MELISSA BLOCK, host:
In an interview with NPR today, Shimon Peres, Israel's new president and elder statesman, called for a united international front to stop Iran's nuclear program. Peres told NPR that Iran's president worships a nuclear bomb more than he worships God.
From Jerusalem, NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Shimon Peres has held nearly every senior post in Israel's government. Now, at 83 years of age, Peres has a new job: he's redefining the parameters of the presidency, a traditionally ceremonial post here.
Many Israelis believe the country's most respected statesman will restore honor to the office after his predecessor, Moshe Katsav, left in disgrace in a sexual-harassment scandal.
After more than six decades in government, Shimon Peres says he's learned that inspiration is more important than governance. He calls the Israeli presidency's lack of direct power an overwhelming strength.
President SHIMON PERES (Israel): After being 60 years in politics, I lost my taste for management. I do believe that to inspire is more important than to manage. And to influence is more important than to give orders.
WESTERVELT: Peres is one of the few members of Israel's founding generation still directly involved in politics and the life of the country. Today, Israel's 9th president sees Iran's nuclear ambitions as the biggest threat to the security of the Jewish state and the world.
Iran's Holocaust-denying president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, has said, quote, "the Zionist regime occupying the Holy City of Jerusalem must be eliminated." Peres says Israel has no choice but to take the Iranian leader's rhetoric seriously. And Peres fired back today with some of his own oratory, saying the Iranian leader's nuclear ambition is greater than his Islamic faith.
Pres. PERES: Ahmadinejad is an unbelievable joke. My impression is that, in his eyes, the nuclear bomb is higher than Allah, than the Lord in heaven. He's worshipping the bomb more than he's worshipping the God in heaven.
WESTERVELT: Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes only. President Peres dismisses that idea and today called for a united international front to stop Tehran's nuclear pursuit. Many analysts wonder whether the current U.N.-backed sanctions will prove economically painful enough to halt the Islamic republic's program. But President Peres believes Iran's economy is in far worst shape than is readily apparent and tough sanctions can work.
Pres. PERES: Iran has between 50 and 20 percent unemployment, a high inflation. So, I mean, all this attention is about the bomb, but, again, people cannot live on a bomb, cannot make a living by producing bombs and missiles.
WESTERVELT: On the Palestinian issue and the stalled peace process, Peres defends Israel's policy of supporting the West Bank government of Fatah, while continuing to isolate Hamas, which it sees as a terrorist group. The Islamists of Hamas now control all of the Gaza strip and the 1.5 million Palestinians who live there after seizing control from rival Fatah last month. Some analysts say Israel's pursuing an unrealistic policy, wishing that Hamas will simply implode or go away. President Peres today rejects the idea of talking, even through backdoor channels, to the group that doesn't recognize Israel.
Pres. PERES: They don't want to talk. So you cannot say diplomacy calls to, talk through the walls. Maybe, the walls don't reply.
WESTERVELT: The policy now for Israel on the west is to try to strengthen the Fatah-run Palestinian government, But that body's rule is limited to the West Bank. And Palestinian lawmakers and legal experts have questioned the legality and legitimacy of President Mahmoud Abbas's caretaker government, which is operating without legislative approval. Still, President Peres says supporters of the peace process need to use imagination and daring to strengthen the West Bank's economy and set the conditions for a two-state solution. Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.