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George Negus will bring Dateline’s first show for 2009 from Jerusalem, where he interviews Israeli President Shimon Peres.
The interview comes on the eve of crucial elections, as Israel fends off heated allegations of disproportionate use of force in the Gaza conflict.
The famous Arab bazaar in the Old City of
Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate, in its own colourful way it symbolises
all of the ridiculous contradictions of the entire Middle East
conflict. Here you have the Jews and Arabs living, moving about
together, coping on a normal daily basis despite everything negative
and violent – including war – that goes down between them. That’s the
riddle, the paradox, that’s been befuddling the rest of the world since
the creation of the state of Israel back in 1948. For all of that time,
Shimon Peres – Nobel Peace laureate, former prime minister, former
foreign minister, now the president of his country – had been deeply
embroiled in the politics of this region, a Jewish homeland surrounded
by hostile Arab, Muslim nations.
GEORGE NEGUS: Mr President, it is good to see you again. You and I have talked quite a few times in the last 20 years.
SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRESIDENT: That is right.
NEGUS: It must frustrate you greatly at this point in your life that we
are still talking now about the difficulty, almost the impossibility of
solving the conflict between you and the Palestinians.
PERES: We are 60 years old. We went through seven wars, two intifadas,
an ongoing boycott, we have to face different confrontations, we
weren’t helped, God knows, by the world. We are the only country who is
an ally of the United States that never asked for American soldiers. In
spite of the fact that we are outnumbered and outgunned, we entered the
war. Neither did we lose our desire for peace.
NEGUS: Because you have said – if you have said that you believe – if
the quote was correct – you believe that wars are not winnable.
SHIMON PERES: Yes.
NEGUS: Could you tell me this then – to us, as outsiders, the David and
Goliath situation that exists between you and the Palestinians,
particularly in Gaza. They do not appear to have an economy, they do
not appear to have a society, they don’t even appear to have a way of
life. And now in the last couple of months, 80%, 90% of their homes are
destroyed. They have no source of income. This is, I guess, why the
world was shocked at the ferocity of your attack on Gaza.
SHIMON PERES: It is their choice, not ours, because…
GEORGE NEGUS: What? Their choice to be attacked?
PERES: No, their choice was to attack us, and ours to react. It wasn’t
as if I woke up in the morning and went to the Gaza. What for? We left
Gaza completely. There was no single Israeli left in Gaza, neither a
soldier nor a civilian.
GEORGE NEGUS: So why the invasion now then?
PERES: Because they started to fire rockets for no reason – eight years
– and every time they got long-range missiles longer, and the extent of
the territory that they were attacking, and the million people who
could not sleep at night – what should we have done?
GEORGE NEGUS: I guess you say that they were firing rockets for no reason? They would say they have a reason.
SHIMON PERES: What is their reason?
GEORGE NEGUS: Pardon?
SHIMON PERES: What is their reason?
GEORGE NEGUS: The fact that they feel like an economic apartheid. They’re cut off, their supply lines are restricted…
SHIMON PERES: Excuse me.
GEORGE NEGUS:..they cannot live a normal life.
PERES: No, no. The passages were open all the time. The land was free
from Israelis, the world supplied them money like to nobody else. They
went out of their minds. The fact is they are divided. Not only me.
GEORGE NEGUS: True, true.
SHIMON PERES: Look, most of the Palestinians don’t understand what they’re doing.
NEGUS: But politically, people would argue that that’s what your
government has done – you have consciously divided them.
SHIMON PERES: Politically, people can say what they want. The problem is not political, but religious.
GEORGE NEGUS: Can I just…
PERES: They are becoming religiously fanatic. Israel is becoming
irrelevant. They do it for religious purpose, fanatic, they want to
conquer the Middle East under the command of the Iranians.
GEORGE NEGUS: You seriously believe they want to conquer the Middle East?
SHIMON PERES: Iran, yes. 100%.
GEORGE NEGUS: The Iranians?
SHIMON PERES: Yes. And they serve Iranians.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you say Iran, not Gaza, not Hamas, as the problem.
SHIMON PERES: Hamas married the Iranians. It was their choice. They are the same family. They didn’t have to.
NEGUS: Could I ask you this – if killing was going to solve this
problem, this conflict, it surely would have ended a long time ago.
SHIMON PERES: You’re asking the wrong question. Surely not. But if somebody tried to kill you, what will you do? Be killed?
NEGUS: I guess you could say, look at this disproportionate nature of
this destruction. People are looking at 1,300, 1,400 people died in
SHIMON PERES: OK.
NEGUS: A handful of Israelis. Whether that is right or whether that is
wrong, the world sees that as David versus Goliath.
SHIMON PERES: Who’s the world?
GEORGE NEGUS: A lot of people have been very outraged.
PERES: I am not so sure. I don’t think for example that the Indians
look at it that way. There are a billion, 200 million people in that
part of the world. Why? They suffer from terror. People that do not
suffer from it don’t understand what I’m talking about, you know?
NEGUS: Were you shocked by the extent of the condemnation, the
criticism, the outrage against your country as a result of the
invasion? Even from the UN Secretary-General himself. Did that come as
a shock to you?
SHIMON PERES: I didn’t like it, I
thought it was one-sided. But we also had a lot of support – don’t give
me “the world”, just the televisions. In America we enjoy support,
China is neutral, India is for, in Europe they’re divided.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is it impossible for you and the Israeli Government to talk with Hamas? That seems to be the stumbling block.
PERES: They are ready to talk with us about one subject – how to
destroy Israel. It is not such an attractive subject in our eyes.
GEORGE NEGUS: Oh, I can understand that, but are there…
PERES: Look, just a minute. They say let us make a cease-fire for a
year. Why? After a year they want to start shooting again. That doesn’t
make any sense.
GEORGE NEGUS: Nobody doubts your
credentials as a man of peace. I have known you for a long while, I
have no doubt about that. But Moshe Dyan, an Israeli icon, said, “If
you want to make peace, you don’t talk to your friends, you talk with
your enemies.” In this case, Hamas.
SHIMON PERES: Moshe
Dyan was a good friend of mine. If you have a talkative enemy – you
have an enemy that doesn’t want to talk, they want to shoot.
NEGUS: If say a George Mitchell or a Tony Blair – and Blair believes
that you should be talking now, he says, to Hamas – said, “We think you
should talk to Hamas even though you do not trust them, even though you
believe they want to destroy Israel, that you should talk anyway.”
SHIMON PERES: What will be the subject? To destroy Israel?
GEORGE NEGUS: Whatever you like.
PERES: Look, you cannot… With all due respect to the personalities
you mentioned, there is a charter of Hamas – the Muslims have to kill
the Jews. That is how it started. So we have to discuss it?
GEORGE NEGUS: So you think it’s impossible to talk to Hamas?
SHIMON PERES: For the time being, not.
GEORGE NEGUS: The time being?
PERES: If they will change, they will change. We don’t kill them
because we don’t like their faces. We kill them because they are trying
to kill us, that’s all.
GEORGE NEGUS: You said that you believe that there would be peace.
SHIMON PERES: Yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: In your lifetime.
SHIMON PERES: Right.
GEORGE NEGUS: You still believe that?
SHIMON PERES: 100%.
GEORGE NEGUS: You’re not a young man. I don’t wish you ill, but you are not a young man.
SHIMON PERES: Well, I hope peace will come earlier and I shall live longer.
NEGUS: How will that happen then? Given the stalemate that you have
just described to me, why does battering them into submission prove
anything? It would appear that Hamas have got stronger, not weaker, as
a result of the invasion.
SHIMON PERES: I don’t know what is stronger or what is weaker.
GEORGE NEGUS: True.
PERES: The whole language of strength and weaknesses is irrelevant,
because when you use arms you do not use ballots, and public opinion is
unimportant, and they shoot at their opponents.
GEORGE NEGUS: So you do not believe Hamas has any democratic right?
SHIMON PERES: Surely, they don’t. They live on their rifles and bombs.
GEORGE NEGUS: So they weren’t really elected, you don’t believe?
PERES: No, it is something even more complicated. They thought that if
you go to elections you become a democrat for the rest of your life.
They think that democracy is limited to one day in four years.
GEORGE NEGUS: But an American writer, Tom Friedman, said were you trying to educate them, or eradicate them?
PERES: My answer is yes, but it is not in a school. It is a different
sort of education. We announced ahead of time that we are not going to
destroy Hamas, that we’re not going to conquer Gaza. The only purpose
of this operation was to stop firing rockets against us. It happened in
Lebanon, it will happen in Gaza too.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is that worth the lives of women and children?
SHIMON PERES: No.
GEORGE NEGUS: So why do it?
SHIMON PERES: They do it! If they use children and women as a human shelter…
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you believe that? That they would put women and children…
PERES: Not I believe it, I saw it with my own eyes. It is not
something that I believe or not. And you know what? We checked
carefully the international law – what does a nation do when terrorists
are using civilians to defend their life, as a shelter. And they say
you do not have a choice. But we telephoned every house before that. We
made 250,000 telephones to the places that we have bombed.
GEORGE NEGUS: Is that right?
SHIMON PERES: Yes, sir! And we suggested that they leave their homes, and many of them did leave.
GEORGE NEGUS: But go where?
SHIMON PERES: But, yes.
GEORGE NEGUS: But where would they go? If they leave their homes so they don’t get bombed, where do they go?
PERES: They get out of their house, it is enough, they do not have to
go anywhere. But if you have rockets, or dynamite in the house, what
can you do?
GEORGE NEGUS: Do you really believe that
the people of Hamas are so evil, if you like, that they would use their
women and children as human shields?
SHIMON PERES: We
saw it on our own cameras. You must understand, we are not wild
animals. Do we have an interest to touch a child? Are you crazy?
GEORGE NEGUS: So why do they? Why would they do that?
PERES: Because that is the only way for them to remain active. Because
they do not care about human life. You know, you cannot make a case,
where you have two people, one a murderer, one a victim. You say,
“Let’s investigate.” What do you have to investigate? We didn’t touch
them. We left Gaza. We supported them. We didn’t touch them. What do
you want to investigate? It’s clear.
GEORGE NEGUS: Mr President, it is always good to talk to you. Thank you for giving us your time again.
SHIMON PERES: Thank you.
NEGUS: Shimon Peres – the 85-year-old veteran of Israeli politics – at
his presidential residence here in Jerusalem. And the next chapter in
the Middle East saga, of course, are the elections here on Wednesday
and whether or not the new Israeli government is prepared to deal with
the enemy, Hamas.