Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres has spent five months as an awkward partner in Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's hawkish government. A Nobel Prize winner for his efforts to bring peace to the Mideast, Peres now has to defend Israel's sharpening response to Palestinian violence. He spoke to NEWSWEEK's Daniel Klaidman and Dan Ephron the day after Israeli helicopter gunships struck ferociously at the West Bank town of Nablus last week, killing several members of the militant Hamas group as well as two Palestinian children. Excerpts:
NEWSWEEK: Israel received a very stern rebuke from Washington for the Nablus strike that killed eight Palestinians. Your reaction?
SHIMON PERES: We don't have a policy to kill or punish anybody. The only policy we do have is when we don't have choice in the domain of self-defense, and we have to defend our lives. Unfortunately two children were killed. It gave us much pain, because usually in that sort of operation measures are being take so no civilian will be hurt. To this very day we don't understand what really happened. So this made the whole story controversial against our own wishes. But in politics you have to choose between alternatives...Once [a suicide bomber] is on his way to an attack, nothing will stop him. You can't threaten to kill him, because he is ready to be killed...The only chance to stop him is at his first station.
Perhaps the problem with this policy is that it sentences people to death based on information from the army and intelligence sources, and not on evidence brought before a court?
How can you bring them to court? Which court? They are not under our jurisdiction. The Palestinian Authority doesn't exercise its right to arrest them. They let them go free.
For the record, is this a policy that you support fully and unequivocally?
It is not a policy, we don't have any policy like it, and it is not a policy. We hope we shall not have to use it at all. There are exceptional occasions that we have to make it our choice, but to say this is a policy, no. To say that this is a system, no.
We have heard from American officials both here and in the United States some reservations about Israel using American technology, mainly the high-profile American weapons in these targeted killings. To what extent has this been an issue?
I don't think there was any issue. There was a single occasion of using the F-16 [in retaliatory airstrikes against targets in the West Bank and Gaza in May] and that's it.
Helicopters can be bought all over the world, this is nothing special. The F-16 [fighter jet] was a very special exception, we don't intend to do it in the future. We were very reluctant to do it, because again it was a case when we had a warning in two hours that a bomb will be exploded. I don't suggest anybody should envy the choices we have to make.
For those who know your position as head of the peace movement, your partnership with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon is quite difficult to understand. What is your justification for going into this government?
If you will take the record of the five months in this government, it has accepted the Mitchell report [the peace blueprint brokered by former U.S. Sen. George Mitchell in its totality. I am not sure if [this would happen in] a one-party government. It has decided on a unilateral cease-fire. It has decided to act with restraint in the face of the most provocative provocation....I feel myself responsible...to bring an end to blood, to fire and to hatred. I could either have remained in the opposition and delivered speeches, or I could have tried to join in a government...in order to achieve a policy which I believe is the right one, and that is my choice.
The polls also show that if you run with Sharon today, you would win.
My purpose is not to win, my purpose is a policy and not a position. I feel that I am not looking for party gains, I am not a contender and not a competitor and I am not a post seeker.
Is that one reason that you feel comfortable serving with Sharon--someone with whom you have had your differences?
Our differences remain and we have to air them out all the time. We disagree and we argue and we try to reach a responsible agreement or compromise. I didn't divorce my views, I didn't change them, I didn't even promise that I will not fight for them--on the contrary.
It seems there is a nice chemistry between the two of you--better than your chemistry with previous prime ministers.
We [have known] each other 53 years. I remember Sharon as a young officer that I brought before [first Israeli Prime Minister David] Ben Gurion. Sharon was an impressive young officer... Since then on many occasions we did not agree, even until this day. But personally we try very much to avoid to making it into a personal jealousy or vendetta.
Do the two of you find yourselves talking wistfully and nostalgically about the old days?
No. I think, myself, nostalgically about the future, not about the past.
Do you have the authority to restrain the Prime Minister or the cabinet the next time there is a big bombing and there is an overwhelming push in the cabinet to strike back?
The only weapon I have is reason....I don't have a majority [in the government] and I am not a superman, I am only trying to explain what I believe is best of the country.
Is there a point where you would say, 'I no longer can be a part of this government?'
The minute that I shall see that there is no more hope for peace.
This government has been around for five months. What is its biggest accomplishment so far and what is a key mistake that the government has made?
Mistakes I shall leave to the opposition. Why should I do their job? I think the acceptance of the Mitchell report was a big accomplishment.
Let us in a little bit on your discussion with the Prime Minister about the Mitchell report. There have been reports that the Prime Minister said a few weeks before it was presented, that it posed a grave danger to Israel.
I am not going to enter into any of the deliberations that took place...Deep in my heart, I believe the policy we introduced about settlements is in a way, if somebody would think about it five months ago, they would think it is impossible. But quietly what was done, is: we don't establish new settlements, we don't confiscate land to extend existing settlements. We agreed to freeze all buildings in existing settlements outside the already-built place. Every building in the built place requires the approval of the Minister of Defense. We have dismantled the illegal settlements.
Would you say this is a stricter anti-settlement policy than the previous government had?
Yes, 100 percent.
Why doesn't Yasir Arafat perceive it in that way?
I don't know. But the answer is that he is mistaken, he is also capable of making mistakes--as he did in Camp David. He has made a lot of mistakes.
Many people say this government is fairly popular because they feel that Israel has tried the younger leaders, the digital leaders, and they want to go back to older, more experienced leaders. Your view?
To be old is not a particular advantage.
Notwithstanding the burden of this office and the difficult times that the country is experiencing now, do you enjoy this job?
Like one enjoys a nightclub, no sir. But if you ask me if I feel right with myself, yes. I feel I have had to do it. It is my obligation and finally you know, contributing gives you more pleasure than collecting.
There were some rumors in the Israeli press awhile ago that things were going so well with you and Sharon--and that you were so popular--that you might run together for office. Will you?
I am not running for office. This month I am going to be 78, and at this age you are no longer enchanted by offices or positions. You know how empty it is or unimportant it is. Fight for causes, never fight for offices.
Has Sharon tried to persuade you to change your mind and run with him?
He tried to. I told him [it was] in vain.
Tell us more.
He said jokingly, "we can run together."
There was a poll that showed the two of you getting 60 seats and redrawing Israel's political map.
Polls are like perfume, nice to smell and dangerous to drink. I don't drink perfume.