Israel’s elder statesman and Nobel laureate, Shimon Peres, told a rapt audience at the Kennedy School of Government’s John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum that terrorism – “a swamp made of desperation” – will not prevail, and that a peaceful co-existence between Israelis and Palestinians is possible in our lifetime.
“The whole world is lucky that there is a United States that has the will and the power” to win the war on terror, declared the 81-year-old Peres during the forum event on Oct. 20.
Introduced by Harvard University President Lawrence H. Summers as a “central figure in the political life of Israel,” Peres is the current head of Israel’s minority Labour Party, which he helped establish in 1969. Peres has been a member of the Israeli Knesset since 1959 and over the years served in top leadership positions including defense minister, finance minister, foreign minister, and Israel’s prime minister. In 1994, he shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Yasser Arafat and then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, as one of the architects of the Oslo Accords peace agreement between Israel and the Palestinians.
The soft-spoken Peres expressed his support for the Sharon government’s “unilateral disengagement” from Jewish settlements in the Gaza and parts of the West Bank starting in 2005, and expressed confidence that the Palestinian intifada is near resolution.
Achieving peace in the Middle East, he said, cannot be left to future generations. Most Palestinians accept the road map drawn up in 2004 and Israel’s right wing is now more willing to make compromises. Such compromises on both sides are critical, he said.
“Everybody is for peace but not everybody likes to make peace, because of the cost of it,” Peres said. “At war … the people are united. But peace is a different story … you have to negotiate with your own people. They say, ‘Why did you give away so much? Why were you so quick in making concessions’ If you want to make peace, don’t win too much. Peace is not winning, peace is living together.”
Peres expressed his support of the U.S. war in Iraq as necessary to future stability in the region and the global war on terror. He said terrorists are not fighting for a cause but are staging a deadly protest against the modern way of life.
“I think they are afraid modernity will destroy their way of life,” he said. “They want to destroy everything that is modern. But … they don’t have a chance to win it. You cannot go back to the age of stone, or even to the age of land.”
The war on terror is not a war against Islam, he stressed. While terrorists may come from “Muslim surroundings … there is not a contradiction between being modern and being Muslim.” He cited Turkey as a modern Islamic state that has introduced democratic reforms without interfering with people’s practice of their faith.
Peres was asked what he would say to Yasser Arafat in a one-on-one conversation. Peres answered that he would tell him there are fundamental differences between running a “grandstand organization” and running a government. In the former, “you don’t have to be strict with the truth. In a government, you must tell the truth. In a grandstand organization, you can do what you want. In a government, you have to have standards.
“Fighting for freedom is one thing, achieving freedom is another.”