miss, I prefer hope. Yearning is going back to the past. I can say there are leaders from the past I would like to sit with again. I have met many impressive leaders – Ben-Gurion, Berl Katznelson (one of the founders of Labor Zionism), (former IDF Chief of Staff and Minister) Moshe Dayan, (former French President François) Mitterrand, (former US President Bill) Clinton, (former US President John) Kennedy. I miss the nice conversations with them. With writers as well – (Nathan) Alterman, Isaiah Berlin."

 

Are you still an optimist?

 

"I believe that the chance that things will be okay is not smaller than the chance that things won't be okay. Both things have changed in size – the chances and the risks – but the balance has been maintained. I believe there is no reverse Darwinism. History does not go back. A state which has been established does not go back to not being a state, just like a human being does not go back to being an ape. Development goes in one direction, the journey goes forward."

 

How do you see Israel in 2010?

 

"Our country can compete against any other country in the world. It has enough attractions. There is nothing in Israel which has not changed for the better: From food to theater, from the opera to university. It's a country with unusual tensions, a country where one doesn't get bored, a vibrant country, a stormy country, an arguing country, a caring country. This is a wonderful thing in my opinion.

 

"I like to say, as a joke, that sometimes this country looks like a drama more than like a country. I love this drama. I love a country with drama. I would never have been able to live in a boring country."

 

 

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