Shimon Peres: 'Democracy is the equal right to be different'

Shimon Peres: 'Democracy is the equal right to be different'
By Euronews
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Euronews has been speaking to Israeli President Shimon Peres. At the age of 89, Peres has spent more than 60 years serving his country, twice as prime minister.

As foreign minister, he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994, together with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and the President of the Palestinian Authority Yasser Arafat, for the peace talks that produced the Oslo Accords.

Elected President of Israel in 2007, Shimon Peres is the world’s oldest head of state.

Jon Davies, euronews: “In this edition of the Global Conversation, we’re at the presidential palace in Jerusalem to talk to the president, Shimon Peres. Thank you very much for your time, Mr President. The first thing I would like to ask you is your reaction to comments made by Prime Minister Erdogan of Turkey just a short time ago, when he linked Zionism with crimes against humanity. What are your reactions to those comments?”

Shimon Peres: “I regret it very much. It’s based on ignorance. It raises the flames of hatred totally unnecessarily and is completely unfounded.”

euronews: “Relations with Turkey over the last few years years have not been great, they have been getting worse between Turkey and Israel. Is this part of the same process, do you think?”

Shimon Peres: “Basically, I do believe that the Turkish people, as the Israeli people, they face towards peace and understanding. They are not going to make long conclusions about the past. It’s not simple for anybody. But we supported very much the entrance of Turkey into Europe and, on many occasions, we were even instrumental, and I personally got many thanks for those efforts. And I think that today, a united Europe is not just a Christian Europe. I don’t think a united, or the Middle East as it is, is just a Muslim region. I think we live in a world of differences, not in a world of likenesses. And I think democracy today is not just the right to be equal but also the equal right to be different, and the person who doesn’t understand it doesn’t understand what’s happening and what is the future of our world.”

euronews: “Is that a message about Turkey that you will be taking to European leaders when you meet them?”

Shimon Peres: “No, I think I shall discuss with European leaders the relations or issues that are connecting Europe with the Middle East, and Europe can play a major role in it. It played (a role) and it can play further and longer and better.”

euronews: “There was a rather worrying report that came out last week by European Union diplomats. The report was for Brussels, and it said that Israeli building on occupied land poses the most serious threat to the creation of a Palestinian state, a two-state solution. When you go to meet European leaders, it’s possible you might well have your work cut out to convince them that everything is going well here in Israel.”

Shimon Peres: “We did agree not only on a two-state solution but we also more or less agreed on how it will happen. The two-state solution has a relation to the issue of settlements. In the talks that took place in Washington, conducted under the presidency of President Clinton, we more or less agreed there would be three blocs for settlements or settlers in the West Bank, and the Palestinians would be compensated territorially accordingly, and I am not taking this very pessimistic view that the present situation stops the chance to have the right solution. I think we think the problems are always richer than the solutions. But when you look at history, finally, the problems died and the solutions remained.”

euronews: “The building of settlements, specifically in the E1 region I think, is particularly upsetting for Palestinians who say that this particular piece of ground would be essential in any two-state solution.”

Shimon Peres: “Well, there may be disagreements, too, but I don’t think that the Israeli government has announced that we are going to build. The announcement is that the Israeli government is going to plan. And between planning and building there is a difference and a gap. And it depends very much if we shall renew the direct negotiations. If this will happen, I think this, again, can be solved properly.”

euronews: “I agree there is a difference between planning and actually building, but planning could still be seen a provocative measure, as a belligerent measure, by saying ‘This is what we’re planning to do, I know you don’t like it but we’re going to plan to do it anyway’.”

Shimon Peres: “Well, I think the declaration of the announcement of planning was a reaction to the fact that the Palestinians went one-sidedly to the United Nations. So I agree, this is a little on the provocative side, but Israel looks upon the unilateral approach to the United Nations as a sort of provocation. We have to stop provocation, I agree. If you don’t stop, I mean, it will be an exchange of provocation and that is unnecessary.”

euronews: “So where will it stop, Mr President?”

Shimon Peres: “I think, you should ask ‘Where will it begin?’. It’s stopped already, but I do believe with the new government there is a chance to reopen the negotiations. And I feel there is a sort of maturity on both sides. Basically, to understand that with the opening of negotiations you can’t solve all the problems. The opening is an opening to summarize what you did agree and to look for solutions.”

euronews: “How does it feel, 20 years after the Oslo Accords – which you were so involved in – that there are still so many unresolved problems? Not so many unresolved, but many of them the same problems that existed 20 years ago.”

Shimon Peres: “I wish it would be shorter, but you know I learned to be patient, without giving up the major goals. I know that if you want to arrive at a certain point, it may be more difficult than you think, it may take more time than is valid or rational. But don’t give up the goal – and I am not going to give up the goal. I am not impressed. I regret, maybe, that it has taken so much time, but that’s not a reason to give it up. I am convinced that neither us nor the Palestinians have a real alternative, no solution.”

euronews: “Realities are changing all the time, certainly in this particular region. Over the last two years we’ve seen regimes fall all around Israel. Your neighbours are changing their political climate quite extensively. How is that affecting Israel’s attitude?”

Shimon Peres: “When you see what is happening in the Middle East, to what do you compare it? To the past or to the future? If this is a result of the past, we are lost. But if this is a call for the future, we shall win. And I think all those changes arrived not because of the past but because the world has moved ahead, because the world became global and open and scientific. I think today technology is more telling than strategy. And I look at who is running this new revolution – whatever, uprising – in the Arab world. Basically the young people. President Obama asked me if I had any advice to give him before he went to the elections. I said ‘yes: if somebody comes to you and says the future belongs to the young people, throw him out of the room. Tell him the present belongs to the young people.’ The future belongs to people like myself who have time and experience. And I do believe the present belongs to young people. I think any leadership, elected or unelected, must give answers to their real stories: to work, to have food, to have lodging, to enjoy freedom. They cannot give it up.”

euronews: “Does that make it easier for the peace process, now that the power is in the hands of the young and not in the hands of old guard dictators like Ben Ali and Mubarak?”

Shimon Peres: “I don’t think it’s connected whatsoever, you know. It may be used as an excuse but not as a reason. Whatever happened in Egypt, in Tunisia, in Syria or in Yemen, has nothing to do with Israel. It is a result of their internal situation. So we pray for peace, not only between us and the Arabs, but for peace all over the place.”

euronews: “There must be something more than that, Mr President. I appreciate that you pray for peace on a humanitarian level about what’s happening in Syria, but on a practical level, it’s basically on your doorstep.”

Shimon Peres: “You know, we related to President Assad as a reasonable man who studied in a British university, who represented something new. We were shocked when we discovered that the same supposedly reasonable man tried to build a nuclear reactor. And I think everybody is relieved that at least the nuclear option was stopped. Imagine that Assad would have both nuclear bombs and chemical bombs. My God! And (would) use them merciless against his own people. Now we cannot intervene because clearly everyone will say that we are invading Syria. I do believe that the ones who have to really solve and stop the bloodshed in Syria are the Arab League. Syria is an Arab country. The Arabs are more knowledgeable about what’s going on there. The rest of us are foreigners. I think the Arab League should build a transitional government for a year or two. I think this should be supported by the United Nations to stop immediately the bloodshed and the blood flow, and the Arabs, whom I respect very much, must understand that there are problems they have to solve and not expect others to solve. Because if others try to solve them, immediately some people will say this is a foreign intervention. It is time for the Arab world really to take the Syrian challenge in their hands and solve it peacefully and intelligently. You know, the Africans are trying to do something like that in Mali, and rightly so. “

euronews: “You mentioned a nuclear capacity and, of course, your other neighbour in the region, which is causing a worry worldwide, is Iran. There’s been some worrying talk about a possible preemptive strike on Iran. Would you condone that, would you back a military strike on any Iranian nuclear facility?”

Shimon Peres: “Well, to put it in the right proportion: the policy vis-à-vis Iran is first of all to try all other non-shooting means, non-military means – economic sanctions, political pressure, even negotiations. I think the one thing that was forgotten wrongly is a call for human rights, the call that was done in Helsinki in 1975 at a meeting between the Soviet Union of the time and the United States. And all of a sudden they put on the table human rights as a major issue, as an international issue. The real victims, right now, of the Iranian story are the Iranian people. They are suffering. They don’t have enough food, they cannot cure their sick people, they have a million people who suffer from cancer. What for? Because a small group of religious leaders became ambitious and wanted to establish a religious empire. So, the first call should be right now, and even before the elections on June 23 that will take place in Tehran, to demand that the elections be free and not that they elect again themselves.”

euronews: “But the nuclear programme is obviously a worry…”

Shimon Peres: “Sure, and the most responsible leaders of our time, headed by Obama, who created a coalition with the Europeans, and even Putin, should say we cannot permit a nuclear Iran. It is a danger for all the world. It’s not just a danger for Israel. And I think if the world is trying really to stop them, and if it can be stopped peacefully, it’s better.”

euronews: “And if it can’t?”

Shimon Peres: “And if it can’t, I shall use the words of Obama: ‘All other options are on the table’. The Iranians have two agencies here: one is Hezbollah in Lebanon and the other is Hamas in Gaza. The result of the actions of Hezbollah is tragic for Lebanon. We hoped – and I still hope – that Lebanon could have become, and may become, the Switzerland of the Middle East: multicultural, people used to live in peace. My God! They spoiled the land, they divided the people. The Hezbollah tried to terrorise on 20 occasions, the last one was in Bulgaria, and the Bulgarians identified the five persons, Israelis, who were killed by the hands of Hezbollah. And a few days ago, it (was) repeated in Cyprus. There are 20 cases of acts of terror by Hezbollah. They killed Lebanon. Lebanon, in many ways, is a European creation. I think Europe has to save Lebanon, we can manage Hezbollah. The Lebanese cannot.”

euronews: “There’s been a perceived deterioration in relations between the United States and Israel, I say perceived outside Israel. Is that true, is that how you see it now? Is there less communication between the White House and the Knesset? How are relations with the United States?”

Shimon Peres: “First of all, I have the highest regard for President Obama and the assistance he has offered to Israel in the name of security. He did an outstanding job and we are very grateful. My mentor was Ben Gurion and he taught me one thing: judge people on their record, not on the rumours that surround them. So when they look at the record of the President Obama, I have the highest regard for what he is doing.”

euronews: “There’s been criticism over the subject we’ve talked about before, settlement building and plans for East Jerusalem and that’s come from the White House, too.”

Shimon Peres: “It’s a known position of the White House. It wasn’t introduced just by President Obama. And that’s one of the points of contention between us and the Untied States, but again we shall sit together and we shall see how to try to solve it. You know, there is a little bit of a misconception about Jerusalem. The old Jerusalem, which is called “the holy Jerusalem”, all told, people wouldn’t believe it, is two square kilometres. In those two square kilometres, you have a hundred holy sites and none of us would like that one religion would govern all the holy sites of other religions. So, we have imagination and we can talk and the past is the past, we have to look to the future and respect the different views and find a reasonable solution.”

euronews: “Mr President I have one last question for you. I wonder if you could tell me: is there anything that keeps you awake at night?”

Shimon Peres: “Occasionally, the problem of the security of Israel, not always. Because things are changing so dramatically and it’s not something that you do once and you have it forever. We have new weapons, we have new strategies, we have new contenders. And I know that the best solution to this war is peace. But I try to sleep as well as I can, my four or five hours during the night. So I shall be fresh and able to think during the day.”

euronews: “President Shimon Peres, thank you very much for your time.”

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