TEL AVIV — "It's not yet a Shakespearean tragedy, where all the heroes are finally killed. It's more like a Turgenev tragedy, where all the heroes become tired or wounded."
A literary allusion to the state of the Arab-Israeli peace process seems appropriate to both the setting and speaker. The office of Shimon Peres is lined with thick tomes, and 20 more hardcover books sit on the former prime minister's desk, just to his right, ready for reading.
Mr. Peres, a veteran of half a century of Israeli politics, won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1994.
It has been exactly one year to the day since he was defeated in elections by right-wing Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of the Likud Party.
The evaporation of Arab-Israeli trust since then, says Peres in an interview, has been "tragic."
"I'm worried, but it's still possible to correct and to save the peace process, because the alternatives are not attractive to anybody," he says.
Mr. Netanyahu won the vote by a razor-thin margin, promising peace with security and by appealing to the concerns of many Israelis that the peace process was moving too fast.
But Israel's youngest and first directly elected prime minister has been unable to fulfill either promise.
Meanwhile, Peres has faced his own challenges. He was displaced as leader of the Labor Party two weeks ago by former Army chief of staff Ehud Barak, who is now the front-runner to succeed him in that post.
Despite calls for Peres to step aside after several bruising Labor defeats, he has refused to formally retire. To many Israelis, he remains a revered elder statesman.
A rival under siege
Offering little compromise, Netanyahu has rejected the "land-for-peace" formula of the American-brokered peace process, vowed that Israel will never return the Golan Heights to Syria, and defied international condemnation by insisting on building Jewish settlements on occupied Arab land.
Though these policies have pandered to far right-wing members of Netanyahu's coalition government, such groups are angry that "their" prime minister has not done enough.
A poll last week by the newspaper Ma'ariv found that 56 percent of Israelis now say that their country is sliding toward war, and less than a quarter say there will be peace.
Netanyahu's coalition - also buffeted by an influence-peddling scandal that nearly brought down the government last month - is concentrating more on survival than on progress, Peres says.
"1997 is the decisive year for peace, not the year 2000 [when the next elections will be held]," Peres says. "We are all watching the wrong time line and need a different tactic.... I'm optimistic in the long run because I don't think there is any coalition that is stronger than the march of history."
The current impasse began in March, when Netanyahu sent bulldozers to begin clearing a hill on the outskirts of Arab East Jerusalem at Har Homa, known to Arabs as Jebel Abu Ghneim, for Jewish housing units.
Palestinians protest that the building prejudices future talks on the status of Jerusalem. But Netanyahu says he is "proud" of the decision to build.
Criticism from Washington has been muted, but US officials recently released figures saying that up to 26 percent of settlement housing was uninhabited, undermining official Israeli arguments that Har Homa was necessary for "natural growth."
US Ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk has stated that the "core bargain" of the 1993 Oslo peace accords "has broken down."
Peres, who shared the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 with then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, says that Israelis "have the right to build in Jerusalem, but not the obligation to make mistakes."
Settlement expansion was put on hold when his Labor government negotiated peace. Jewish settlers were expecting at any time to be evicted from remote or hard-to-defend settlements as part of the peace deal.
'Ready for peace'
Peres says that Israelis are now ready for peace, despite antipeace protests that portrayed Mr. Rabin as a Nazi and created the atmosphere in which Rabin was assassinated by a Jewish extremist in November 1995.
"They are ready for all of it, but Netanyahu came in with a promise that he will make peace at lower cost," he says. "The problem is never with peace. But you have to pay a very heavy price, and that's what people don't like."
Intractable as the current situation is, Peres says he draws hope from the example of South Africa where 10 years ago, under apartheid, talk of democratic rule by the black majority was unthinkable.
"Such forgiveness has never happened before in history," he says. A South African acquaintance explained that 'there is a Nelson Mandela in each one of us.' [But in the Middle East] we start discussions as if there is a wild animal in each of us. It's not the case," he adds. "I think that if you have a different approach, you will discover a different echo."
The terror factor
Such an approach can be especially difficult when antipeace Palestinian groups Hamas and Islamic Jihad launch suicide bomb attacks. Four bus bombs exploded during Peres's brief tenure as prime minister. As he visited the aftermath of the attacks, right-wingers taunted him with calls of "traitor" and "murderer."
A blast at a Tel Aviv cafe in March has tested Netanyahu, who accused Mr. Arafat of breaching the Oslo accords by giving a "green light" to such attacks.
"I think Arafat should be responsible for security, but in a sense he is making a 100 percent effort and can't guarantee 100 percent result," Peres says.
"I say it not to defend Arafat, but to defend reality. Even when we were in charge, we couldn't achieve a hermetically sealed area," he says.
Still, Netanyahu may be unwilling to adjust his views so that he will find that "different echo."
"Netanyahu thinks the world will finally follow him. But the chances of it are very dim," Peres says. "The sun will always rise in the east and will always set in the west. None of us can change it."