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Interview With Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres

Aired May 11, 2002 - 17:30   ET


ROBERT NOVAK, CO-HOST: I'm Robert Novak. Al Hunt and I will question Israel's chief diplomat.

AL HUNT, CO-HOST: He is Foreign Minister Shimon Peres.


HUNT (voice-over): As Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon met with President Bush at the White House, word was received of a Palestinian suicide bombing near Tel Aviv that killed 15 people. The prime minister immediately returned to Israel.

ARIEL SHARON, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: The battle continues and will continue until all (UNINTELLIGIBLE) will believe that they can make gains through the use of terror will cease to exist, will cease to exist. Israel will act strongly.

HUNT: Israeli tanks pulled up outside the huge Palestinian refugee camp at Gaza. That raised the question of a U.S. reaction to a new Israeli military operation.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have no doubt in my heart that given the nature of Yasser Arafat, that even if the light that was given by President Bush is yellow, it will change into a green light, and a very strong and powerful green light.

RICHARD BOUCHER, STATE DEPT. SPOKESMAN: We recognize that Israel has the right to defend itself. We do not in any way give Israel the green light for military action. We do counsel Israel to consider the consequences of any actions they might take.

HUNT: Shimon Peres moved to Israel from Poland with his parents at the age of 11. He joined the Haganah defense forces at age 24 and spent his early career in the Defense Ministry, rising to the rank of defense minister. He is now serving as foreign minister for the third time, following two separate stints as prime minister.


HUNT: Foreign Minister Peres joins us from Rome. Thank you for coming in, sir.

Mr. Minister, the policy of the Israeli government has been to respond to acts of terrorism. There was, of course, the terrible suicide bombing the other day near Tel Aviv. Yet reports in the paper today are that the Israelis either have put on hold or perhaps may even shelve any retaliation. Why?

SHIMON PERES, ISRAELI PRIME MINISTER: Well, we don't have a policy of retaliation. We have a policy of prevention. I mean, after all, we left all of the cities out of our own free will, and we don't have any intention to go there back and reoccupy them.

We are acting in accordance with very specific information about centers of terror or people who are trying to organize terror, and our reaction is functional rather than territorial.

HUNT: Has the United States either encouraged or pressured Israel not to go into Gaza?

PERES: Usually, on military operation, we don't consult the United States. We don't think the United States should take any responsibility.

By and large, the administration understands the need of Israel of self-defense, of trying to prevent acts of terror. They made a note of cautiousness, namely that this will not destroy the future of the peace process. But after we too, we are not looking for a plain military victory. We are looking for an opening of a political road (ph).

HUNT: Well, in looking for that right now, is it your view that it is therefore unlikely that there will be any incursion into Gaza in the next few weeks?

PERES: I wouldn't like to make any commitment publicly about something which is purely professional. But I repeat what I am saying, we don't have in mind to conquer cities. We have in mind to prevent terror.

NOVAK: Mr. Minister, the mayor of Jerusalem, Mr. Olmert, was quoted this week as saying that Yasser Arafat lusts for Jewish blood. If that's true, it's very difficult to have any kind of negotiations with him.

Do you think Mayor Olmert is correct in saying that?

PERES: I would use a different language. I mean, our accusations -- my accusation against Arafat is that he doesn't prevent terror. We have signed with him an agreement in Oslo where he has committed himself to air out our differences by dialogue, not by shooting, and we expect him to do so.

We feel that the weakest point in the Palestinian making is the fact that they have three or four or five dissident, armed groups. And each of them is shooting on its own in a different direction and, by doing so, destroying any possibility of having a joint agenda. It is because if it, I believe, that the United States, united Europe, as well as us, we demand that the Palestinians will establish a single authority over all arms -- all armed groups or use of arms. Otherwise, we shall not be able to move ahead. NOVAK: Nevertheless, sir, Dr. Condoleezza Rice, the national security director, says that Arafat has been elected by the Palestinian people, and whatever his shortcomings, he is the only person that there is right now to deal with.

NOVAK: Do you think that is a fair statement of reality?

PERES: Yes, I think it is for the Palestinians to elect their leaders, not for us. We cannot elect them, we cannot fire them, and we shouldn't pretend that we are going to do so. It's impossible.

In life, you cannot choose neither your parents nor your neighbors, and we have to deal with the actualities of the situation.

But what Arafat has to understand, that democracy is not just an election. But what is happening on the moral (ph) of the elections, if you have a proper government, a separation of authorities, a transparency in the use of money, and a central command, as I have said, over arms (ph).

NOVAK: Mr. Minister, has Israel reached the point where it believes that in the short future there will have to be a Palestinian state, not a mere entity, but a state with all of the trappings of sovereignty and the ability to run its own affairs?

PERES: I can speak for myself and answer absolutely yes. Israel, in order to remain a Jewish and democratic state, will need for the Palestinians to be organized in a state of their own for the simple reason that we don't want to dominate their lives. It doesn't go with our history.

And also, in order to keep the demographic division, we have to have a geographic partition. We don't have a choice.

So I believe that the Palestinian state is inevitable, and to my taste, it should happen as soon as possible, the earlier the better.

And when I think back on Oslo, I feel maybe we were mistaken by not offering straight ahead to the Palestinians an independent state of their own.

HUNT: Mr. Minister, do you think it would be helpful now if the Israeli government were to pull back to dismantle some of the settlements in Gaza and even in the West Bank, and do it unilaterally right now?

PERES: You know, there are more than one view about it in Israel. But considering the present majority, I'm not sure that this is possible before negotiations, but I do believe it's possible as a part of the negotiations. So once we shall start to negotiate, this can be on the agenda. And actually, in what President Clinton has suggested, there was a certain solution about the settlers and the settlements.

But we can -- I believe if we shall start to negotiate, there are two or three things that we can tell the Palestinians right, straight ahead. We can tell them, "Look, we are contemplating to recognize the Palestinian state, A. B, the borders of the Palestinian state will be based on 242 and 338, which is a United Nations resolution and the repetition done by the Madrid conference and the basis of peace between us and the Egyptians and the Jordanians. And three, on all other issues, we're ready to enter immediately into a meaningful negotiation in order to look for proper solutions."

NOVAK: Mr. Minister, one more question before we take a break. Up until last Tuesday, several Israeli officials were saying that the military operations in the Palestinian territories had really cut off the suicide bombings. And then we had this terrible suicide bombing, which took 16 lives last Tuesday.

NOVAK: Is it fair to conclude that the military actions of a conventional Israeli defense force can never really prevent a suicide bomber from killing innocent people?

PERES: I think most of us feel that we cannot have a hermetic achievement concerning the suicide bombers. And I think many of us, including the minister of defense, has said it during the operation. In order to finally (ph), the solution must be political, because even the suicide bomber has an emotional side to it. And independence and politics and economy belongs to the motivation of people to live together or to shoot at each other uninterruptedly.

NOVAK: We have to take a break, but when we come back we'll ask the foreign minister of Israel about a possible United States attack on Iraq.


HUNT: Mr. Peres, no one has better intelligence in the Middle East on terrorism than the Israelis. From what you know, do you think that Saddam Hussein was involved with Al Qaeda in any way on the attack on the U.S on 9/11 or in the subsequent anthrax letters that were sent to prominent citizens here?

PERES: I really can't give you a precise answer.

But I believe that Saddam Hussein is as dangerous as bin Laden. I don't see a real difference. Here is a person that has declared twice in the 20th century a war, once against the Iranians for seven years -- a million people lost their lives -- then against Kuwait. Another 300,000 people lost their lives. He is killing, he is threatening, he is trying to achieve non-conventional arms.

Now, if he would be in your suburb, in my suburb, what would we do? Would we let them run free and crazy?

HUNT: Mr. Minister, I think there is a widespread consensus in your country and in this country that Saddam Hussein is a very bad man. But my question again is, do you have any knowledge or evidence that he was involved with Al Qaeda or bin Laden in the 9/11 attack or in the anthrax letters?

PERES: I can't answer the question because I don't possess the precise answer. I can check it and let you know. I wouldn't like to give just, you know, an answer and there (ph).

NOVAK: Mr. Minister, the secretary of defense, Dick Cheney, on his Middle Eastern tour, was told by several Arab countries that the United States had better not move military against Iraq while the Israeli-Palestinian problem was still in a crisis stage. Do you think that's good advice?

PERES: I'm not sure. Maybe a change in Iraq can facilitate a better solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. It's not so clear that there is a simple answer.

But Iraq is an issue in their own right, and a very terrible one. I think that everybody is a little bit impatient because there is a feeling that Iraq is developing nuclear weapons. They possess chemical weapons. They possess biological weapons. They are building missiles. And simply, you cannot sit and wait for meeting this challenge. NOVAK: Is this...

PERES: But...

NOVAK: Go ahead, please.

PERES: I mean, I think what happened recently is of significance, namely the establishment of a quartet that compromises the United States, the united Europe, Russia and the United Nations. If they will act in concert, I believe it can help a great deal to solve the conflict within the Palestinians and us, and maybe create a front vis-a-vis the Iraqis.

NOVAK: And you don't believe that a U.S. attack on Iraq would have a negative impact on the people who are trying to cooperate with the United States -- the Jordanians, the Saudis, the Egyptians?

PERES: Well, I'm afraid that in the Middle East, we have more one answer to a single question. One is being announced, the other is being felt. And I wouldn't judge the attitude of those nations just by their rhetoric. I think, deep in their heart, many of them of are terribly worried about this phenomenon which is called Saddam Hussein.

PERES: And like anybody else, we would like to see him gone.

HUNT: Mr. Minister, the perpetrator of the latest suicide bombing apparently was from Hamas. How important are Saudi Arabian contributions to Hamas in that organization's ability to conduct terrorism?

PERES: It's very important, and it's very important they will cut it. They say they give it to the families of the suicide bombers that were killed.

But, you know, all civilizations -- Muslim, Christian and Jewish -- cannot accept the killing of people by a person that kills himself as part of our civilization. I see how the Catholics are fighting, for example, abortion. If you fight abortion, you must fight also suicide bombers and also the Muslims. It's really a problem. And if it won't be stopped completely and clearly, it may spread over as a private war arriving in the most unexpected places.

HUNT: Mr. Peres, if this suicide bomber, as many think, came from Gaza, which is an area surrounded by desert and by Israeli forces, doesn't that raise serious questions about a very popular proposal, as you know, to put up some kind of a fence or a wall around the West Bank in order to make the country safer? Doesn't that suggest that that wouldn't work?

PERES: I believe that there is no real answer to the terror and the war by building walls or building fences or having trenches. We must arrive to an agreement, to a solution. Nowadays, relations among nations is more important than guns and tanks and their borders. And we shouldn't take it lightly.

We have seriously tried to reach an agreement with the Palestinians. Nothing can be a substitute to that need.

NOVAK: A final question before we take another break, Mr. Foreign Minister. The Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has put forth a peace plan which at least the U.S. government takes seriously.

Prime Minister Sharon, on his recent visit to Washington, the Israeli delegation brought with them a documentation of alleged Saudi support for the terrorist bombers. Is that productive in trying to deal with the Saudis as a positive force in the Middle East?

PERES: We hope that their proposal for a peace project is a departure from their previous policies, not an extension of them. Clearly you cannot support war and peace at the same time.

And we appreciate the vision of the Saudi Arabia because it comes from the midst of the most traditional Arab life and it's a pleasant surprise, though we have to remember that we are talking about a vision, not about a plan.

I would say if now we have a tunnel where you cannot see the light at the end of it, now we have a light but we don't have a tunnel. We don't know really how to arrive to the Saudi proposal since they themselves are not willing to negotiate.

NOVAK: We're going to take another break.

And when we come back, we'll have the "Big Question" for Shimon Peres.


NOVAK: "The Big Question" for Shimon Peres: Mr. Foreign Minister, who do you consider the bigger threat to Israel, Iran or Iraq?

PERES: Both of them are quite dangerous. Both of them wants to have a control over all countries and nations -- Iran in the name of religion, and Iraq in the name of tradition. But, you know, they are Machiavellian in the sense that they feel that the goal justifies the means.

Terror is a certain system, not just a certain warfare. Terror permits to kill, to cheat, to camouflage. And actually it's not really poverty that creates terror. It is terror that holds poverty among the masses and justifies a religious explanation.

HUNT: Mr. Minister, we only have about 20 seconds left. But as much as you would like to get rid of Saddam Hussein, is there any fear that if that occurs that it could strengthen the role and hand of Iran in the Gulf?

PERES: Iran, too, should be handled differently. Though I must say, in Iran, there are from time to time some liberal expressions. And in Iran, the women are playing a very important role, as an independent voter (ph). By the way, wherever you have terror, women are discriminated.

So, I mean, the two of them should be handled so differently.

HUNT: Mr. Foreign Minister, thank you very, very much for being with us.

Robert Novak and I will be back with a comment or two in just a moment.


HUNT: Bob, I think what we're seeing in Israel today is that Ariel Sharon's formula of massive retaliation is running head on against international realities, including U.S. pressure.

NOVAK: I was really impressed, Al, how much Mr. Peres, how seriously he takes the Saudi peace proposal. He isn't dwelling on the Saudi support for terrorist bombings. He wants to talk to the Saudis, which is a reasonable request, I think.

HUNT: You know, he says that Saddam Hussein is a terrible person. We ought to get rid of Saddam Hussein, but by not -- not saying whether there is any link with Al Qaeda to 9/11. If there was, he would tell us.

NOVAK: You know, he was the -- his party, the Labor Party, lost the last election. He is a minority member of the cabinet. He has to be very careful. But he gives a different image of Israel that Prime Minister Sharon does, and he says there is no substitute for peace negotiations, a negotiated peace.

I'm Robert Novak.

HUNT: And I'm Al Hunt.

Coming up at 7:00 p.m. Eastern on CAPITAL GANG, the latest on the crisis in the Middle East, the president's battles on Capitol Hill and the death of the Army's Crusader program. Out guest, Republican Congressman David Drier of California, chairman of the House Rules Committee.

NOVAK: That's all for now. Thanks for joining us.




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