Israel’s former leader on peace and progress in the Middle East and SA

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Shimon Peres, elected twice to Israel’s premiership and then president of his country, made a recent trip to South Africa in spite of threats of arrest for war crimes.

Peres is one of the three architects of the Oslo Peace Accords which created the Palestinian Authority, along with Yitzhak Rabin and PLO leader Yasser Arafat. The three earned the Nobel Peace Prize in an attempt to create a lasting peace between Israel and Palestine.

However, Peres is far from a ‘dove’. He joined the pre-independence Jewish militia, the Haganah, in 1947, took part in the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, was instrumental in the 1956 Sinai war and he played a key role in Israel obtaining the Mirage fighter from France. He was defence minister during the 1973 Yom Kippur War and he ordered the dramatic rescue of Jewish hostages from Idi Amin’s Uganda during the Entebbe Raid in 1976.

Yet, throughout this period and later, as prime minister and president he also sought peace with Israel’s Arab neighbours. His first try was at a secret meeting in London at the home of Lord Victor Mischon in 1987.

Asked about Israel’s isolation and existential threats, Peres pointed out that any peace had seemed impossible in the past, but some peace agreements had been reached. He said: “I remember the days when people said ‘no chance there will be peace with Egypt’. Abdel Nasser called for the destruction of Israel. There never will be peace. (King) Abdallah (of Jordan) met Golda Meir (in 1948) and would not talk to her about peace and look now.
“You know, even the Iranians. The last elections are showing that even the Iranians are people capable of changing their minds. People said they want to conquer the Middle East. How can you conquer a region which is unconquerable?
“There are differences; they are Muslims but not Arabs. It’s complicated. And now Iran, in spite of everything, signed [an] agreement and people say nothing will come out. I don’t say it came out fully, but they did things. They sent back enriched uranium, they stopped their capacity of building bombs and now their elections are showing results. I am sure their young people; their young women want to be equal. The young and the women will change the situation. Because if a country discriminates [against] women, it’s half a nation. Half a nation can never recover. And if the mother is not educated, the victims are their children. And Iranians are human beings like us. By the way they are also an old country. The first Zionist was King Cyrus. He told the (exile Jews) in Persia; ‘go back to your land.'”

Speaking about South Africa’s reconciliation, he said: “Permit me to tell you something about how I see Nelson Mandela. Why is Nelson Mandela in my eyes a very unique man? Because he is the only one that I can think, that fought for freedom, it was very costly, he was put in prison. And once he became president, he decided to establish the court of conciliation. He called in all the people who tortured all his brothers, who killed his sisters; he told them, “tell the truth, don’t be afraid”, and they told the truth. And instead of being punished, they were forgiven. It never happened before, never!
“I have a South African friend. I asked him, ‘How did it happen.’ He said: ‘My friend, in every South African person you will find a small Nelson Mandela.'”

Peres visited South Africa last month where he addressed the country’s Jewish community as a guest of a South African Zionist organisation. The South African Muslim Lawyers Association filed an application for him to be arrested and prosecuted for war crimes committed during Israel’s Operation Cast Lead. This was an operation launched against Gaza in December 2008 and January 2009 and in which 1 300 Palestinians were killed.