Israel's Only Option Is Peace, Says Ex-Premier


The words of Israel's best-known architect of peace are spoken softly - so softly that they are almost inaudible across his steaming cup of tea.

There is no threat of arrogance here, no suspicion of a hidden agenda behind the disarmingly quiet manner. Instead, every crease in Shimon Peres's worn face seems to demand trust - perhaps the most important requirement as he worked to forge peace between long-battling Arabs and Israelis.

But Mr. Peres's calm nature belies the significance of his vision of a "New Middle East," in which peace is the means of security. The Arab-Israeli wars have boiled down to two facts, he says, which make further war futile: Israel can no longer be eliminated, and Israeli victory on the field is "forever out of reach." So Israel's only option is to make peace.

"It is no longer a story of man against arms," he said in an interview. "It's a more complicated story of technology against man."

Tactical maps today must be measured "ballistically," because it is the "range and precision of the missile warheads that counts. It creates a lot of changes." Old Israeli defense requirements, such as controlling territory for "strategic depth," have become pointless.

Peres has twice been prime minister, served as defense minister, and was Israel's foreign minister during first contacts with Palestinian and Arab leaders that led to the 1993 Oslo accords and then peace with Jordan.

He shared the Nobel Peace Prize with Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin - assassinated in 1995 - and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat. Behind Peres's desk sits the citation, in Latin, for peace - a rare enough icon in this region.

Succeeding Mr. Rabin, Peres found that peacemaking and holding power did not sit so easily together. During his brief rule, Israeli agents killed the "Engineer," a bombmaker for the extreme Palestinian group Hamas. That sparked a series of bus bombings that killed scores of Israelis, led to the breakdown of the peace process, and eventually led to Peres's electoral defeat last year by right-wing rival Benjamin Netanyahu.

In the midst of it all, Israel bombarded southern Lebanon for two weeks. The operation achieved little military advantage, but an Israeli artillery barrage of 36 shells on a United Nations post at Qana killed more than 100 refugees there. Those lessons were sad confirmation for Peres that "there are no 'win' situations in wars, since the sources of strength and power are scientific and technological, and the armies can't conquer wisdom, nor can they control education," he says.

Peace with neighbors is crucial if Israel is to confront dangers that face the whole region, Peres says. The biggest threat comes from Iran, he says. The "worst scenario" would arm Islamic extremists in Iran with missiles and nuclear warheads to hit Israel. "They are a member of the United Nations, but have declared a $2.5 million price on the head of Salman Rushdie for writing a book," he says. "So what do you expect, when in their eyes some of us are collective Salman Rushdies?"

An alliance must be formed of possible victims, he says, and "there are many Arab countries that fear falling under the whim of the ayatollahs. They are as worried as I am."

Peace for Israel doesn't mean diminishing its military power, however. The Arrow anti-missile defense - Israel's most expensive defensive weapons system, which is being jointly developed with the United States - and other military spending should continue, he says.

These systems don't reflect "old" Middle East thinking, he says, but a deterrent. "We have to have a strong military posture, but simply to support a flexible policy," he says.

There could be no better example than Israel's nuclear facility at Dimona, in the Negev Desert, which Peres was instrumental in setting up in the early 1950s. Israel denies even having a nuclear-weapons program, but Peres himself has come closest to publicly revealing Israel's secret. "Give me peace, we will give up the nuclear capability. That's the whole story," he told Israeli newspaper editors in 1995. Israel is estimated to have the world's sixth-largest nuclear arsenal, 100 to 200 warheads.

Dimona was a "moral choice founded upon a realistic basis," he says, which helped persuade Egypt to sign a peace deal in 1979 at Camp David. "Israel's nuclear capacity is a matter of suspicion, but as long as suspicion can serve as a deterrent [to Arab attack], then it is a deterrent."

Peres tells a story about Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa to show the deterrent effect and its impact on the peace process.

" 'Shimon, we are such good friends,' Mr. Moussa once said. 'Would you mind taking me out to Dimona to show me what is there?'

"So I told him: 'Imagine you will come and discover there is nothing. Then I am lost. So how could I take you?'

"The purpose of Dimona was Oslo: to create a situation where we can sit and talk sense," he adds quietly. "I don't think I ever, ever had any other intention."

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