Jerusalem—On Thursday, on the eve of his 90th birthday, Israel's President Shimon Peres spoke to Lally Weymouth and reflected on developments in Israel, Syria, Iran, Egypt, and elsewhere in the region. Then he turned to discussing peace between Israel and the Palestinians, which he insists is attainable. Excerpts:
Lally Weymouth: How do you see Secretary of State John Kerry's efforts to get the peace process going again?
Shimon Peres: I'm impressed by his seriousness, his devotion, but I don't underrate the difficulties that he's facing. I think we have to stand by his side and help him to fulfill his mission, which is our hope.
L.W.: But do you think it's possible, given that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas is saying he will not resume talks without Israel freezing settlement construction? Is Israel really willing to stop building settlements?
S.P.: We can find a way to overcome this disagreement.
L.W.: Do you think Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu wants to overcome it?
S.P.: I don't want to go into details. I shall satisfy myself by saying there are ways to overcome.
L.W.: Do you think President Abbas is a real partner for peace?
S.P.: One hundred percent.
L.W.: When President Abbas recently spoke at the World Economic Forum in Jordan, his speech was perceived by many to be hostile to Israel.
S.P.: He wasn't speaking to our audience—he was speaking to the ears of the Palestinians who criticize him. He has to show toughness. But if you really want to judge Abu Mazen, how many Arabs do you know who have stood up and said, "I am from Safed [a town in the north of Israel], but I shall not return to Safed"? He was risking his life.
L.W.: So you're saying when Israelis use hard-line rhetoric, it's returned by the other side.
S.P.: When you engage in high voices, everybody's voice becomes high. I'm not saying who started, who didn't start.
L.W.: Turning to Syria, do you approve of the idea of the U.S. and some European countries arming the Syrian opposition?
S.P.: Look, if it were dependent on me, I would pursue a totally different policy. I would turn to the Arab League and say: "Syria is a member of the Arab League. It is for you to enter Syria as a transitional government, stop the bloodshed, go to elections, and do it in the name of the United Nations—all of us will support you."
L.W.: But how do you see the situation on the ground in Syria?
S.P.: There were times when we have talked about secure borders. Well, [now] we don't have secure peoples. Everybody is fighting all over the place. We don't have peace or war or governments. Historically, the Middle East was governed by empires. The empires drew the lines between nations without paying attention to the ethnicity of the peoples in the nations. Now, you don't have a single country that is cohesive in the Middle East. For that reason, you see civil wars all over the place.
What is breaking up nations today is terror. Even the countries that encourage terror are becoming its victims. Iran, for example. In Iraq, you have groups that encourage terror. Lebanon is broken by terror. Gaza is broken by terror. In Gaza, you have four terrorist groups.
It is an end to the era of classical wars. Classical wars unified nations. But the terrorists don't have the full support of any nation.
L.W.: Do you see the situation in Syria evolving into a war between Israel and Hezbollah, because Israel has said that it won't allow Hezbollah to receive certain types of weapons?
S.P.: We shall do whatever we can to prevent it, but I don't want to threaten any wars.
L.W.: Are you concerned about Israel's northern border, which has been so stable for many years?
S.P.: Yes, I'm concerned not only about the northern border; I'm concerned about all borders. I'm concerned about the whole Middle East. I don't think that the Arab Spring is over. Now what can I say on the positive side? You know, there are 350 million Arabs. Ninety-nine million of them are already online. The iPhone affected the situation in the Middle East [more] than a declaration by Russia or America.
L.W.: Can you believe what has been going on in Turkey?
S.P.: I don't know of any experts we have that forecasted it.
L.W.: What's your assessment of the developments in Egypt and in the Sinai?
S.P.: I see more and more that Sinai is a problem for us but also a challenge for the Egyptians. I do not see that they can remain indifferent, and they won't.
L.W.: They will not?
S.P.: They will not. They [the Egyptian military] are making an effort, and we responded to some of their requests.
L.W.: On alterations on the number of troops allowed in the Sinai under the Camp David Accords?
S.P.: In the deployment of forces, yes.
L.W.: The Jordanians are complaining about the Egyptians cutting off the natural gas to Jordan.
S.P.: But there are alternatives to it.
L.W.: Like so many others, are you concerned about the future of the Hashemite Kingdom?
S.P.: There is room to worry, but there is also room to believe that he [King Abdullah II] can overcome. One of the greatest concerns of the Jordanians is the Syrian refugees. Half a million of them are there, and it could easily become a million. It has a demographic meaning. Most of the refugees are Sunnis. Jordan is kindhearted, but they are in a difficult situation to be kindhearted, as Jordan is facing difficult economic problems.