Edmund Sanders
The Los Angeles Times (Interview)
June 23, 2010 - 12:00am

Reporting from Jerusalem

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that his nation's policy on the Gaza Strip has not yielded the results the government expected, and he criticized municipal plans to tear down 22 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for redevelopment.

But the 86-year-old former prime minister vigorously defended Israel's overall policies as vital to its security, saying international critics don't face the daily threat of terrorism. He spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday in his Jerusalem office.

As Israel prepares to ease the land blockade of Gaza — even though Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in custody and Hamas is still in power — many Israelis have been asking whether the economic embargo over the last three years achieved anything tangible. Did it?

Israel wanted to tell the Palestinian people that [Hamas rocket attacks against Israel] would harm them. But with two reservations: first, that it not become a collective punishment and, second, that it not create an inhumane situation. So we measured everything. Is there enough water, enough food, enough medical supplies? I've seen reports about the situation in Gaza and the narrative was extremely negative. But when you looked at the people, they dressed properly. The markets were full. It was a contradiction. It's not by accident that there was not a humanitarian crisis. We felt responsible. But Hamas is the one who destroyed everything. That is being forgotten.

But did the Israeli restrictions on civilian goods and supplies help further Israel's policy goals?

I can't answer that, and I don't know if that's even important. We'd hoped for more. We'd hoped that once out of there [after Israel's 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza Strip], we would be out. But once we left Gaza, we couldn't understand why they were bombing us. We were seriously surprised by the reaction. I still don't understand. If the rulers of Gaza would demilitarize and de-terrorize Gaza, there would not be a problem. The fate is in their hands.

Some worry Israel is entering another period of international isolation. Turkish relations are on the rocks. The U.N. is pushing for an international inquiry into the May 31 flotilla raid. We've seen cultural boycotts. At the same time, some Western allies are angry over Israel's alleged misuse of passports in its spy operations. Is Israel losing its friends internationally?

The fact that [outsiders] are pressing us doesn't mean that they're right. There is an attempt to delegitimize Israel. It's quite easy. The Arab bloc has a built-in majority in the United Nations. We never stand the slightest chance.

But I ask myself the following question: If they are delegitimizing Israel, who are they legitimizing? They legitimize Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaeda too. They don't mean to. But if you delegitimize the fight against terror, which is very complicated, the consequences are that terror is being legitimized.

Isn't that an oversimplification? Is criticizing Israel's policies and practices the same as delegitimizing Israel?

Criticism is one thing. But when you say, "Go back to Poland. Go back to Germany," [as American journalist Helen Thomas recently said in a widely condemned remark] that's not criticizing. Or when they say Israel doesn't have the right to exist, that's not criticizing.

That was one woman's outburst. That's not the kind of thing people mean when they talk about Israel's isolation.

What would they like us to do? We agreed to a two-state solution. We agreed to ease the situation in the West Bank. We are easing the situation in Gaza. And there are still acts of terror. Countries that have to fight terror understand what we are doing. Countries that read about it don't understand. It's very hard for a person in Switzerland to understand. But the United States, they understand. We have a biography that no one else has. In 62 years, we've been attacked seven times in an attempt to [destroy] us.

On the isolation of Israel, I don't think it's true. There have never been better relations with the Vatican and Israel. Take India, we have excellent relations because they suffer the same thing we do.

The U.S. has always been a friend too, but President Obama appears to be setting new terms for that friendship. He's pushed Israel to stop settlement construction and signed a resolution calling for Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty over Israel's objections. Is this a new kind of friendship?

The friendship between Israel and America remains. Obama was fair enough to say that on some points he was mistaken. And we should say the same thing, on some points we were mistaken. To be friends you don't have to agree 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. I don't think this is a crisis.

The whole [tension] was about building or not building in East Jerusalem. The prime minister has said that we are going to build in places where we've been building for 44 years [when the West Bank was occupied by Israel after the 1967 War] and refrain from building in those places we haven't built in [for] 44 years. There are 21 Palestinian suburbs that we've never built in.

Even now, in Silwan, the mayor wants to build [an archaeological park and retail center over the site of 22 Arab homes] and the prime minister called the mayor [in March] and said wait.

The U.S. is opposed to that project. Is building a park in East Jerusalem worth antagonizing Israel's most powerful friend?

The mayor says this is his responsibility, and he thinks he's doing the right thing for Arabs. But in order to do the right thing for Arabs, the Arabs should look on it as the right thing.

The American policy traditionally was that there are some places in East Jerusalem that we should not build in. But we built. There was an understanding that these unsettled areas will be settled in the peace agreement.

I think we should have behaved accordingly, namely to build where we have already built and not build where we have not. There was a clear distinction. We didn't build in Arab suburbs. And finally, that's what's happening now.

Some people have raised concerns about Israel's democratic space shrinking. Polls recently suggest a lack of trust in courts. Half of Israeli school kids don't think Arab Israelis should serve in the Knesset or have equal rights. Government critics, or those expressing different viewpoints, are sometimes subjected to personal attacks. As a founder of Israel, are you worried about the state of democracy?

The problem is that when you are in a state of war, and some citizens feel part of one side and some citizens feel part of the other, there are tensions in a democracy. But the fact is there are Arab members of the parliament, and they are outspoken like in no other parliament.

Don't forget Israel is a very heterogeneous society. We've come from the four corners of the world to build a people. We've increased in size 10 times. So we don't yet have the traditions and behavior that comes with time.

I don't think there is any danger [to democracy]. In 62 years and seven wars, there has not been a single day that we've postponed freedom. People are not put in concentration camps like they are in some democratic countries. Even in the U.S., Japanese were in camps when you were at war with Japan.

Some Palestinians have called Gaza one big concentration camp.

How? We left Gaza and didn't leave any guards behind. Have you heard of a concentration camp that fires thousands of rockets at us?

Tensions between Israel's ultra-Orthodox and secular communities erupted again over the Emanuel school desegregation order by the Supreme Court. Where is the broader religious-secular struggle headed? Is this something that one day could tear Israel apart?

No. No matter what people declare, there is basic agreement that there is just one law in Israel, not two laws. It's the law of the state. The [Jewish religious] law of Halakha is voluntary, but it's not overriding.

Second, nobody can impose religion on anyone else. You can be Jewish, or religious or secular. The complication is not in the relation between the state and religion. It's between religious parties. It's there that the clash begins. But in principle, there is one law.

Some ultra-Orthodox would agree that there is only one law, but they say it's religious law that trumps the state.

If they want to educate their children in a different way, they can make a private school. The state will not pay for it. The law of the land is that all schools that are supported by the state cannot have any discrimination or any separate system of education.

There's renewed speculation and negotiation that the centrist Kadima Party, currently in the opposition, might join the government in a new coalition. Should they?

I think yes. When you have a difficult situation, unity is a good remedy. But it's a very complicated political structure. The tradition for many years in parliament was that the major parties had the majority. It's the first time a major party doesn't have the majority. They have to negotiate with smaller parties. [Regarding Kadima joining the coalition,] I don't think it will happen. I'm in doubt.

People say the Labor Party in Israel is dead and the left wing, in general, is struggling to survive. Are they right?

That is an early judgment. In other countries, the difference between left and right is economic and social. In Israel, it's been "two states" [the position of the left] or "one state" [the position of the right].

What's happened is that the right has adopted the call of the left [by endorsing a Palestinian state]. That's confused the division. So the left feels they've won ideologically, but they are not winning politically.

How is Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu doing?

My mentor, David Ben-Gurion, told me there is only one way to judge a leader: by the record and what he did. Netanyahu has two important things on his record. He agreed to a two-state solution, and by doing so brought an end to the ideology of the right wing, and he introduced what is being called the economic easing in the West Bank. That's a serious record. I give him credit. I have been prime minister enough times to know that, contrary to the general perception that the prime minister runs the realities, it's the realities that run the prime minister.

Your role in Israel has evolved into an elder statesman. What do you see as your contribution today and your future political plan?

For 60-odd years, I was in administration as minister, prime minister, God knows. When people ask me where I spent my time, I answer: facing friction.

Friction among people, among institutions, among parties. Maybe 40% of the energy of any prime minister is spent on facing friction. I was a most controversial person. I had clear views, but they didn't necessarily charm immediately the majority of the people. They accused me of many things. Now that I'm out of administration, I've discovered an option that never existed. That's the option of goodwill. Sitting here for three years, I've hardly heard the word no. I don't need administration. The principle of the presidency is not to run things, but to support.

I used to be the most controversial. Today, I'm the most popular. I don't know which made me happier. I really don't know. I like to confront. I don't think leaders should please, they should move ahead. Leadership is not about being on the top. It's about being out in front.


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