Shimon Peres: 'Practically All of Us Were Hawks'

Israeli President Shimon Peres, 85, is the last remaining founding father of the Israeli state still in office. A hawk who helped build Israel's military-industrial complex, in recent years Peres has been a leader in the search for peace with the Palestinians. As part of Israel's 60th-anniversary celebrations, Peres is hosting a conference this week titled "Facing Tomorrow," which will be attended by President George W. Bush and other dignitaries. Last week Peres looked forward as well as back in an interview with NEWSWEEK's Lally Weymouth in Jerusalem. Excerpts:

Weymouth: Is there a realistic chance of peace with the Palestinians?
I think we have to follow a two-track approach—one political, the other economic. We have unbelievable economic proposals as to how to make accommodations between us and our neighbors. In the political negotiations, the gaps are not very great, but they are highly emotional. It will be extremely difficult to put them on paper because each party looks to its own audience and will be very careful not to appear as losers. (Article continued below...)

So do you think you should be focusing on improving the day-to-day lives of the Palestinian people rather than trying to achieve a political agreement?
Both. The economic coordination depends upon three [parties]—the Jordanians, the Palestinians and us … What I think can be done is to take the whole length of the border between us and the Jordanians and the Palestinians and convert it into a free-trade zone. We can create close to a million jobs, change the standard of living, solve the water problem which is becoming catastrophic for the Jordanians, Palestinians and us, and build a new era.

What should be done about Gaza?
I think the ones who will change the situation in Gaza will be the people of Gaza. They are getting tired of Hamas. They say, "What the hell are you doing to us?" They are looking for a ceasefire.

As a young man, you were head of manpower under Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion. Your assignment was to purchase arms for Israel, but the United States had imposed an arms embargo on your country. Sam Bronfman in Canada helped you. How did you meet him?
I went to his office without an appointment.

You just rang the bell?
Yes. I was in my 20s and was head of our mission in the United States.

You persuaded Mr. Bronfman to help you?
I told him that we wanted to buy surplus guns from the Canadian government. So, being a businessman, he asked me how much they were asking. I said, "Two million dollars." He said, "It's too much. We can cut it." Then he called up the minister of Commerce and Industry, C. D. Howe, in Ottawa and started to yell, "Two million dollars? Haven't you any shame? I want to see you." So Bronfman took his Cadillac and the two of us went to Ottawa. In Howe's office, he started to argue. My God! The poor Howe said, "OK, we shall halve it. Instead of 2 million, 1 million."

Then Bronfman asked me, "Where are you going to get the other million?" I said, "From you." He wanted to kill me. He called up his wife and told her, "Tonight at 8 o'clock we will invite 50 people. Everyone will pay $20,000. We need a million dollars." In the evening we had a million dollars.

A few years later you made a deal with the French Defense Ministry to sell Israel arms. These arms were crucial to Israel's survival in the '67 war.
Yes, the '67 war, the Sinai war and part of the Yom Kippur war. They gave us old arms. There was an embargo on arms sales by the United States, Great Britain and France. While Russia supplied free arms to the Arabs, we didn't have any guns, tanks or planes ... So I went to France and started to work. Finally, they were convinced. All of a sudden France opened up to Israel. It changed the whole situation.

Now you are known for your dedication to the search for peace. But when I first interviewed you in 1981, you were still hawkish.
Half of Israel was under the impression that the Arabs would not make peace with us. As long as they thought they could overpower us, they wouldn't make peace. So practically all of us were hawks. The minute that Israel showed its muscles and proved that you cannot overcome [it was] the first time we saw some chances for peace. And then we went over to the other side. It's not that I changed my character. I found a different situation.

Do you worry for your country on its 60th anniversary when there is such a scandal around your prime minister?
The prime minister is innocent until it will be shown otherwise. But, what shall I say? Better a democracy with scandals than an authoritarian system without scandals.

What do you believe should be done about Iran's nuclear program? After all, you were once the creator of the military-industrial complex here, including the Dimona reactor.
We never said we were going to wipe anybody off the map, but they have. It's not a problem of nuclear capability but of political intention.

What do you think about that?
I think it's terrible. I think today [Iranian President Mahmoud] Ahmadinejad is becoming more and more a problem for the world, not only for Israel. Sooner or later, the world will wake up.

You told me once that you've known every U.S. president since Harry Truman. Is that correct?

So, how does this president impress you?
I think Bush did something which is very courageous. And that was to topple down Saddam Hussein. Imagine today that we would have in the Middle East both Ahmadinejad and Saddam Hussein. The problem with the Europeans is, they are right but they are always late. And here to be late is to be wrong.

What about President Clinton?
Clinton was a friend. Bush's father was a friend and President Ronald Reagan was a friend …

Reagan could conquer your heart in five minutes by his modesty. You couldn't meet Reagan without being equipped with an anti-Russian joke. And you could be sure that he had another one.

The title of your conference this week is "Facing Tomorrow"?
Yes. I think the world has changed, the Jewish world has changed and Israel has changed … I think that relations with the Jewish people shouldn't be based so much on finance but rather on intelligence and intellect, arts and spirit. Because, after all, it's not the pocket that enriches our minds. It's the mind that enriches our pocket and we are looking too much to the pockets and not enough to the minds.

We want to be citizens of the world and not just followers of our faith. We would like to be as old as the Ten Commandments and as new as nanotechnology.