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Shimon Peres Pushes Iran Talks in Peace Quest as 90 Nears

Israeli President Shimon Peres
Israeli President Shimon Peres said, “If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed; if you do try, you’ll fail occasionally, that’s natural in my eyes.” Photographer: Simon Dawson/Bloomberg

Diplomacy and negotiation should be given more time to solve the crisis over containing Iran’s nuclear program, according to Israeli President Shimon Peres.

“To be honest and responsible, I wouldn’t recommend that the attempt to prevent the Iranians from having nuclear weapons should be started by shooting,” said Peres, 89, interviewed at his official residence in Jerusalem last week. He spoke before the election Friday of a new Iranian president, Hassan Rohani, who has promised to work to end his country’s isolation.

The emphasis on negotiations contrasts with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s view that “only a credible military threat” would deter Iran from building a bomb.

Peres’ optimism that a diplomatic solution can still be found to defuse tensions with Iran is emblematic of a political career often viewed more positively abroad than in his own country. The president, who is celebrating his 90th birthday at an international conference in Jerusalem beginning today, has won as many critics as supporters for his insistence that peace between Arabs and Jews is not a pipe dream.

“Peres has been a divisive figure, with supporters viewing him as a visionary, and detractors as a fantasist,” said Abraham Diskin, political science professor at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “Though some of his visions have been fulfilled, others were not, and his final legacy will depend on history’s judgment.”

Failed Peacemaking

Peres doesn’t hesitate a second when asked what has been his biggest disappointment in a seven-decade political career that predates his country’s 1948 birth.

“My greatest hope -- if you can call it a disappointment - - is peace,” said Peres. “I still think it’s the most important thing for us, for the Arabs, for our mothers, for our children.”

Peres is best-known internationally for the role he played in the secret negotiations that yielded Israel’s first accord with the Palestinians in 1993. That agreement won him a Nobel Peace Prize the following year, along with Yitzhak Rabin and Yasser Arafat, then the Israeli and Palestinian leaders.

Much of the region is mired in turmoil two decades after Peres prophesied a “new Middle East” born of the historic accords he promoted with the Palestinians. Still, the Nobel peace laureate remains optimistic he’ll see his dream fulfilled.

Regional Changes

“There are changes -- maybe not as dramatic as I would like them to be -- but there are changes,” he said of the Middle East, singling out what he calls an “Arab peace camp” headed by Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas.

Peres, who is not supposed to delve into politics as president, speaks more highly of Abbas than the current Israeli government does, viewing him as a partner for peace. He also responds more warmly to the Arab peace initiative, which proposes normalizing relations with the Arab world in exchange for Israel’s return to borders it held before the 1967 Mideast war, saying he appreciates it as an “opening position.”

Peres’ position on the sidelines of policy-making frees him to be more outspoken in his assessment of the Syria conflict than Israeli officials determined to appear neutral in the battle between President Bashar al-Assad’s forces and rebels. The United Nations, Peres said, should insist that the Arab League organize peacekeeping forces to take control of Syria while a transition government is formed.

Election Losses

The Polish-born former leader of Israel’s Labor party held every major ministerial position, while failing four times to win election to the premiership outright against more hawkish rivals. He earned a two-year term in 1984 as part of a rotation agreement with Likud incumbent Yitzhak Shamir, and succeeded the assassinated Rabin in 1995 before losing office in May 1996 to Benjamin Netanyahu, who now sits again in the prime minister’s seat.

During that brief tenure at the helm, Israel drew fire for a military operation against Lebanese militants that was meant to end shelling of Israel but backfired when more than 100 civilians were killed by artillery shells that hit a United Nations compound.

Entering the final year of his seven-year term as president, Peres has finally found in this ceremonial role the wide Israeli public appreciation that eluded him in his political career.

Restored Dignity

As president, he’s been credited with restoring dignity to an office tarnished by predecessor Moshe Katsav, who resigned in disgrace and later went to jail on a rape conviction.

Peres, who oversaw the development of Israel’s nuclear reactor in Dimona while deputy defense minister in the 1950s, sees nothing hypocritical in his country’s insistence that Iran’s efforts be curtailed. Under a policy of nuclear ambiguity, Israel has never publicly acknowledged having atomic weapons; defense publication IHS Janes includes it in its list of nine nuclear states.

When Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa was head of the Arab League, he asked Peres to take him to the Dimona reactor so he could “see what you are doing there,” the president recalled.

“I told him, ‘Amr, are you crazy? I would take you to Dimona, you would see there is nothing there, and you would stop being worried -- which means I would have to start being worried. I don’t mind you are worried.’ We are not threatening anybody; we are being threatened.”

Entertainers Feting

While his actual birthday is Aug. 2, Peres’s 90th is being celebrated this week in Jerusalem to coincide with an annual policy conference organized by his office that attracts prominent public figures from abroad. In addition to more typical guests like former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev U.K. prime minister Tony Blair and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, this year’s festivities have drawn entertainers Barbra Streisand and Sharon Stone.

One conspicuous absence will be British physicist Stephen Hawking, who canceled his participation last month to protest Israel’s settlement policy in the West Bank. “Such a distinguished scientist must learn the facts,” said Peres, adding that Hawking “should be oriented toward the future, not the past.”

His own orientation toward the future led Peres to become a pioneer supporter of Israel’s burgeoning technology industry, and he personally promoted electric car network developer Better Place Inc. to its partner, Renault. Peres rejects the notion that Better Place’s bankruptcy announcement last month damaged Israel’s image as a “startup nation.”

“If you don’t try, you’ll never succeed; if you do try, you’ll fail occasionally, that’s natural in my eyes,” Peres said.

Israel’s president is chosen by parliament for a single term. Among the possible successors to Peres floated in the media is Bank of Israel Governor Stanley Fischer, who steps down from that role at the end of this month.

“He would be an excellent candidate, but I can’t take a position,” Peres said. “I can say that I have the highest regard for Stanley Fischer. He is a real man, he is knowledgeable, a real public servant.”

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