Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
2 - 8 December 1999
Issue No. 458
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

Redefining the bomb

Shimon Peres
Israeli Regional Cooperation Minister and former Prime Minister Shimon Peres visited Cairo this week in preparation for the fifth Middle East and North Africa (MENA) economic conference, to be held in Egypt early next year. He talked to Khaled Dawoud
 
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You have been repeatedly quoted as saying that "Israel will not be the first country to introduce nuclear weapons into the Middle East." It is now an established fact that Israel does possess nuclear weapons -- or at least capabilities to produce 200 nuclear bombs. So what does this assertion of yours exactly mean? Do you mean that Israel will not be the first country to "use" nuclear weapons?

No, I mean to introduce. Israel has not tested any nuclear weapons, and without the test, you cannot even introduce. It is a commitment that Israel gave to the world and the United States of America and we are very serious. Israel said that we are ready to sign the ban on nuclear tests. Not only did we not do a nuclear test, but we are not going to have one. These are guarantees that Israel is not going to introduce nuclear weapons to the Middle East.

If this is the case, why has Mordechai Vanunu been serving an 18-year prison sentence since 1986 for leaking Israel's nuclear secrets? And what about all the Western reports on Israel's nuclear capabilities?

I won't comment on what's in the papers. It is very complicated. I am telling you: We have an open and clear commitment about it, and I want to make this clear to our Egyptian friends. We don't need anything related to nuclear weapons vis-à-vis Egypt or vis-à-vis Jordan. We have two problems with Iraq and Iran. You cannot control them, we cannot control them. Once we shall solve it, it will be a different situation. As long as it is not solved, we have a dangerous situation. What can I do?

After nearly 10 years of sanctions against Iraq, everyone agrees that Iraq no longer represents a threat to regional security. The same applies to Iran, where even US reports indicate that right now, they do not have the capability to produce any nuclear weapons.

Iran is working very hard. Iran has enough oil and enough gas. So, why are they building nuclear reactors? What for? It is not like us; we don't have oil and we don't have gas. Iraq has a very large body of professionals in the nuclear field and the minute the American control -- the UN control -- is lifted, we will see a different situation.

Foreign Minister Amr Moussa said recently that the Middle East cannot tolerate a single nuclear state and he was clearly referring to Israel. How would you respond to that?

First of all, I am not sure that we are a nuclear state. But why can't he tolerate it? How does it effect Egypt ...

When we have a neighbour with nuclear weapons, this is definitely a threat to our security.

Look, the answer is: Iraq does not yet possess a nuclear bomb, but they attacked Kuwait, and if it weren't for the American intervention, they would have taken over Kuwait. So, what is more dangerous? A country that has an aggressive policy, even if they don't have a nuclear option, or a country that doesn't have an aggressive policy, and we've said that we are not going to introduce nuclear weapons. You must understand that.

Despite the fact that you are a Nobel Peace Prize winner, many people in this region hold you and late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin responsible for the delay and existing complications in the peace process, since it was you who were the first to introduce the policy that "there are no sacred dates" in the agreements you signed with the Palestinians. How would you respond to that?

We achieved unbelievable things. We recognised the PLO, we brought in (Palestinian President Yasser) Arafat, we provided the Palestinians with land and authority. Nobody did it. When you are negotiating about peace, it is more difficult to negotiate with your own people. The fact is that Rabin paid the price with his life. I paid with [losing] my elections [in 1996 against Benyamin Netanyahu]. We took the greatest risks. So what are you criticising?

But all these things you are mentioning are not a gift from Israel. They are part of the agreements you signed with Palestinians in return for peace. Arab countries [Egypt, Jordan and Palestine] do respect their agreements with Israel. So, why should it be difficult for you to do the same?

Well, there are some problems. For example, with Egypt, the economic side was never respected. There is a feeling that it is a cold peace not a warm peace. And then, there were all the time pressures put on Israel. Even to this day, we don't enjoy the same freedom. Israel took very great risks.

Allow me to move to the refugee issue. Mr Barak said recently that there was no way to allow all Palestinian refugees to return to their homeland. Why is it difficult to have a peace similar to that of South Africa, where a solution was reached once and for all? You bring Jews from all over the world to settle them in Israel while a Palestinian whose family was born in Palestine cannot return to his country?

In South Africa, there was apartheid, which means there were superior and inferior forces. In our case, we want to have a political separation and an economic integration. So you can't compare at all. In South Africa, there was a black majority, very large, and a very small white minority. In Israel, we are the majority...

Sorry, Mr Peres but you did not get to be a majority by natural causes. That came at the expense of Palestinians.

History is very complicated because Palestinians were given an order to leave [in 1948]. We did not ask them to leave. They shouldn't have left.

Mr Peres, you are one of the pioneers and you were there since the beginning, so you shouldn't really repeat these types of fallacies because you know they are not true. Even the so-called new historians in Israel now admit that Palestinians were forced to leave.

I know I was present, I know the history by heart. It doesn't matter. Look: There are 24 countries in the Middle East. Twenty-three are Arabs. What is an Arab country? They have an Arab majority. One country is Jewish. What is a Jewish country? There is a Jewish majority. If you want us to cut the Jewish majority, you want us to commit suicide. We are today nine million people; five million are Jews and four million are Arabs. So, I say okay, the Palestinians will have a state of their own. But if you want to convert Israel to make it an Arab state, we shall not agree.

But what about the people's right to return to where they feel they belong, to where their families and homes were in the first place?

We don't ask the right to return to Hebron, for example. There was a Jewish community in Hebron. They were massacred. We don't ask the right of return to Nablus, and they [Palestinians] should not ask for the right to return to Haifa or Tel Aviv.

But do you understand the feeling of the Palestinians that they now have no place to which they can return that is their "homeland"?

Look, if we had 23 Jewish states in the Middle East, no Jew would feel himself without home. We don't have somewhere to move, they [Palestinians] do. And many of them went willingly. There was a great immigration to South America, to Europe, wherever they wanted. Nobody forced them. And then there are 23 states.

So what we are suggesting, first of all, is to have a fact finding situation to see how many refugees there are, how many want to return, how many want compensation. Then, we shall make up our minds. Today everything is theoretical. Nobody knows the facts, and they are arguing unnecessarily.

I agree that a person has the right to be compensated. But wherever they will move in the Middle East, they will speak Arabic, they can practice Islam. They belong to the Arab world. We don't have anywhere to move.

I don't think, sir, that any Arab or Palestinian would agree with this argument you are making.

And I don't think that we can have peace that will fully satisfy the two sides. There are things that won't satisfy the Palestinians, and there are things that won't satisfy the Israelis. This is a compromise and not an implementation of what everybody wants. Otherwise, we won't have peace. We are against the right of return [for Palestinians] to Israel. That is our position.

Despite the fact that Prime Minister Barak presented himself as a man of peace, the way he has been dealing with Palestinians has not differed much from his predecessor. Mr Barak is haggling over every single inch of land and refuses to hand over what would constitute an integral piece of territory. Doesn't this mean he is not serious about the peace process?

Look, we gave back seven per cent of the West Bank already. Now we are going to give back another five per cent. This would make a total of 44 per cent of the West Bank...

When are you going to hand over the five per cent?

We did it already, they don't like the piece of land...

And why should Israel define the piece of land to be handed over?

That is the agreement. Israel has the choice to decide which land is given back. We released prisoners, reached agreement on the port in Gaza, on the safe passage and the opening of Shohada Street in Hebron. Many things happened. And things are moving. You cannot have everything at once. It takes time. Everything we signed will be implemented.

So, deep in your heart, you seriously believe that you will conclude final status talks by September next year, meaning that Palestinians will have a state by then?

As far as I'm concerned, it is in the Israeli interest to have a Palestinian state. There is no date, by the way, for a Palestinian state. But I would like to see a Palestinian state, and a successful one.

A state with territorial integrity?

There must be integrity in the territories, and there must be islands of security zones. That's in the agreement.

But how much will Palestinians get back of the West Bank? 40 per cent? 50 per cent?

There is nothing in the agreement on that. And what I think, I won't say because we are negotiating. There is always a difference between the opening positions and the final positions. Don't expect anybody at the opening position to give you the final position, because we want to negotiate. There is a need to have a Palestinian state so that Israel won't be governing Palestinians.

After your meeting with President Mubarak, you said the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) economic conference will be held early next year. When exactly is this going to be?

The president [Mubarak] said he wants it to be held after Ramadan, and I think Ramadan is in February...

No sir, Ramadan starts on December 9.

I was told there was another conference in Cairo after Ramadan, so it could be in early March or April.

What about negotiations with Syria? Do you think some progress will have been made by the time MENA is held?

We are ready to start negotiations from the point where they were interrupted. The Syrians say they want us to assure them of the result of negotiations before they even start. That can't be done. [Late President Anwar] Sadat came to the Knesset, King Hussein made open meetings, Arafat wanted to meet whenever he could. The only one who doesn't want to meet, who doesn't want to discuss, is [Syrian President Hafez] Assad.

The time has come when you should ask him some questions. One: Whether he wants to meet. You want to negotiate? We have to meet for heaven's sake. Second: If he got such a guarantee from Americans [the reported commitment late Rabin conveyed to Americans on his readiness to withdraw fully from the Golan], why doesn't he want to start negotiations? He says he has a letter from President Clinton promising him [withdrawal from Golan]. So what is he waiting for? The depth of the Israeli withdrawal from [Golan] will depend on the depth of the peace we will have with Syria. It is a very clear definition.

My last question, Mr Peres. Do you know how people refer to you here in the Egyptian opposition and some national newspapers?

What?

"Peres: The butcher of Qana" -- as a reminder of all the innocent civilians killed in the UN refugee camp in south Lebanon shortly before you lost elections in 1996. How does this make you feel?

I think it is a scandal. Hizbullah shelled us seven days and seven nights. All my attempts to influence them to stop did not help. Then, we replied. Now it is known that six shells [fired by Israel] escaped their orbit. I wasn't involved in it, however, I took responsibility.

Then, look what happened in Kosovo. Did the Americans want to bomb the Chinese Embassy? We did not know there were people in the UN camp [in south Lebanon]. We don't bomb people. We wanted to press the [Lebanese] government to stop Hizbullah.

We don't have any ambitions to stay in south Lebanon. I am for pulling out from south Lebanon, even if there was no agreement reached with Syria. This is my opinion, but I don't know whether the government would do it. The government hopes that we will reach an agreement. It is time to reach an agreement.

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