“Not a Threat—More Than a Threat.”

Israeli President Shimon Peres on whether his country will attack Iran, how to resolve the Syria crisis, and the jokes he told Ronald Reagan

Shimon Peres is assisted at the podium after being honored with the Presidential Medal of Freedom June 13

Photo by Mandel Ngan/AFP/GettyImages.

President Obama presented the Medal of Freedom to Israeli President Shimon Peres Wednesday at a dinner at the White House. The last surviving founder of the state of Israel, Peres went on to serve as prime minister and leader of the Labor party, and he received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his role in the Oslo Accords, the first Israeli agreement with the Palestinians. The morning after the White House dinner, Peres sat down with Lally Weymouth at Blair House to discuss Syria, Iran, and U.S. presidents from Kennedy to Obama. Excerpts:


Weymouth: What is your view on Syria right now? What should the world do?
Peres: They say that there is reluctance to remove President Assad because they don’t know what the alternative is. But Assad is no longer an alternative—he is finished. He cannot be an alternative, neither from a human point of view nor from a political point of view. It’s over. The problem is: Who should handle the transition? Who should take care of replacing him? I think that Kofi Annan’s idea of a combination between the Arab League and the United Nations is not a bad one.


You like the idea of combination of the United Nations and the Arab League?
Annan says he is a representative of the United Nations and the Arab League. It’s the first time in history that something like this is happening. Why wouldn’t you suggest that the United Nations give a mandate to the Arab League to change the system, instead of the Arab League advising or complaining? It’s an Arab question. Whoever will intervene, they will say it’s a foreign intervention. Let them do it, and the United Nations will give them the mandate and the support.

So, you don’t think it’s a question of whether the West should arm the opposition?
If the West arms the opposition, they can say it is a war of the West. It’s an Arab question. There is an Arab League, the Arabs have armies, they have got a mandate from the United Nations for a transitional period of time to have elections. Let them handle it and get rid of Assad. They attack Assad. They say they cannot stand the way he is killing children. The time has come for the Arab League to take responsibility and not just criticize others. You don’t want an intervention, OK. You want the support of all the nations, OK. Then go and do it. That’s what I suggested to the president and Secretary Clinton.


What did they say?
They showed interest. I didn’t expect an answer on the spot.

You could ask why did NATO intervene in Libya? What’s the difference?
The difference is that the Libyans killed Qaddafi. It wasn’t a Western force. The uprising was Libyan. And now in Libya they got rid of Qaddafi but they do not yet have an alternative.

How do you see the Middle East in the midst of Arab Spring?
I think the Middle East is in a transitional period. We have to bring into account two policies. One is the transitional policy—I don’t know how long it will take—and the other is a permanent solution. In the transitional policy, you have to handle [countries] case by case. There is no common denominator. When you handle [countries] case by case, you cannot forget [the interim policies] should lead to a permanent solution.

So now let’s take it case by case. Now we are coming to Egypt. The uprising in Egypt was initiated by the young generation. The uprising achieved two things. One is it made the lives of dictators impossible. Today if you are looking for a safe job, don’t become a dictator. That was done by the young generation. Secondly, they pushed the countries to go to elections. But when it came to elections, they weren’t prepared, so they lost the elections. Neither the winner nor the loser thinks they have reached a permanent solution. The winners because they don’t know to save Egypt from the economic situation.


Do you mean the Muslim Brotherhood or [presidential candidate] Ahmed Shafiq?
The Muslim Brothers. They don’t have a solution to the economic or security situation in Egypt because the army enjoyed a sort of independence. If you dismantle the army and submit it to the Muslim Brothers, who will give them arms? Egypt has very serious security problems, including the future of the Nile, the distribution of the water of the Nile, and the situation in the Sinai. It’s one thing to be a preacher and it’s another to be a strategist. This was a victory of preachers, not of strategists.

Let’s take a simple problem: One of the most important branches of the Egyptian economy is tourism. No bikinis, no tourism. So they have to decide what to do.

Egypt’s treaty with Israel is at stake.
Yes. With that they will be careful because they understand that even if you pray, you need food for breakfast.

What happens to the treaty?
I think they will be very careful not to dismantle it. These uprisings have nothing to do with Israel. Israel isn’t the reason, and Israel isn’t the solution.


What is going to happen with Iran? It has been reported that you are against bombing Iran and in favor of sanctions.
My own assessment is that the Iranians are beginning to feel the impact of the economic sanctions. But deep in their hearts they think they will be able to split the camp that knows that a nuclear bomb in Iran is dangerous. So they will build on the split. And that is the reason why they are going into negotiations but not negotiating.

You believe Iran is hoping for a split between the U.S. and part of Europe, for example?
Even wider than that. What is wrong with the Iranians in addition to the nuclear bomb? This is the only country on earth in the 21st century that has renewed imperialistic ambitions. They really want to become the hegemon of the Middle East in an age that gave up imperialism.

Would you be in favor of a military option?
The problem is the following: If we would say only economic sanctions [will be imposed], then the Iranians will say OK, we will wait until it will be over. Now what the Americans and Europeans and Israelis are saying is if you won’t answer the economic challenge, all other options are on the table. It will not end there. Without that, there is no chance that the sanctions will [work].

Without the threat of military action?
Not a threat—more than a threat. The Iranians must be convinced this is not just a tactic.

Do you think anything will come out of the nuclear talks with Iran?
I am in doubt, but otherwise people will say: Why did you go to war, why didn’t you try something else? You have to go through the motions to show your own people that you are not trigger happy. On the contrary, you don’t exclude the possibility that you will have to use the trigger.

Would you say Israel would strike alone or the U.S. would strike?
I think the United States is the leading force today in the world. There are things Israel cannot do that the Americans can do. For example, whatever will be the action, the problem is who is going to guarantee the verification so that it won’t be repeated? Israel can’t introduce such an inspection.

Israel can’t bring in the IAEA, for example?
Yes, and the United States and its allies can. The United States never acts alone—it always goes in coalition. Even today Obama is building a coalition. Clearly I believe he would like the Russians to be in, not out.  

Will Prime Minister Netanyahu have a better chance to restart the peace process with his new, large coalition?
The wider the coalition, the better the chance to reopen up negotiations with the Palestinians.

I heard that Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas have been exchanging letters in an effort to restart the talks.
Yes, I hope this will bring results.

Do you still believe that most of the Israeli people would favor a settlement with the Palestinians?
I haven’t changed my mind. I think Abbas is a partner, and I think we can achieve peace with him. We have to try to do our best. The present government is beginning now to see if it can re-establish a contact. The problem between us and the Palestinians is the following: They are not talking about negotiations. They are talking about the opening of negotiations. You cannot negotiate without an opening. The complicated issues may take time. What can be done immediately is to open negotiations.

Do you think the present government will do this?
It depends not only on them but also on the Palestinians. I think there is a chance they can reach such an agreement.

What do you think of the proposed Palestinian unity government between Hamas and Fatah?
You can’t have a National Unity Government if you don’t have an agreed policy [between Hamas and Fatah]. A unity government means you have to have an agreed policy.

Do you think the unity government is bad for peace?
I think it is impossible. I spoke with Arafat for hours and hours and told him if you won’t have one rifle, you will never be one people. You to be one people with one rifle and one policy to use the rifle. You can’t be negotiating with two contradictory forces.

Was President Truman the first American president you met?
Yes, but the first president I met to talk to was Kennedy—and then Johnson and Nixon. Kennedy called me when I was deputy minister of defense and it was exceptional that he would receive the deputy minister. But he invited me in 1961 and I came through the rear door accompanied by Ambassador Avraham Harman. Kennedy started to question me like a machine gun. It was the day our chief of intelligence resigned. All of a sudden Kennedy said, “Do you have a nuclear bomb?” I said Israel will not be the first to introduce a nuclear bomb in the Middle East. After the meeting, the ambassador said how dare you give such an answer. And then I got a cable from Prime Minister Levi Eshkol saying why did you say this? Three or four weeks later, it became the official policy of Israel. So I think I said the right thing.


Last night President Obama said you had done more than anyone to foster the U.S.-Israeli relationship.
[I have had] many interactions [with U.S. officials]. One was with President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger. On matters of war, I think they trusted me. Then with President Johnson—I accompanied Eshkol to visit Johnson. Johnson had a huge glass of milk before him and the red telephone under the milk. Johnson turned to Eshkol and said, “The United States stands four square behind you.” The problem then was that America gave tanks to Jordan. Eshkol asked why? Jordan has an alliance to attack Israel. Johnson said there is an embargo, we can’t do it. The suggestion then was that Germany would give us American tanks. Eshkol suggested and Johnson agreed that I should be the negotiator.


Now to tell you about a Republican president with whom I was extremely friendly—that was President Reagan. He conquered my heart, and we developed a personal friendship. We had a way of meeting—in every meeting Reagan told me an anti-Russian joke and I had to bring from Israel also an anti-Russian joke.

When I am speaking about American presidents I have to speak about my very special relations with President Clinton. He contributed more to peace than anybody else in the American sense.

Do you believe Obama is not friendly to Israel?
I don’t accept it. He could have given the medal to anyone from 200 countries. The fact that he selected Israel is a most unusual choice and I trust that the man understands what the Jewish plight was—the fate of the Jewish people. I said yesterday in my remarks that America is the only power that became powerful by giving and not by taking. The only nation that understood that generosity is a great policy.