George Negus brings Dateline's first show for 2009 from Jerusalem, where he interviews Israeli President Shimon Peres.
Sunday, February 8, 2009 - 14:15

George Negus brings Dateline's first show for 2009 from Jerusalem, where he interviews Israeli President Shimon Peres.

The interview comes on the eve of crucial elections, as Israel fends off heated allegations of disproportionate use of force in the Gaza conflict.



The famous Arab bazaar in the Old City of Jerusalem, near the Jaffa Gate, in its own colourful way it symbolises all of the ridiculous contradictions of the entire Middle East conflict. Here you have the Jews and Arabs living, moving about together, coping on a normal daily basis despite everything negative and violent - including war - that goes down between them. That's the riddle, the paradox, that's been befuddling the rest of the world since the creation of the state of Israel back in 1948. For all of that time, Shimon Peres - Nobel Peace laureate, former prime minister, former foreign minister, now the president of his country - had been deeply embroiled in the politics of this region, a Jewish homeland surrounded by hostile Arab, Muslim nations.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr President, it is good to see you again. You and I have talked quite a few times in the last 20 years.


GEORGE NEGUS: It must frustrate you greatly at this point in your life that we are still talking now about the difficulty, almost the impossibility of solving the conflict between you and the Palestinians.

SHIMON PERES: We are 60 years old. We went through seven wars, two intifadas, an ongoing boycott, we have to face different confrontations, we weren't helped, God knows, by the world. We are the only country who is an ally of the United States that never asked for American soldiers. In spite of the fact that we are outnumbered and outgunned, we entered the war. Neither did we lose our desire for peace.

GEORGE NEGUS: Because you have said - if you have said that you believe - if the quote was correct - you believe that wars are not winnable.


GEORGE NEGUS: Could you tell me this then - to us, as outsiders, the David and Goliath situation that exists between you and the Palestinians, particularly in Gaza. They do not appear to have an economy, they do not appear to have a society, they don't even appear to have a way of life. And now in the last couple of months, 80%, 90% of their homes are destroyed. They have no source of income. This is, I guess, why the world was shocked at the ferocity of your attack on Gaza.

SHIMON PERES: It is their choice, not ours, because...

GEORGE NEGUS: What? Their choice to be attacked?

SHIMON PERES: No, their choice was to attack us, and ours to react. It wasn't as if I woke up in the morning and went to the Gaza. What for? We left Gaza completely. There was no single Israeli left in Gaza, neither a soldier nor a civilian.

GEORGE NEGUS: So why the invasion now then?

SHIMON PERES: Because they started to fire rockets for no reason - eight years - and every time they got long-range missiles longer, and the extent of the territory that they were attacking, and the million people who could not sleep at night - what should we have done?

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess you say that they were firing rockets for no reason? They would say they have a reason.

SHIMON PERES: What is their reason?


SHIMON PERES: What is their reason?

GEORGE NEGUS: The fact that they feel like an economic apartheid. They're cut off, their supply lines are restricted...

SHIMON PERES: Excuse me.

GEORGE NEGUS:..they cannot live a normal life.

SHIMON PERES: No, no. The passages were open all the time. The land was free from Israelis, the world supplied them money like to nobody else. They went out of their minds. The fact is they are divided. Not only me.

GEORGE NEGUS: True, true.

SHIMON PERES: Look, most of the Palestinians don't understand what they're doing.

GEORGE NEGUS: But politically, people would argue that that's what your government has done - you have consciously divided them.

SHIMON PERES: Politically, people can say what they want. The problem is not political, but religious.

GEORGE NEGUS: Can I just...

SHIMON PERES: They are becoming religiously fanatic. Israel is becoming irrelevant. They do it for religious purpose, fanatic, they want to conquer the Middle East under the command of the Iranians.

GEORGE NEGUS: You seriously believe they want to conquer the Middle East?

SHIMON PERES: Iran, yes. 100%.

GEORGE NEGUS: The Iranians?

SHIMON PERES: Yes. And they serve Iranians.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you say Iran, not Gaza, not Hamas, as the problem.

SHIMON PERES: Hamas married the Iranians. It was their choice. They are the same family. They didn't have to.

GEORGE NEGUS: Could I ask you this - if killing was going to solve this problem, this conflict, it surely would have ended a long time ago.

SHIMON PERES: You're asking the wrong question. Surely not. But if somebody tried to kill you, what will you do? Be killed?

GEORGE NEGUS: I guess you could say, look at this disproportionate nature of this destruction. People are looking at 1,300, 1,400 people died in that invasion,


GEORGE NEGUS: A handful of Israelis. Whether that is right or whether that is wrong, the world sees that as David versus Goliath.

SHIMON PERES: Who's the world?

GEORGE NEGUS: A lot of people have been very outraged.

SHIMON PERES: I am not so sure. I don't think for example that the Indians look at it that way. There are a billion, 200 million people in that part of the world. Why? They suffer from terror. People that do not suffer from it don't understand what I'm talking about, you know?

GEORGE NEGUS: Were you shocked by the extent of the condemnation, the criticism, the outrage against your country as a result of the invasion? Even from the UN Secretary-General himself. Did that come as a shock to you?

SHIMON PERES: I didn't like it, I thought it was one-sided. But we also had a lot of support - don't give me "the world", just the televisions. In America we enjoy support, China is neutral, India is for, in Europe they're divided.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is it impossible for you and the Israeli Government to talk with Hamas? That seems to be the stumbling block.

SHIMON PERES: They are ready to talk with us about one subject - how to destroy Israel. It is not such an attractive subject in our eyes.

GEORGE NEGUS: Oh, I can understand that, but are there...

SHIMON PERES: Look, just a minute. They say let us make a cease-fire for a year. Why? After a year they want to start shooting again. That doesn't make any sense.

GEORGE NEGUS: Nobody doubts your credentials as a man of peace. I have known you for a long while, I have no doubt about that. But Moshe Dyan, an Israeli icon, said, "If you want to make peace, you don't talk to your friends, you talk with your enemies." In this case, Hamas.

SHIMON PERES: Moshe Dyan was a good friend of mine. If you have a talkative enemy - you have an enemy that doesn't want to talk, they want to shoot.

GEORGE NEGUS: If say a George Mitchell or a Tony Blair - and Blair believes that you should be talking now, he says, to Hamas - said, "We think you should talk to Hamas even though you do not trust them, even though you believe they want to destroy Israel, that you should talk anyway."

SHIMON PERES: What will be the subject? To destroy Israel?

GEORGE NEGUS: Whatever you like.

SHIMON PERES: Look, you cannot... With all due respect to the personalities you mentioned, there is a charter of Hamas - the Muslims have to kill the Jews. That is how it started. So we have to discuss it?

GEORGE NEGUS: So you think it's impossible to talk to Hamas?

SHIMON PERES: For the time being, not.

GEORGE NEGUS: The time being?

SHIMON PERES: If they will change, they will change. We don't kill them because we don't like their faces. We kill them because they are trying to kill us, that's all.

GEORGE NEGUS: You said that you believe that there would be peace.


GEORGE NEGUS: In your lifetime.


GEORGE NEGUS: You still believe that?


GEORGE NEGUS: You're not a young man. I don't wish you ill, but you are not a young man.

SHIMON PERES: Well, I hope peace will come earlier and I shall live longer.

GEORGE NEGUS: How will that happen then? Given the stalemate that you have just described to me, why does battering them into submission prove anything? It would appear that Hamas have got stronger, not weaker, as a result of the invasion.

SHIMON PERES: I don't know what is stronger or what is weaker.


SHIMON PERES: The whole language of strength and weaknesses is irrelevant, because when you use arms you do not use ballots, and public opinion is unimportant, and they shoot at their opponents.

GEORGE NEGUS: So you do not believe Hamas has any democratic right?

SHIMON PERES: Surely, they don't. They live on their rifles and bombs.

GEORGE NEGUS: So they weren't really elected, you don't believe?

SHIMON PERES: No, it is something even more complicated. They thought that if you go to elections you become a democrat for the rest of your life. They think that democracy is limited to one day in four years.

GEORGE NEGUS: But an American writer, Tom Friedman, said were you trying to educate them, or eradicate them?

SHIMON PERES: My answer is yes, but it is not in a school. It is a different sort of education. We announced ahead of time that we are not going to destroy Hamas, that we're not going to conquer Gaza. The only purpose of this operation was to stop firing rockets against us. It happened in Lebanon, it will happen in Gaza too.

GEORGE NEGUS: Is that worth the lives of women and children?


GEORGE NEGUS: So why do it?

SHIMON PERES: They do it! If they use children and women as a human shelter...

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you believe that? That they would put women and children...

SHIMON PERES: Not I believe it, I saw it with my own eyes. It is not something that I believe or not. And you know what? We checked carefully the international law - what does a nation do when terrorists are using civilians to defend their life, as a shelter. And they say you do not have a choice. But we telephoned every house before that. We made 250,000 telephones to the places that we have bombed.


GEORGE NEGUS: Is that right?

SHIMON PERES: Yes, sir! And we suggested that they leave their homes, and many of them did leave.

GEORGE NEGUS: But go where?


GEORGE NEGUS: But where would they go? If they leave their homes so they don't get bombed, where do they go?

SHIMON PERES: They get out of their house, it is enough, they do not have to go anywhere. But if you have rockets, or dynamite in the house, what can you do?

GEORGE NEGUS: Do you really believe that the people of Hamas are so evil, if you like, that they would use their women and children as human shields?

SHIMON PERES: We saw it on our own cameras. You must understand, we are not wild animals. Do we have an interest to touch a child? Are you crazy?

GEORGE NEGUS: So why do they? Why would they do that?

SHIMON PERES: Because that is the only way for them to remain active. Because they do not care about human life. You know, you cannot make a case, where you have two people, one a murderer, one a victim. You say, "Let's investigate." What do you have to investigate? We didn't touch them. We left Gaza. We supported them. We didn't touch them. What do you want to investigate? It's clear.

GEORGE NEGUS: Mr President, it is always good to talk to you. Thank you for giving us your time again.

SHIMON PERES: Thank you.

GEORGE NEGUS: Shimon Peres - the 85-year-old veteran of Israeli politics - at his presidential residence here in Jerusalem. And the next chapter in the Middle East saga, of course, are the elections here on Wednesday and whether or not the new Israeli government is prepared to deal with the enemy, Hamas.