Shimon Peres, the foreign minister of Israel since July 1992, has been politically active since 1941 and has in that time filled seven cabinet-level positions, including prime minister and defense minister. In recent years, he has articulated a vision of the "new Middle East" where economic prosperity reduces political animosity; toward this end, he initiated the Oslo process that culminated in the PLO-Israel Declaration of Principles. The following interview, conducted in English on December 27, 1994, in Jerusalem by Ranan R. Lurie -- the editorial cartoonist of Time International, the most widely syndicated political cartoonist in the world today, and a senior adjunct fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies -- makes clear that Mr. Peres remains one of the most staunch defenders of the embattled peace process.
Middle East Quarterly: Foreign Minister Peres, you told me personally, some time ago, that the Jewish settlements in the West Bank will have to consider living under Arab rule. Do you still think this way?
Shimon Peres: Yes.
MEQ: You do?
Peres: Yes, eventually. If you'll check, most of the things I told you came true.
MEQ: You say that you have convinced Chancellor Vernitzky of Austria to help Arafat. How?
Peres: Austria and Israel are working on a special plan to bring a number of greenhouses to Gaza . . .
Peres: A greenhouse is a hothouse, a place where you grow vegetables, flowers.
MEQ: Gaza is not suffering from ice, is it?
Peres: Suffering from heat, from the sun.
MEQ: Did the Austrian Chancellor insist on the money be checked about the way it's being spent?
Peres: Yes, we are now making arrangements for what is being called "Transparency Accountability."
MEQ: Are the Palestinians grateful for your trying to help them?
Peres: Many of them, but not everybody.
MEQ: Should there be elections among the Palestinians today, would Hamas win?
Peres: I don't know why Hamas should participate in the coming elections.
MEQ: Because they are Palestinians.
Peres: OK. Suppose they will win. What are they going to do with their victory? Shoot at us? For that they don't need a victory, you see. They need rifles. They need bullets, not ballots.
MEQ: Will they stop the peace process?
Peres: And then what are they going to do? Their whole existence is based on unreasonableness. So what do they need to win for?
MEQ: The reasonable thing for them to do, is to get, through Arafat, from the Israelis whatever he can without effort, and then they can proceed with the shooting for the rest.
Peres: OK, let us say that the shooting is what they should do. So, they don't need elections. If they want to have an exchange, if they want Arafat to get whatever he can, so let Arafat be elected.
MEQ: Wherever Palestinians had elections, in the Gaza Strip or the territories, during the last several weeks, the extremists won . . .
Peres: That's not true. No. Just a couple of weeks ago, there were elections near Gaza and the PLO won 76 percent.
MEQ: I beg to differ. I think it was not the PLO but Hamas that won.1
Peres: You may beg to differ but it won't change the fact that the PLO won. They'll say it was Hamas that won. But I don't see that it has anybody who can oppose Arafat.
MEQ: They may dramatically choose to elect their leader who is now in Israeli prison?
Peres: For that you don't have to have elections. He's already "elected."
MEQ: Elected by the Israelis?
Peres: By himself. He could have gotten out of prison if he had condemned terror, which he didn't.
MEQ: Just a hypothetical question. Let's say that Hamas runs, let's say that it wins, let's say it takes over democratically fair and square. What happens to the peace process?
Peres: Well, if it is against peace, so the peace will not be continued. If it's for peace, we shall go ahead.
MEQ: With whoever . . . ?
Peres: Whoever is for peace, we shall negotiate with him. If he'll be elected. But I think it's highly hypothetical.
MEQ: If a democratically elected leadership has been elected by the Palestinians, will you work with them only if they accept the Oslo process?
Peres: How else can we work with them? How can you work with killers?
MEQ: When do you anticipate the elections in Gaza, Jericho, and the territories?
Peres: If things go well, within the upcoming year. The situation on the West Bank is more complicated than Gaza because of the spread of the Jewish settlements. From a political point of view, the West Bank looks like a bed full of nails.
MEQ: Every settlement a nail?
Peres: Yes. Wherever you want to lie down, you have nails. So we have to work out a highly imaginative plan, then there will be elections. The new changes will take a couple of months.
THE ARAB STATES, TURKEY, AND IRAN
MEQ: You recently proposed that Israel would join the Arab League.2 Do you still think it's a good idea?
Peres: I think their league should be called Mediterranean League, and then Israel can join it. We are not going to become Arabs, but the League must become Mediterranean.
MEQ: The Secretary of the Arab League gave a fairly unflattering answer suggesting that Israeli Jews should become first Muslims and then they would be considered for the Arab League.
Peres: Well, that also shows that it belongs to the past.
MEQ: What belongs to the past?
Peres: This announcement. The Arab League is part of the past. There is no room for an Arab League.
MEQ: When I interviewed the late President Turgut Özal of Turkey, he proclaimed that should there be peace in the Middle East, Turkey would see to it that all the Middle East would get Turkish water. Are you familiar with this statement?
Peres: Well, we need water before peace, not after peace. The supplying of water is part of the peace process.
MEQ: Well, he said that once there is peace you can speak about laying pipes.
Peres: It's one of the options, no doubt. You also can desalinate, you can recycle . . . there are many technologies and his is one important promise. But you see, for example, if you make peace with Jordan, you cannot have yet Turkish water, because the Turkish water has to traverse Syrian territory.
MEQ: Syria is still considered a terrorist state on the State Department's list. Does it really make sense to cut a deal with President Hafiz al-Asad, who rules not by the will of his people, but by the violence of his soldiers? Once he dies, who knows who is going to replace him?
Peres: Well, the system of government is transitional, peace is permanent. So even if you don't like the system, peace remains the main option.
MEQ: Do you know that Asad appointed his son, an eye surgeon, as commander of the Armor Corps?
Peres: I'm not impressed. It doesn't bother me.
MEQ: Is it feasible that he's prescribing glasses to his division now?
Peres: Maybe, but I don't think that for the time being he has any real war option.
MEQ: Since Jordan signed the peace treaty with Israel, do you feel it has been ostracized by its neighbors, is under pressure?
Peres: I think the situation didn't change much. Jordan has always suffered from a snobbish attitude on the part of her neighbors. She was in fact already isolated [before the treaty with Israel].
MEQ: In the war against Iraq, Iranian soldiers wore keys on their necks to open up the Garden of Eden; they engaged in suicide missions to blow up the American Marine barracks in Beirut and an Israeli city bus in Tel Aviv. How can you deal with such fanatics?
Peres: They are not illogical. Fundamentalism is a way of protesting against poverty, corruption, ignorance, and discrimination. So if you want to bring an end to it, you have to approach the roots of it, the reasons for it. You cannot kill poverty with rifles. You cannot finish discrimination with guns. You have to have a new economy, a higher standard of living. And that is what we are trying to build in the Middle East.
MEQ: Can you give me your assessment of when Iran might have the nuclear bomb?
Peres: The enigma of Iran can hang over our heads for the coming ten years, unless Khomeinism will fall, which I believe will happen.
Peres: It doesn't have answers for the problems of Iran. Khomeini called for an increase in the birth rate. Since Khomeini came to power, Iran has an added 22 million people. They don't have food, they don't have money. Their international debt is $60 billion. Unemployment is rising, the mullahs themselves are divided. Sooner or later they will come down.
1 "On December 5, 1994 Hamas won a sweeping victory in the elections to the students body of the Islamic University in Gaza. Its candidates received 91.48 percent of the votes," Ma'ariv, Dec. 6, 1994.
2 "There is no doubt that Israel's next goal should be to join the Arab League," Ha'aretz, Dec. 21, 1994. #1