Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that the killing of Palestinian civilians by air raids on Gaza presents a moral dilemma, but argued there is scant alternative as long as the Islamic militants who rule the strip refuse to stop sustained rocket fire against Israel.
"There is a moral problem, but I don't have a moral answer to it," the 1994 Nobel Peace laureate told The Associated Press. "If they are shooting at us, and don't let our mothers and their children ... have a full night's sleep, what can we do?"
A crusader for peace spending his last days in office justifying a war, the 90-year-old Peres seemed downcast but also doggedly optimistic during the hour-long interview in his book-lined Jerusalem office - predicting Gaza's Hamas rulers will eventually accept a cease-fire because of Palestinians' suffering and also their own isolation in the region.
Earlier Tuesday, Hamas rejected an Egyptian cease-fire proposal that Israel accepted, and exchanges of rocket fire and airstrikes gained momentum, resulting in the first Israeli fatality in nine days of fighting that has killed nearly 200 Palestinians.
"I don't see it already finished," Peres said of the proposed truce. "I think there is a division among (Hamas). The situation in Gaza is demanding, terrible, tragic. And they cannot leave it hanging in the air. ... Nobody will feed them for just shooting rockets. ... It's not an economy."
Peres also praised Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas, a Hamas rival who controls the autonomy government in the West Bank and who has had a rocky relationship with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Nine months of US-sponsored peace talks between the two broke down two months ago, dampening hopes for Palestinian independence and setting in motion a spiral of violence that led to the current conflagration.
Abbas is a "real and serious leader who is ready for peace - and I do believe we can make peace with him," Peres said, noting that he differs with Netanyahu, who "does not believe that (Abbas) is a proper partner."
The presidency is mostly ceremonial in Israel, where ultimate executive power lies with the more conservative premier. It's a limitation that has bedeviled the outspoken and tireless Peres, who was himself prime minister three brief times over a 70-year career that has also included stops in every senior ministry. He has sometimes seemed literally at pains to bite his tongue.
But with only about a week left in a presidency that has transformed him into something of a global elder statesman, Peres seemed more willing to push the envelope.
He noted that he also disagreed with Netanyahu's recent suggestion that Israel must retain security control all the way to the Jordan River in order to protect the West Bank from takeover by the radical jihadis wreaking havoc in the region and prevent such a menace from reaching Israel's cities. Peres said Palestine would be able to fend for itself.
"I am in my (position) not supposed to criticize the government, but I don't hide my views," he said. "And instead of saying the government is making a mistake, I am saying there are alternatives. ... I'm saying it in the most polite way."
Despite the collapse of peace talks, Peres said he expected the 47-year military presence in Palestinian territories to eventually end.
"Experience shows that a divorce between nations (brings) happiness to the family. Czechoslovakia, once it became two states - there are two happy states instead of one unhappy state. Yugoslavia is the same," Peres said.
He said similar logic may apply to Iraq, where Sunni insurgents have recently seized much territory from the Shiite-led Baghdad government, and where the Kurds have long controlled an autonomous territory in the north.
"I would like to see a united Iraq. ... But I am not sure the chances for it are great. Too much blood was spilled already, too many people were killed, and ... they cannot stop it," he said, predicting an eventual division into three states.
He bemoaned the state of the Arab world, beset by "terrorists who are destroying nation after nation without a vision."
"The damage that the terrorists did to the Arab world is unbelievable," he said. "Deep in their heart I'm sure many Arabs understand that their problem is not Israel."
His trademark high-flying vision has earned him ridicule and adulation in seemingly equal measure over a career he now plans to continue as an advocate for the unifying power of science and technology. Peres said Israel, a country that has enjoyed phenomenal global success in these areas, must spread that knowledge around.
"Imagine that the high tech will play the same role among our Arab neighbors, say the Palestinians," he said. "I'm telling you, overnight, the whole scenario will be changed because science doesn't have a flag. Science doesn't permit isolation. Science is global."