TIME Israel

Exclusive: Shimon Peres on Peace, War and Israel’s Future

The 92-year-old former Prime Minister and President speaks his mind about the possibilities for peace under Netanyahu

The 92-year-old former Israeli Prime Minister and President Shimon Peres recently sat down with TIME in Tel Aviv for a wide-ranging interview about his career and his country’s place in the world. The following is the transcript of the conversation:

TIME: You’ve been in public life for about 70 years —since you moved to Israel. When you look back on the 70 plus years of public life you’ve lived—as a founder of the state of Israel, as an architect of the Oslo Accords—what do you feel most proud of?

Peres: The things I should do tomorrow. The things that were done were done—they belong to the past. I’m mainly occupied with the things that can and should be done tomorrow. That’s my main occupation, and this is my main hope, because we face quite a difficult situation. But if there are difficulties, there are also ways to overcome them. And I’m looking for those ways.

TIME: You’ve spent most of the last 20 or 30 years working toward peace. Are you still involved in any peace negotiations with the Palestinians in any way?

Shimon Peres, former Israeli President and Prime Minister, sits for a portrait at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, Israel, Feb. 8, 2016.
Oded Balilty—AP for TIMEPeres sits for a portrait at the Peres Center for Peace in Tel Aviv-Jaffa, Israel, Feb. 8, 2016.

Peres: I am actually involved in my own efforts to address peace. But I would like to make two remarks: one, peace today is different from peace yesterday because the world has changed. It’s become more global and more scientific than it ever was. Secondly, what people don’t understand, you don’t begin peace negotiations with a happy end. Keep the happy end for the end. You have to begin from an obscure, complicated situation. And it takes time. You always have to find some new ways. Old ways are too known. They have too many objections.

TIME: Do you think a two state solution is still possible?

Peres: I think it’s the only thing which is possible in order to bring an end to terror, violence and hatred. The Middle East is full of blood and disappointments and problems. The reason for it in my judgment is because the old age in the Middle East is over but not completely. And the new age in the world comes in. The Middle East is in a transition period. They did not divorce completely the old age. They did not enter completely the new age. The old age means fighting for territory, which is the main source of power and strength. But this calls for war. You cannot change the map without shooting.

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The new age is of science. Science is not achieved by armies. Science can be achieved and you can become great without having to make others small. There’s no room for a war. So it’s a great idea but it’s so difficult to divorce the past. We are so used to it. People prefer to remember. You feel at home in memories. People are reluctant to enter a new age. They don’t know what is in the new age. So you can see the changes. It is also expressed in two ways. The age of the people. Namely the young are more for the new age. The old are more for the old age.

TIME: What do you think is the great obstacle to peace? What do you think is preventing Israel from reaching a peace agreement with the Palestinians?

Peres: Usually when you have a disagreement, disagreement is produced by its own suspicion, hatred, mistrust. The greatest problem today is mistrust. Mistrust produces terror, and each side blames the other side. So it’s a machine that works for itself, and we have to bring it down. People will say it’s impossible, but that’s nonsense. We made peace with Arabs and we live in peace with Arabs. We made peace with Egypt, the largest Arab country. We made peace with Jordan, the nearest Arab country and it holds water for 30 years, 40 years. We started to make peace with the Palestinians but it was cut in the middle because the Palestinians remained divided in two different groups.

TIME: What was it like to negotiate with Yasser Arafat, whom you and most Israelis had until then considered a terrorist? How did you bring yourself to talk about peace with someone you thought was a terrorist?

Peres: Well, we tried before it to make peace with the King of Jordan, and we reached an agreement, but it was complicated because the Palestinians do not necessarily feel Jordanians. But when we reached the agreement it wasn’t approved by the [Israeli] government at that time. So we couldn’t continue with King Hussein, with whom we had started, and we had to look for an alternative. The alternative was Arafat. He was the most important Arab leader.

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Now you don’t elect the leader of the other camp. You have to find a way that you and him can meet and discuss. Arafat was a very special character. I sat with him hours and hours and hours, my god. He is not a fool, very far from it. He has an excellent memory. He can remember the date of birth of every person almost. The only thing he doesn’t like to remember are facts. I think that’s an extra load. So with him it was relatively easy to start but absolutely difficult to conclude.

TIME: Prime Minister Netanyahu has said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas is not a partner for peace. Abbas has met with the families of Palestinians who’ve killed Israeli civilians in attacks over the past several months. He told these families “Your sons are martyrs.” Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders pointed to that as proof that Abbas is not a partner for peace. Do you believe Abbas is a partner for peace?

Peres: Yes. Furthermore I think whoever you try to negotiate with is not a partner. You start from animosity, not from peace. The purpose of negotiation is to convert somebody who is not a partner to somebody who will be a partner. And you have to look for ways and means to achieve it.

But I do believe that basically among the Arab leaders, Abu Mazen [Abbas] is an outstanding man who really does want to commit to peace. I’m not saying that everything he does I completely agree with—of course that is not the case. But I think his basic declarations for peace and against terror are right from his point of view, and I found him to be a man who keeps his word on many issues. I negotiated with him for many years actually on the agreement between us and the Palestinians—the Oslo agreements—he and myself we were the ones who signed it.

TIME: So why do you think Prime Minister Netanyahu continues to say that Abu Mazen is not a partner for peace. Do you think Bibi is wasting an opportunity in Abbas?

Peres: Well, I don’t agree with Bibi. I think he’s mistaken. And it happens in a democracy you know.

Oded Balilty—AP for TIMEShimon Peres, former Israeli President and Prime Minister, stands for a portrait at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, Israel, Feb. 8, 2016.

TIME: You said that the main obstacle to peace is mistrust. But do you think the continuous building of settlements on land that is meant for a future Palestinian state is also a major obstacle to peace?

Peres: I think there are two different obstacles. One in the eyes of the Palestinians, and one in the eyes of the Israelis. In the eyes of the Palestinians clearly the settlements are the great obstacle. In the eyes of Israelis, terror is clearly the greatest obstacle. So we have two sorts of obstacles for reasons one can understand, and we have to overcome them.

TIME: What do you think is driving the latest Palestinian uprising?

Peres: It’s a mistake. You know, the Arabs tried to attack us seven times. What did they gain? They lost life, we lost life. Seven times, time and again, losing after losing. And the same about terror. I think it’s useless. You cannot achieve anything through terror. I cannot recall anything a terrorist achieved but killing people. So I think it’s a mistake.

TIME: One of your earliest roles in Israel was in the Hagana—Israel’s pre-state army. At that time, many Jews saw these Hagana members as “freedom fighters.” Do you see any similarity between Jewish freedom fighters who wanted independence for a Jewish state, and so-called freedom fighters on the Palestinian side who are fighting for a Palestinian state?

Peres: Well if you want to be a freedom fighter, you can fight politically, and not just militarily. You can achieve freedom by an agreement, not necessarily by killing. And that’s the reason why I thought the Arabs are mistaken and we told them so. But we didn’t have a choice to fight back once we were attacked. But when they look back I think they themselves understand that wars will not achieve it.

At the beginning they had a very simple position toward Israel. No recognition, no negotiations, never make peace with Israel. But after seven wars, they changed it. They started to look, maybe they can propose a peace proposal. It is a change showing again that blood is not necessarily the way to win. You know most of the revolutions in the world killed and killed and killed. Where are they? The empires they fought and fought and fought and where are they? So there are two ways and let’s watch them and learn from them. It doesn’t matter on whose side you are. You have to learn what can be achieved now in our present age.

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TIME: Very early on in Israel’s history you became the head of the Ministry of Defense and you went on to be the Defense Minister several times. In your early days, your role as Minister of Defense led to the establishment of some of the first settlements. They were established under your watch as Defense Minister, and you used to support settlements. You called them “the root and the eyes of Israel.” Do you regret supporting the creation of settlements?

Peres: The number of settlements that were established as long as we were in government were all told 21, the number of settlers were 6,000. I don’t think they were important. We did it because we were a very small people. And some of us had to be on the one hand farmers and on the other hand soldiers. And the military organization, the Hagana, had a special branch where soldiers were farmers. But then later on when the government changed, I think the Likud exaggerated the number of settlements and crated a new problem.

TIME: So do you think it’s hurting the chances of peace that Netanyahu continues to allow settlements to be built at an accelerated level today?

Peres: I think the way of peace is different. We have shown that you can make peace by peaceful means. And whoever tries something else is in my judgment misjudging the situation.

TIME: The U.S. Ambassador to Israel, Dan Shapiro, recently said that there are two standards of law applied in the West Bank —one for Jews and one for Palestinians. Do you agree with that assessment?

Peres: I don’t think that there is something like it in the law. But clearly the status of the Palestinians and Israelis are different. The Israelis are citizens in our own land, and the Palestinians are foreigners, because they claim foreign dependence. And the United Nations has recognized that they are due to be independent. So the difference is in the situation, not in the law.

But I think we need to bring the law to the point where it will fit equality. We don’t want to govern the Palestinians. We shouldn’t. Basically in my judgment, Judaism is based on moral foundations. According to it, if you want to govern somebody, govern yourself. Don’t govern anybody else. I think it is wise advice and we have to keep morality not just as a theoretic approach but to adopt it in real life. I don’t want that we should govern another people on land which was decided will go to them.

TIME: You were very close with the founder of the State of Israel, David Ben-Gurion. You were one of his closest aides and he was your mentor. He of course announced Israel’s Proclamation of Independence, and in that proclamation he said that the State of Israel should grant equality to all of its citizens regardless of race, religion, ethnicity, etc. Many Arab citizens of Israel believe that this promise hasn’t been fulfilled, and that Jews in Israel have more rights than Arabs, and that the two people are treated differently. Do you think Israel has fulfilled the vision of its founders?

Peres: Let’s first distinguish between Arabs who are citizens of Israel and Arabs who belong to the Palestinian Authority. In the law there is nothing to discriminate the Arabs of Israel, but I admit they feel discriminated. The basic reason for the discrimination is in economics. While the Israeli people adopted science and high tech, they stayed with the land, and it created a situation where the Israelis are better off than the Palestinians. Now we are trying to correct it. We are trying to introduce high tech and science in the Arab midst. And many of them are already engaged in high-tech. We are building accelerators in the Arab vicinities. We want to correct it. The government right now decided to allocate 50 million shekels in order to improve the economic situation. So it’s not a matter of law, it’s a matter of fact.

TIME: So you think the only reason Israeli Arabs feel unequal is because of their economic situation?

Peres: No, I don’t think that’s the only reason, I think this is the main reason. Basically Arabs feel more linked to the Arab world than to our world, and we feel more linked to the Jewish world. There is a difference in history which somehow affects both of us. I cannot deny it. But when it comes to law and justice or parliament, they are equals and should be equals.

TIME: The biggest charge against Israel —and President Obama has made this charge against Israel—is that if there isn’t a peace agreement soon, if there isn’t a two state solution soon, that Israel risks becoming an apartheid state because eventually the Arab citizens will become the majority, and Israel will become a state where the minority rules over the majority. Do you also fear that?

Peres: Many people worry about it, and rightly, because it’s a matter of demography, but I think we have to achieve a two state solution before it so we do not face it, so we can prevent it. It’s not automatic. If we will reach an agreement with the Palestinians and they will have their state, than this demographic shadow will disappear.

TIME: But if we don’t reach an agreement, do you fear that Israel could become an apartheid state?

Peres: Not apartheid. It will endanger us keeping our character as a democratic and Jewish state. Apartheid is more typical for Africa for different reasons, one of them is that it’s based very much on race. Here the difference is more national than race I think. But anyway, if it’s being called a different name it doesn’t matter. A mistake is a mistake. And we have to prevent it.

TIME: How did you go from being this military man, this hawk, to becoming the face of the peace movement? What made you change?

Peres: I didn’t change, I think the situation has changed. As long as there was a danger to the existence of Israel, I was what you would call a hawk. You know it’s not a simple story, because the United Nations decided to build two states: a Jewish state and an Arab state. Palestine and Israel. We accepted, the Arabs refused. Not only did they refuse, but they attacked Israel. And even the countries that voted for Israel refused to give us arms to defend our lives. We were in danger of disappearing and we had nothing. They declared an embargo against us. And on the other hand the Russians supplied arms to the Arabs.

So me as a young man and I think that was the reason why Ben-Gurion called me, was to find a way to create our self-defense establishment. And it was very very difficult, almost impossible. We had to work hard day and night in a creative manner to build our defense system. The minute I felt the Arabs are open to negotiation, I said that’s what we prefer too. We weren’t looking for war. We were looking for peace and security.

TIME: One of your other achievements throughout the years was creating Israel’s nuclear program. What led you to create it, and do you feel proud of that?

Peres: Nuclear power can be used for different reasons. You can for example desalinate water with nuclear power. You can create energy. When we came to Israel and started to build a state, we discovered that we had absolutely nothing in terms of natural resources. The land was tiny, the land was unfair to us, swamps in the north with biting mosquitos and malaria. Deserts in the south with stony land. We didn’t have water. Our major river has a great name—Jordan—but it has more fame than water. We didn’t have land nor water. We didn’t have neither gold nor oil. We couldn’t make a living.

So facing the absolute nothingness we looked for a way out and we discovered that one resource is still available. The human capital, the human resource. We found that people can contribute more to the land than the land can contribute to the people. So we discovered and built two new things: a new agriculture which is based on high-tech, and we produced our own weapons to defend ourselves.

Now I know that many people were suspicious that we were going to build a nuclear bomb and so on. All of a sudden we found that well, if they want to be suspicious, let them be suspicious. It’s a deterrent. You know the foreign minister of Egypt,Amr Moussa, we were very friendly. One day he says, “Shimon, we are such good friends. Let me go to Dimona.” Dimona is the place where the nuclear complex is located. “Let me go and have a look.” I said, “Amr, are you crazy? I’ll bring you there, and you’ll see there is nothing there. So you’ll stop to be afraid. You’ll stop to need deterrence. Why should I do it? You want to be suspicious? Be suspicious.” And then when President Kennedy asked me, “Do you have a nuclear bomb?” I told him, “We are not going to introduce a nuclear bomb into the Middle East.” And that’s the fact.

TIME: Some say that the idea that Israel could have a nuclear weapon might have caused Iran to seek its own nuclear weapon. Do you feel that might be the case?

Peres: Dimona helped us to achieve Oslo. Because many Arabs, out of suspicion, came to the conclusion that it’s very hard to destroy Israel because of it, because of their suspicion. Well if the result is Dimona, I think I was right. Anyway, we’ve never threatened anybody with nuclear bombs, and we’ve never tested it.

TIME: But do you think that could have caused a nuclear arms race in the Middle East?

Peres: What causes races and arms are human beings, not weapons. For example, if Switzerland would try today to have a nuclear bomb, I’m not sure people would be very concerned. But when you have Ayatollahs who call for the destruction of Israel and even for the destruction of the United States of America—“the big Satan and the small Satan”—that is a very dangerous combination. If you call to destroy and kill and you have weapons that can destroy and kill, that’s a danger.

TIME: Do you think the best solution to the Iranian nuclear problem was the deal that was reached by President Obama?

Peres: It’s a fact. I know many people objected it, and like every agreement, there are probably some problems. But today—and I was glad that one of our best soldiers, the Chief of Staff [Israeli Defense Forces Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot] said it—we have to look at the opportunities that were created afterwards. And undoubtedly this agreement created opportunities. And even the Iranians themselves, they said they wanted to conquer the Middle East and so on and so forth. They tried and they see it’s not so simple as they think. They’re now taking out some of their forces. You cannot conquer a region that is unconquerable in the present situation.

TIME: Support for Israel in the U.S. has historically been very bipartisan. A lot of support from the Republican side and the Democratic side for Israel. In the last year polls have shown that there is more support for Israel within the Republican party than the Democratic party. A lot of people say that this is a result of Netanyahu’s relationship with Obama and the disrespect he showed to him by speaking against the Iran deal in Congress. Do you think Netanyahu has hurt Israel’s relationship with the U.S.?

Peres: I don’t want to go into personal attacks, but I shall say very simply: the right thing was to have the bipartisan support. There is no reason today that we shouldn’t have it. And anything that endangers it is a mistake. Because I believe that we enjoyed something so unique and promising, having the two parties support the State of Israel in a very difficult time. We should continue to do whatever we can to keep it as a bipartisan effect.

TIME: Back to the peace agreement with the Palestinians. There are few Israeli politicians left who believe in the creation of a Palestinian State today. What do you think a Palestinian State would look like today? Would East Jerusalem be its capital?

Peres: Well the decision should be done on their own frame. There are many ways to solve it because basically Jerusalem is a religious center for all the great three religions in the world. I think it should be open to all prayers, no matter if you’re prayer book is Muslim, Christian or Jewish. That we have to guarantee at first. The rest of the arrangements should be within the overall agreement. And among the options people mention are only the known options. I learned in my life that if you have two options, both of them known, the chance of overcoming them are very small. Because every option creates opposition on either side. So you have to look for a new option, a creative one.

In my life, most of the things I did were out of the box. So I can imagine that we can find an agreed solution. We don’t have to go to war. And I don’t feel that I have to announce it ahead of time. Why should I create another opposition. I think if we go into negotiations and both sides are sincere, we can find a solution. There’s one thing people don’t know: The Temple Mount, which is the center of this conflict, all told is less than two square kilometers. That’s it. It’s a tiny piece of land. And there are churches, and mosques, and synagogues. What I can say clearly that I would recommend is that every holy site should be under the administration of the religious group they belong to. To enable them to pray, to be free. The rest of the things we have to find some answers which are not simple, but they’re available.

TIME: Do you think Jews should be allowed to pray at the Temple Mount?

Peres: I think the Muslims should manage the Mosque, and the Jewish should manage the Wailing Wall. And they shouldn’t enter our places and we shouldn’t enter theirs.

TIME: But outside of the mosque, since that’s just one small part of the Temple Mount compound, do you think Jews should be allowed to pray outside of the mosque?

Peres: Well yes but under the same rules that they can go elsewhere. Basically every administration should decide on those who enter and leave. But I can’t imagine that one religion will not permit the prayer of another religion. What, if I want to visit a church, they won’t let me? If I want to visit a mosque, they won’t let me? We should not let them to visit? Why not? But the religious administration should belong to the proper religion.

TIME: So you believe the Muslim authorities that administer the Temple Mount should allow Jews to pray there?

Peres: First of all, it’s an undecided issue among the Jewish people too. There are important rabbis who think we shouldn’t go to pray on the Temple Mount because it’s not clear historically where the great synagogue was located, and we are not decided on that. But clearly the Wailing Wall is part of our history.

TIME: In the last Israeli elections you endorsed Prime Minister Netanyahu’s rival, Herzog, calling him “a level-headed leader who is reliable and full of responsibility and dedication to the Israeli public.” Would you use those same words to describe Netanyahu?

Peres: Well I oppose Netanyahu. We fought one against another. So what do you want me to praise my opponent? Personally we keep a fair relationship. Politically we don’t see eye to eye. And I didn’t change my mind.

TIME: Do you think Israel would be in a better place internationally if Israelis had elected Herzog?

Peres: It’s not a matter of personalities. It’s a matter of politics. I think that Netanyahu should have followed what he said he is for, namely the creation of a two state solution. The fact that it wasn’t created is not to his credit. He says “I am for two states.” He’s already seven or eight years Prime Minister and nothing was done or moved. So I’m clearly critical about it. Yes.

TIME: Do you think Netanyahu really does support the creation of a Palestinian state?

Peres: Well why should I decide instead of you? I learned one thing: that a leader should be judged not on his speeches but on his record. Speeches are all to make an impression. Records are establishing facts. So I would judge every leader not by what he has said, but what he has done or avoided doing. That’s the only way to judge a person. I think for a leader the problem is never what to be but what to do. To be you can have a title, public relations, whatever you want. But you’re being judged by what you do.

TIME: Do you think Israel is safer today than in 1996 when you were last prime minister?

Peres: Israel will become safe when the skies over the Middle East become blue again and not filled with the red colors of killing, and the terrible news of refugees. When I see the young men and women of Syria being forced out of their homes it is a tragedy for all of us.

TIME: But do you think Israel is safer today than it was 20 years ago?

Peres: You cannot measure it. The fact that Israel is strong, yes. The fact that Israel is alone and a minority, yet didn’t lose a war makes her stronger, yes. But Israel will be stronger when she will achieve peace. This is our main purpose.

TIME: For many Israelis, especially on the right, Oslo is a dirty word. It’s hard to imagine that the Israeli public of today would get behind a two state solution. Do you worry about that?

Peres: We saw it already. There were times when the right was against a two state solution. They change their minds. I don’t think people are living in a refrigerator just to keep their coolness. The world is changing and opinions are changing. And I’m not terribly impressed by the polls. I’m following the American example now.

The polls are saying one thing and the people are saying a different thing. Usually I think polls are like perfume. Nice to smell, dangerous to swallow. I never swallowed polls. I think that if the polls are bad, try to change them. They are changeable. They are not permanent. Anyway if the polls would have been taken in Sinai 3,500 years ago, I’m not sure that Moses would have a majority. You know, people have to get used to new things.

TIME: For the last four decades or so, you’ve been the face of the peace movement. And today there aren’t many mainstream politicians coming out in front of a two state solution. What do you think is the future of the peace movement? Do you think the peace movement has a leader today?

Peres: If you ask me, to whom does the future belong, to the people who knife somebody else to kill, or the people who pray for peace, I am telling you that the prayers are stronger than the knives. I think the right things are stronger than the wrong things. And I’m regretting every loss of life. And I think the world is in a transformation as I’ve said. Unfortunately it’s not completed.

TIME: Do you think there is anyone in Israeli politics today who could carry on your legacy, and lead the peace movement?

Peres: Not out of humility, I’m telling you I know people are better than me. And I’m sure they can do it and will do it.

TIME: Who?

Peres: If I shall do it I shall make an official name of them and that can kill them. You asked me if there are, believe me there are. But it’s for them to decide to appear not for me to make them appear. Many of the young girls and boys are very reluctant about politics today. Look at what’s happening in the U.S. today with the Trumps and the Sanders. It’s a protest against the system I think. So let them appear. You need a little bit of courage. And a little bit of courage is not excess baggage. And to have imagination and to try.

TIME: What is your biggest regret in your political life?

Peres: My greatest mistakes were to dream too small. But I suggest people who ask me for advice, dream great. Don’t hesitate.

TIME: What is the future of Israel without a peace agreement?

Peres: We will see terror, bloodshed, hatred, victims, everything. But you know in my lifetime I saw many things that people said they are unsolvable. Apartheid. People said apartheid you cannot change. Look what happened. Look what happened to communism. Look what happened to fascism. I don’t believe that the wrong is eternal. It is killing. It makes everything ugly and I’m sure that the newly born people, every generation time and again, wants to change it and get rid of it. Terror cannot achieve anything.

So the choice is between having a solution which is humane, just, right, and that is a two state solution. We shouldn’t run the lives of the Palestinians. And I think it will come and win sooner than maybe most people think. If not, we will see all the time the spread of terror it is really creating and objection around the world. There is no solution but a just solution. And a just solution is not I’m ruling you, you’re ruling me. And I believe it will happen. The alternative will force it to happen.

TIME: Many Israelis are critical of President Obama. What do you think of him, his presidency, and his attitude toward Israel?

Peres: I think he is a great leader, a great president and Obama too should be judged by the record. He did things that people didn’t believe he could do or can do, beginning with the health care initiative. The climate. The fact that America is not dependent on the oil of the Middle East. The economy was improved from 10% to 5% unemployment. He made a solution under the given circumstances to Iran that prevented a war. He said he would try his best not to make any more wars and he did this too. And I think he is a man that has principles and he stood up on his ground. He explained what he was going to do, he did what he explained.

I didn’t say he didn’t make mistakes. That would be inhuman. But he did great things above the average. And I think the history books will judge him as a great president. Everybody in Israel knows when it comes to the major issue of Israel, her security, he answered all of our calls. And he was consistent. And he was really the best we could have asked for. And we have to say thank you.

TIME: What is the consequence of Israel and the Palestinians not reaching a peace agreement?

Peres: If there won’t be a two state solution, it will be ongoing violence and tragedy for all sides, for all people. The opposite to just is wrong. And you cannot compare it. Two states can bring peace. The lack of two states can prevent peace. And nations without peace, people without peace are going to live in a terrible tragedy, totally unnecessary.

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