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Shimon Peres

Interview: Shimon Peres
Former President of Israel

May 2, 2003
Washington, D.C.

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Let's begin with your childhood, before you emigrated to Israel. What do you remember of your European childhood? Where were you born?

Shimon Peres: I was born in a small Jewish shtetl that -- during the two wars, the first and the second it was under Polish control -- but otherwise it was Belarus. Russians. And they hated the Poles. They wouldn't speak the language. The place I was born was a very small place, totally Jewish, and we were living neither in Poland nor in Russia. We were living in Israel from the day I was born, even before emigrating.

It was the dream of Israel?

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Shimon Peres: It was the dream. I went to a Hebrew school. At our home, we spoke three languages: Hebrew, Yiddish and Russian. In my family, we have had members of the Likud and members of the left. There was a very vivid argument going on all the time. I remember myself as a totally independent boy.

Did you have brothers and sisters?

Shimon Peres: Yes. I have a brother younger than me. My mother was a librarian, so from her, I got the taste to read. You wouldn't believe it, but by the age of nine, I had already read Dostoyevsky's Crime and Punishment. I couldn't sleep at night; it bothered me tremendously. I think I was living in my imagination much more than I was living in my realities. I was a reader. I was a dreamer.

What other books do you remember from that era?

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Shimon Peres: Probably the most known is Sholem Aleichem, but there were others. There were many Hebrew books. There was one that Avraham Mapu wrote about the future of Israel. There were good boys and bad boys. The good boys were clearly Zionist. I was on his side, he was on my side. We had a total agreement. My grandfather educated me, basically. He studied in a yeshiva. You know what a yeshiva is? A yeshiva is sort of a rabbinical seminary, but not with all the formalities. They study the Talmud and the Mishnah and the Bible. My grandfather and my father were born in Volozhin, home of the most famous Yeshiva in Jewish life.

My grandfather studied together with our greatest poet, by the name of Chaim Nachman Bialik, who is considered our national poet to this very day. And from him, I learned the Talmud, the Bible. As a young boy, he taught me every day a page of the Talmud. I was under his spell. He was a rabbi. I was extremely religious when I was a young boy. It's only when I emigrated to Israel that I divorced my orthodox behavior and concept and changed my dress. I changed my eyes, I changed my outlooks, I changed my behavior. It was like moving from one world to another world, except for one thing, for the love of Israel, for the knowledge of the Hebrew language. That was my world.

Your town, your shtetl, what was it like?

Shimon Peres: Our shtetl was 100 kilometers south of Minsk, which is the capital of Belarus. There were, I think, a thousand Jewish families, no non-Jewish persons there. There were two synagogues, built of wood. There was a Hebrew school that we attended. There were Israeli political parties with branches there. Like it's common among the Jewish people, we were deeply divided, and we loved the division. Highly polemic and argumentative.

I came to Israel when I was 11 years old. I thought I was a prepared Israeli, but Israel was a total surprise. First of all, the place I came from had gray skies. I never saw a blue sky really in Belarus. It was half-wintery all year round. It had a river that I took for granted. The trees were high and powerful. We were surrounded by a forest. We never knew what was behind the forest. We know that behind the forest, there were non-Jewish people that don't like us.

Were there pogroms?

Shimon Peres: No, but...

There was one occasion when I was very young -- eight years or seven years old -- that Jewish businessmen went through the forest, and they were assassinated. And that was for the first time I saw in our paper where there were assassinations in our place. I saw the story of assassination. It bothered me greatly. We have had a happy childhood. My family was well-to-do. We didn't have electricity. We had a radio operated on batteries which I destroyed, because my parents used it on shabbat, on Saturday, and I was so religious that I would not permit it to happen.

You were more religious than your parents?

Shimon Peres: Oh, by far, by far. I was as religious as my grandfather, and they were already more secular, as were many of the others.

You started in politics when you were very young. What inspired you to get involved at such a young age?

Shimon Peres: I don't think I made a major choice to become a politician.

When I was a young man in Israel, our major goal ideologically and otherwise was to become farmers, members of a kibbutz. So I joined in a youth movement that sent me to an agricultural school where I got my main education. There, we organized a small nucleus of boys and girls to go and build a kibbutz, and we went to build a kibbutz, but while doing all this, at school and later on at the kibbutz, there was a great debate taking place in Israel on two major issues. One, who represents the world of tomorrow? The Socialists? The Communists? The Soviet Union, or the democracy, the free world? And what actually does stem from our ideology?

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My mentor was Ben-Gurion, the founder of the state, and he said, "I am not for an imported socialism. We don't need Marx, and we don't need Lenin, and we don't need even Léon Blum. Our ideologues come from the Bible. Basically two: Prophet Amos, with a social temperament and Isaiah, with a political temperament." I identified with Ben-Gurion. Ben-Gurion was very anti-Stalin, very anti-Communist. He called them the most terrible names. He thought, "They are dictators. They are killers." And that was at a time when the world had still many intellectuals who looked upon Russia as a promise.

That was before we knew all that Stalin was doing?

Shimon Peres: Yes. That was, say, in '38, '37, '39. And the second issue: What should be the future of Israel? Is the land the most important choice, and for that reason to keep the whole of the land at any cost, or to have a partition and build the Jewish state on part of the land? And the other part? "Leave it. Let's leave it to the Palestinians." Here again, I felt that I am with Ben-Gurion.

I joined in this youth movement, and I was elected to the secretariat of the movement. There were 12 members of the secretariat. I was the only one among the 12 who was on the side of Ben-Gurion; all the others were Marxist-oriented and were for the wholeness of Israel. Before I knew it, I found myself in a fight, and it took a little bit of time, but finally I won a majority in the youth movement. So before I knew it, I was in politics.

How old were you?

Shimon Peres: I was 15 or 16 years old. Then I went to the kibbutz, and worked on the land, but I continued my fight. I was very much engaged in it. It concerned me. After this very surprising victory in the youth movement -- nobody believed in Israel that this can happen - -all of a sudden, I found myself a very demanded person in the political life, and that's how it started.

You mentioned your mother being a librarian. What about your father?

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Shimon Peres: My father was a businessman, a very active and dynamic person. In the Second World War he joined the British Army. He became a prisoner of the Germans. He escaped. He was condemned to death. He was saved by a priest at the last moment. Then he ran away again, and again he was caught and arrested, but one day he appeared alive, to our really happy surprise.

Did your parents live to see your rise in political life?

Shimon Peres: Partly, because I became in charge of the Ministry of Defense when I was 29 years old, and my parents were still alive, both my father and my mother.

What was their reaction to your enthusiasm for politics at a young age?

Shimon Peres: They were very nice with me. They never dared tell me what to do. They thought that I was a man with reasonable judgment, so I was never under pressure from my parents; I could do whatever I wanted. I never had a negative word from them, nothing whatsoever. They enabled me to grow up as an independent man. I told my wife, "Let's our children go the same way. Let them go their way. The only thing we can provide them is with a personal example." If you want them to read books, have a good library at home. If you want them to love music, listen to music. If you want their manners to be nice, have nice manners at home. So the best that we can offer to our children is a personal example.

What was it like when you emigrated to Israel before statehood?

Shimon Peres: Half of the shtetl I was born in emigrated to Israel; the other half were killed by the Nazis. Half and half.

When I came to Israel, my first sensation was the blue sky. I never saw a sky as blue as that. Then, I didn't see many rivers, which surprised me again. I didn't see many forests. But on the other hand, all the writings, whether in the streets or in the paper, was in the Hebrew language. That was like entering -- again -- a new world. I saw Israeli policemen. And we came. My father, who emigrated before us a couple of years to prepare our coming, was living in Tel Aviv. Tel Aviv was totally white and summery and lovely. They called at that time, "Tel Aviv is a small Paris." I have never been to Paris, so I was sure that Paris is even smaller than Tel Aviv. And when I got bar mitzvah'd -- 13 years old -- my parents bought me a bicycle, and I would -- touring the streets of Tel Aviv to see if they were building a building, if they planted a new tree. I felt as though it would be my estate, as though it would be my life.

Then I went to school. I think I was a good student, because I jumped over a school. My main interest was basically history and literature. Sports were basically basketball and swimming at a pool. I was so happy. We had family in Rehovot, where the Weizmann Institute is, and that was the center of citrus growing. When they have the flowers of the citrus, it's like Chanel Number 5. You are almost intoxicated by this unbelievable smell. Everything looked so beautiful, so optimistic, so happy.

Later on at school, because of my views, I decided to go to Ben Shemen, which is an agricultural school. So I left my studies in Tel Aviv, and I went over to an entirely new life again, living in the fields, among trees, among flowers, milking the cows, riding a horse. Again, it was a different world, but this was really not only a school, but a village of youngsters. So we were running our lives there too, and that's where I believe I got my first taste for social life. And we had different groups, for literature, for ideology, for culture, and as I told you, we made a small nucleus to go to the kibbutz. It was an intimate group. All of us were supposed to tell the truth. We ran a collective dairy. We were 15 or 16, young boys and girls, and the kibbutz was our ideal, it was our destination. But the school, the village, is surrounded by Arabs, and they were shooting at us. So at that same age, I swore into the Haganah, and they are an underground organization. Having the Bible on the table, having a pistol, having a candle. It was a clandestine organization at the time.

During the day, we would study, and during the night we were on guard in perimeter positions.

Where did you get the pistol?

Shimon Peres: The pistol belonged to the Haganah; so did the rifle. It was illegal. That was my first experience of the military. I reached a very high rank, because we were two in our position, so I was the commander, and the other was my deputy. This was the force I was commanding at the time, but we exchanged fire during the night. My position was near one of the teachers of the school. Early in the morning, I fell in love with the girl that later on became my wife. At that time, we were so naive. I wanted to charm her, so I read her Capital by Marx. I thought somehow she would be convinced by the strength of his criticism about capital.

It's not exactly love poetry.

Shimon Peres: No, but she was very patient with me. And then also, poetry. We had a group that was concerned with poetry, and I myself wrote a little bit of poetry. So again, we worked half a day, we studied half a day, and we watched half a night. The rest, we were just happy.

Not too long after that, you became involved in a real military position.

Shimon Peres: Yes, yes. After the so-called "victory," I had in the movement, I was noticed by the leadership of our party, headed by Ben-Gurion, and another person who is not so known, Berl Katznelson, who was the teacher of our movement. He taught me literature, and he actually taught me how to read. He was my personal mentor.

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He was the editor of our paper. He created the publishing house in Hebrew. He was -- I wouldn't say the "guru" -- but really he was our teacher and a most respected man. I wrote for the paper of the youth movement. He read it and apparently was impressed, so he invited me every Sunday night to his home. Mostly it was about literature. He told me which books he was going to publish, he told me what to read for the next time, examined me if I did read, if I did understand. I got my education from him.

After my activities in the youth movement I returned to the kibbutz, but at that time, the party was already split between young and old. There was a Zionist Congress immediately after the World War in 1946 in Basel, and the party sent two young Turks, so to speak, to represent the more extreme views of the party. One of them was Moshe Dayan -- who later on became General Dayan -- and myself. We developed a friendship that lasted to his very last day.

Talk a little bit about Ben-Gurion. What he was like?

Shimon Peres: Let me tell you how I met him. I admired him before I met him. Once day, I was informed that Ben-Gurion would give me a ride from Tel Aviv to Haifa. At that time, it took two hours to do it. Imagine how excited I was! Here was my hero, my legendary man, and here was an unknown boy from nowhere. I thought, "My God, I'm going to have two hours with this man." It was a wintery day. I went to the car, and to my unpleasant surprise, he put on his coat, turned his back to me, and forgot about me.

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I was sitting, so disappointed, up to the point we reached Haifa, very close to the place, and all of a sudden, he turned to me and he said, "You know, Trotsky was not a statesman." How did Trotsky arrive in the car at the last moment? I didn't know, but me being so much interested in having conversation, I said, "Why?" He said, "What do you mean why? What sort of a policy is that? No peace and no war? Either peace and pay the price, or war and take the risk. Otherwise it's a Jewish invention. It's not a political decision." And he said Lenin, who was intellectually inferior to Trotsky, became the leader of Russia because he made up his mind.

That was my first lesson from Ben-Gurion. Then I saw him making peace, and I saw him making war. He mobilized me before the war. The man was a very rare combination between a real intellectual and a born leader. There is a contradiction between the two.

Intellectuals are very slow to make up their minds, and even when they do it, they leave some room for skepticism and question. Not Ben-Gurion. He was never an intellectual bachelor. The minute he knew something, he has had an opinion. He was married with an opinion! But his talents were outstanding. I never saw a man with such a powerful memory like him. I can tell you stories upon stories to the depth and outstanding quality of him. He was a person that was always curious, learning, reading. There wasn't a day without him reading. He learned new languages, including ancient Greek. He was curious, for example, about Buddhism. I'm not so sure that they could understand him, because of this tendency to decide. Buddhism is not necessarily a religion made of decisions. On the other hand, he was a leader. Namely, he was decisive, had a strong will. Fearless, honest, and he all the time thought that the greatest degree of wisdom is the moral code. "Never be cynical. Never forget that every war is being fought twice -- once in the battlefield and then in the books of history." Don't forget the books of history. Don't do things that history will never forgive you. History means posterity, and it's the young generation.

He was very organized. For example, one day he told me that he started to learn Hebrew when he was three or so. I told him, "Ben-Gurion, why were you waiting so much? You wasted three years. You should have started from the first day." He took it very seriously. He wouldn't waste time on small talk. He wouldn't waste time on jokes. He wouldn't waste time, for example, on eating properly. All those things were unimportant. So either he wouldn't refer to them, or minimized them. What was important is to think, to read, to decide, and to be courageous.

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All told, in my judgment, he was a genius, because a genius, more than is just a matter of having outstanding talents, it's a matter of having an outstanding character. He was never afraid to be alone. He was never satisfied with a known answer. His priority was to put the right question, and he questioned everything he knew, fearlessly.

One day, he came to the conclusion that the story of Exodus is misinterpreted. The problem is "How many Jews left Egypt, 150 families? 150,000?" Because in Hebrew, eleph is both "thousand" and "family." And he came to the conclusion that it's 150 families. So he made a press conference. Television from the whole world attended, and he made a very lengthy expose to explain it. No other person would do it.

There was also another thing that I liked very much about him in the way of behavior. He never referred to the rank of a person, but only to his position. He would argue as seriously with a policeman as with a head of state. The other thing I liked is when he said "I" and when he said "we." Winning was "we," losing was "I." Taking responsibility. He was not an easy person. He wasn't a man of pleasantries. He was always organized, tough, serious. But for me, I worked with him 18 years, every day was a holiday, and I learned from him as much as one can from another person.

One of the things he (Ben-Gurion) said -- and I liked very much -- he said, "All experts are for things that happened. You don't have experts for things that may happen" -- which means, as he said, "If you really want to learn something, it's not enough to be up-to-date; you have to be up-to-tomorrow." That would be my first lesson, to look for the tomorrow. And eventually, I lost partly my interest in history, and I devoted most of my intellectual energies to the future. To this very day, I believe to imagine is more important than to remember. I don't believe in memories anyway, because memories in a way is to remember what to forget. You hardly remember the things that were not easy or were not right, and yet people think it is more important to remember than to think. That was my first lesson. My second lesson is, "Your best friends are not only human beings, but books." To read books is like going to swim in a sea of wisdom, endlessly fascinating. And there are so many wise people all over the world, throughout history, and you can have it free, for nothing. And reading must become a daily habit. It's not that you can read once a week. I read day in and day out, and you make acquaintances with books. After a few pages, you know with whom you are dealing. Serious, unserious, far-sighted, repetitive. That was my second lesson. My third lesson was, "Never forget there is nothing wiser than a moral choice." And the fourth point: "Don't be afraid to be alone." Future is always in a minority. So, if you want to be popular, go and praise the past. If you want to serve the future, don't be afraid to belong to a minority.

Could you tell us about the War of Independence and your role in it?

Shimon Peres: I joined the army as a private. I was offered a rank at that time, but I refused. I preferred to remain a private. First of all, I wasn't taken by ranks, and before I knew it, they put me in the most sensitive positions anyway. I thought if I should be a colonel or a general, there would always be somebody above me, but if I should be a soldier, nobody will command me. I shall be totally independent, and that's what happened. I was a private, but sitting in the heart of the Haganah, later in the army.

Israel was shocked to discover that once the United Nations has decided to enable the establishment of a Jewish state, and before we have had a state, we had a war, and all of a sudden, we are alone. We are outnumbered, outgunned. We saw then end of everything with our eyes. We knew the truth, that we don't have arms, we don't have people, and we may lose the war, which would be like losing the Jewish history. It would be the end of Jewish history. We couldn't understand it, even when we came to the United States. Truman, President Truman, recognized the State of Israel, yet refused to give us arms, rifles, for our self-defense. There was an embargo. And then, Ben-Gurion said, "Look, without rifles, we can do nothing." And he put me in charge to break the embargo and see what can be done.

Later on, there were some problems with our navy, so he made me the head of the navy -- all things that I hardly knew anything about. I was basically an ignorant young man.

When we look at your biography, you are suddenly the head of the Navy, and there is no information preceding that about a naval career.

Shimon Peres: No, no, nothing whatsoever. It was like a fire brigade.

I think what probably Ben-Gurion found in me was chutzpah, you know. I was a daring young man, and I wasn't afraid of conventions, and I thought that we don't have a chance for conventions or precedents, so I worked day and night. I believe I was a hard-working man. I could have worked almost day and night, uninterruptedly. And then, he nominated me also to be the head of the Ministry of Defense, as I have said, at a very young age of 29. He was Prime Minister and Minister of Defense, so he actually handed over to my hands the running of the Ministry of Defense. And again and again, I mean, I didn't have any experience, but I have had views, and I was ready to fight for them.

You had a passion for Israel too, didn't you?

Shimon Peres: Oh, yes, but not only me. Everybody had.

Everybody at that time almost totally identified with the country, with the war, with the need to win, and that went on after the War of Independence. When the war was over, I found out that I'm so ignorant. I didn't know a single word of English. Literally, nothing whatsoever. And I hardly have had any formal education. So I came to Ben-Gurion, who was my mentor, and I told him, "Look, I can't go on like this. I have to learn something." I thought I wanted to go to the United States for study. So then, he nominated me to be the head of the Defense Ministry mission in America, in New York, and I worked during the day. I studied, in the evening, at night, at a wonderful school, the New School for Social Research.

I spent a very formative two years in New York, and then I went to Harvard University for a course. A wonderful location again, where the students are people with experience already, people from the army, from industry. You can learn from the students as much as you can learn from the professors.

In your early years as Deputy Minister of Defense, you were very involved in establishing the military and aviation foundation of this new state.

Shimon Peres: We were living under an embargo. I thought we didn't have a choice but to build our own industries. And people say a small country like Israel cannot built an aeronautic industry, cannot build an electronics industry, cannot build nuclear reactors. And again, I thought we can do it, so I was charged with doing it. In the beginning it raised a great deal of skepticism and criticism, but later on people appreciate it very much. So actually we laid, at that time, the foundation for the high-tech of Israel which exists to this very day.

That included the nuclear program as well, didn't it?

Shimon Peres: Nuclear programs as well, yes. I was in charge of the nuclear programs.

It would take about a year to go over your entire career in detail. Maybe you could talk a little bit about the work that you did on the economy of Israel during your first term as Prime Minister in the 1980s. That was a very turbulent time.

Shimon Peres: I learned two things in my life. One is no matter what you are, what matters is what you do. And when you are in power, don't judge yourself by the length of your term but by the record of your doings. I knew Prime Ministers who were in office years and years and years, and they did nothing. I knew Prime Ministers who were a month and did a lot. Maybe the most outstanding example would be Mendes-France of France. He did in three or four months what other Prime Ministers wouldn't do in ten years.

So that was my temperament. Once I was elected, I said to myself: "Let's decide what will be your priorities and how long will it take, because if you don't decide on target dates, you may get mixed up with so many other pressures or distractions." I put in four priorities, and I mentioned the dates. I said, "In six months, we shall leave Lebanon." We left in six months. "In nine months, we should go out of inflation." People were skeptical. "In a year's time, we should restore our relations with Egypt; and then, we shall begin to make peace with the Jordanians." When I came in, although I had studied economy in the New School for Social Research, I was very far from being an economist.

The only economy I learned, again, was from Ben-Gurion. His economy was very simple. He would call me up and say, "Shimon, let's do this and that." I would say, "Okay," and then he would say, "How much does it cost?" I would say, "A million dollars." He would say, "My God, where are we going to get that money?" The next day, he came in with another idea. "Let's do this and that." He would ask me, "How much does it cost?" and I would say "A hundred million dollars." He would say, "Oh, that's nothing." So leaders should decide on the value of things, not on the cost of it. If it's important, it's economic; if it's unimportant, it's a waste of money.

I came in, and most of my friends told me, "Don't do it. You know very little about economy." The inflation was 500 percent. "You cannot do it except by military means or by having a strike. You'll break your neck." I listened to them, but I'm not sure I was impressed. I thought if you can make inflation, you probably can unmake it as well. And I always thought, "Never think about alternatives; always think about creativity." When you have two alternatives, the first thing you have to do is to look for the third that you didn't think about, that doesn't exist.

I started to work day and night, listening to all walks of life in our economy, and there were three or four things that I learned immediately, that in a democracy, you have two groups of decision making: the political parties -- they are good for politics -- and the economic partnership, which is detached from politics. The economy is not being run by parties, but by three factors in the society: government, employees, and employers. So leave the parties aside and try to see if you can reach an agreement among the three. Don't be in a haste to declare a plan, and then discover that one or two are against it. It will be extremely difficult to do so, particularly if the demands are very, very heavy.

We asked the workers to give up 25 percent of their salaries. Imagine! We asked the industrialists to freeze all costs, no matter what the inflation is. We asked people to save money as much as they can, but also asked the government to cut the budget. Now, I learned soon enough, that among the three, two don't trust the third one -- the third one is the government. Both industry and unions feel the government is a talking organization and a spending organization. In a meeting among the three, the government demands the others to cut, to freeze, to give up. And they feel, "My God, what the hell are they talking about? We shall cut, we shall freeze, we shall suffer, and they will spend again!"

I learned again that if I wanted to do something, I have to show that the government is serious. Not by declaring, and not by preaching, but by cutting. And I knew that unless we should cut very deeply our budget, we don't stand a chance to have the other two parties. Now, cutting is easier said than done. Every minister, when you cut him, thinks that you have something against him. They took it very personally -- the Minister of Defense and the Minister of Education and the Minister of Social Welfare. And they were my friends, and I have to become, all of a sudden, very cruel. So finally, we had the Cabinet session that lasted for 36 hours, uninterrupted, and they took a knife and sit personally and cut their budgets from $100,000 and up. If the poor minister would close his eyes, I would take my knife. But anyway, by the end of the session, it was cut, and people were fired. I thought the whole nation would be against me, but strangely enough, the reaction of the people was unbelievable. My popularity jumped to 90 percent or whatever it was.

Did the inflation subside?

Shimon Peres: No, not yet. By firing people, by cutting budgets -- education, social welfare, health -- it affects every person. Then, I was all the time in consultation with the unions and the industrialists. I called them, and I said, "Gentlemen, now it's your turn," and they agreed. They agreed voluntarily to cut salaries and wages, to freeze prices, to reduce consumption.

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I was also very lucky to be helped by the United States administration. The Secretary of State was George Schultz, and his economic advisors were Herb Stein and Stanley Fischer, two very, very serious economists. They advised me, too, and they told me, "If you do it, we shall provide you with a security net." We were afraid the money may run away from the country, and we could have faced a situation like in Argentina. So they said, "If you will be true to what you told us, we shall provide you with the necessary guarantee," and they did. They gave me a billion and a half dollars without any conditions. We stopped printing money, and all of a sudden, the people started to trust the economy. And in a short time, inflation went down from 500 percent to 16 percent. It became a classic turnaround. I think they study it in universities to this very day.

I was learning, as I did in the Ministry of Defense. I never knew, but I always learned. It is worthwhile, when you do a thing like that, to listen carefully, both to the theoretic side and the pragmatic one. Not everything that a professor of economy will tell you is realistic; on the other hand, it is serious. But if you listen to the people who are doers, they will tell you, "Maybe it's right, but it's undoable." Listen to them as well.

So I constantly listened to the two sides. And also, I knew that I have to make choices of my own. I worked with a group of people who argued day and night -- professors, officials, the Minister of Finance -- but there were decisions that I had to make. For example, the economists said, "Unless we have a deflation of 25 percent, we shall not save the economy." I asked them, "Twenty-five percent? What will be the size of unemployment?" They gave me a staggering figure. I said, "I'm not going for it. I disagree." And we got only 16 percent, not 25 percent.

On the other hand, they wanted to tax the windfalls or profits of the stock exchange. This time, I took the position of the rightists against it. If you do it, capital may run away from the country, and you cannot produce employment if you don't have the capital. Secondly, part of the investment in the stock exchange was public companies, pension companies, government. If I tax them, in fact, I'm not taxing the capitalists, I am taxing the people who have saved, trusted. It was very controversial, those sorts of things. But finally, it worked out.

Can you tell us how you approached those negotiations that ultimately led to your winning the Nobel Peace Prize. Once again, it seems you were learning and listening where other people might not.

Shimon Peres: At the beginning, I thought that we have to make peace with King Hussein. That would eventually represent both the Jordanians and the Palestinians. I think by geography, and the reason -- we are a triangle: Jordan, Palestine and ourselves. So I went and negotiated with King Hussein secretly, and we reached an agreement. The rest of the negotiations took place in London, at a private home of a friend of the King and a friend of mine. I remember that the wife of this person, who is a lawyer, sent away all of our staff, and she cooked herself, and at the end of the dinner, I suggested to the King that we should go and wash the dishes -- and the King was so happy to do so, but she wouldn't let us, so we didn't do it. Anyway, we sat for eight hours, and we worked out our agreement. I think this was the best agreement we ever had. But at that time, we had the National Unity Government, 50 percent Likud and 50 percent us, and the Likud Party did not agree, so we lost maybe our best opportunity for peace, to my deep regret.

Then I thought, "My God, we don't have a choice but to negotiate with the Palestinians, with the PLO, with Arafat." We had many contacts with the PLO people, but I noticed, like many people in exile, they have a tendency to make from every problem an ideology, and from non-ideology a solution. So you argue and argue and argue endlessly.

I was looking for a person among the Palestinians who can come down to earth, because the arguments are well-known by both sides, and it's almost a waste of time to begin and blame and accuse and demand. Then, among the many contacts, there was one person that -- I asked him to do something which for me would be a test, and for him very difficult. You know, we have had two levels of negotiations, one directly with the Palestinians, and the other which is called the "multinational negotiations." One was about the borders, and the other was about the relations, with the participation of many nations. Practically everybody participated. One of those groups was dealing with refugees, headed by a representative of Canada. We were supposed to nominate a person to represent our side, the Palestinians a person to represent their side. The Palestinians nominated somebody who was a member of the PNC, Palestinian National Council. According to law, we weren't permitted to negotiate through the PLO. So I approached this person (Abu Ala'a) and said, "Look, do you want to negotiate, do you want to be serious? Replace your man." And instead of him saying, as usually anybody would say, "It's impossible. Forget it," he said, "I shall try." And it didn't take much time. He replaced him. So I told myself, "That's it. He's the man." Because you know, it's one thing to win arguments, and another thing is to arrive at solutions.

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
The Prime Minister was Yitzhak Rabin. He was conducting the negotiations that took place in Washington. I told him from the outset that nothing would come out of it, because after every meeting, there was a press conference. You know, negotiations and lack of discretion is like trying to make love in the middle of the street. There are things that you have to keep in the dark. I told him about this man I knew, Abu Ala'a. I said, "Let me try with him." He wouldn't believe it, but he says, "Okay, try it." And while the negotiations in Washington deteriorated from day to day, our negotiations in Oslo went up from day to day. Finally, the negotiations in Washington fell down, and the negotiations in Oslo came to fruition.

We did it, half-legally, because there was a decision by our Parliament that we should not negotiate with the PLO. I wanted to go to negotiate directly with them, but Yitzhak Rabin told me, "Look, it would be very strange if the Minister of the Cabinet is breaking the law." So I sent my Director General of the Foreign Ministry, Uri Savir, who is a brilliant chap. He went together with an Israeli lawyer, who is also a brilliant lawyer. They met with the man I was mentioning, Abu Ala'a, who is now the Speaker of the Palestinian Assembly, who I believe is probably the most intelligent man that I can think of among the Palestinians.

The two of them established a chemistry immediately, Abu Ala'a and Uri Savir. What they were telling each other, nobody knows. It's really like a romantic experience. You have to seduce, you have to impress, and very often to close a little bit your eyes, because if you see everything too naked, you may lose your taste.

The last night before the (Oslo) agreement, which was August 1993, which also happened to be my birthday, so I was a little bit emotional. They reached a breakdown. And then, we negotiated through the telephone with Arafat and myself, eight hours. They were in Sweden, he was in Tunisia. And there was Mr. Larson from the Norwegian side and the late Foreign Minister of Norway, Holst. The telephone was so good, I could hear their cries, I could hear their suffering. I shall never forget this experience. Shall I say it's like a lady giving birth to a child? The pains, the hopes. And early in the morning, we reached an agreement by phone.

Then the Norwegians organized a secret meeting for signatures, because still the Cabinet didn't approve. I was there, and the room was filled by the Secret Service of Norway. We wouldn't let anybody else enter it. The day before the signing, there was a clash with the Hezbollah in Lebanon, and nine soldiers of our army lost their lives. The contrast was so great. We had prepared champagne and an environment of happiness -- and nine boys were killed. So I called up Rabin, and I said, "Look, I know exactly how you feel. We lost nine boys. Maybe the best thing will be to postpone it. We cannot celebrate this agreement tonight." Rabin thought for a while, and with his very deep voice, he said, "No. We shall sign." But we removed the champagne and all the other niceties and made it a dry meeting.

At the end of the signatures, Abu Ala'a asked to see me privately. Before he said a word, he burst into tears like a child. There was so much emotion in these negotiations. I was taken by that, I was surprised. Then he said nice things about the fate of his people and about the way we ran it and behaved.

I know many people criticize Arafat for good reasons. He was an impressive leader of the Palestinian revolt, and a failure of the Palestinian state. I for one will never forget the courageous steps he took, and there is no occasion whenever they attack Arafat that I wouldn't come on his side and say, "Don't forget the courageous decisions he has taken." And I would like to mention just one. With all Arab states, the basis of our negotiation was the United Nations Resolution about the 1947 borders. Would we make it a basis for our negotiations with the Palestinians? Fifty-five percent of the land was to go to the Palestinians, 45 to us. So it wouldn't fly. Arafat agreed to the 1967 borders, which gives the Palestinians only 22 percent and Israel 78 percent. I don't know of any other Palestinian leader that would do it, that was able to do it and ready to do it.

Shimon Peres Interview Photo
You must be fair in your life. I criticize Arafat very much. I think, later on, he spoiled what he has achieved, but still, I remember what should be remembered as well. On the other hand, we on our side went a very long way, because the West Bank was under Arab rule. They never gave it to the Palestinians. Gaza was under Arab rule. They never gave it to the Palestinians. We did it. We helped them to build the Palestinian personality and eventually the Palestinian state. As I remember the role of Arafat, I don't regret the choice we made at that time.

The Nobel Prize was given also some years later to those who tried to forge peace in Northern Ireland. Do you see a parallel in the sense that you are still striving for a complete resolution?

Shimon Peres: I don't think so. When you make a breakthrough, things don't happen automatically and instantly. But without a breakthrough, it would be just a wish in the air.

Now, every important decision has to go through a long avenue of disappointments, of setbacks, of troubles. I am totally unimpressed. I would be surprised if it would go smoothly. Somebody said, "You are as great as your crawl." If you want to achieve something important, you have to fight and crawl for it under very uncomfortable conditions and circumstances. And then again, when you win a war, your people are united and applaud you. When you make peace, your people are doubtful and resentful. To negotiate peace is to negotiate with your own people, not with your opponent, and your own people say, "My God, why did you give up so much? Why were you in a hurry? Why didn't you think this and that?" Well, if you think this and that, and you won't to be in a hurry, still you have to pay the price, because peace has a price as war has a price. The difference is that the price of war is unavoidably accepted. The price of the cost of peace cannot be measured.

Do you think the present war on terrorism is the correct way to go?

Shimon Peres: We don't have a choice. It's either them making our lives miserable and impossible, or us enabling even the people who harbor terror to join in the new age and the great promise.

Prime Minister, what are you most proud of accomplishing in your very rich career?

Shimon Peres: I don't know if I'm proud really, but if I have to compliment myself, I would just do it on those occasions where I have had a chance to save a life of a person or a child. This is in my eyes a real achievement. The rest? You try, but the ultimate test is saving life.

Thank you.

Thank you very much.

This page last revised on Sep 23, 2010 21:48 EDT