MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
And I'm Robert Siegel.
At the age of 85, Israel's Shimon Peres has had all the big jobs in government there: defense minister, foreign minister, prime minister twice. Now, he's the president, the head of state. He doesn't make policy anymore, but he is in Washington at this year's conference of APAC, the big pro-Israel lobby, talking about policy. And with a new U.S. administration that some expect will be not quite so pro-Israel as the last, he is here to express support for President Obama's search for a Mid-East peace and confidence in America's friendship.
President SHIMON PERES (Israel): We are sure that this is deep and strong, and we shall be a loyal supporter of this attempt under the leadership of President Obama.
SIEGEL: But here's a wrinkle. President Obama, like President Bush before him, supports a two-state solution; Israel and Palestine living side-by-side in peace and security, so does Shimon Peres. He shared the Nobel Peace Prize for the Oslo Accords in 1993.
But the Israeli prime minister who's due here later this month, Benjamin Netanyahu, has not said that his government will pursue that aim. In an interview today, President Peres pointed to what Netanyahu has said: Israel will honor past agreements, doesn't want to rule over Palestinians, and wants to negotiate with the Palestinians.
Pres. PERES: You know, every statesman has the right to use what Kissinger calls constructive ambiguity.
SIEGEL: Will you carry that message to President Obama, to read the constructive possibilities in what's ambiguous in what Prime Minister Netanyahu says?
Pres. PERES: I don't think it will be wise on my side to say ahead what I shall tell the president. I prefer to report after the meeting, not before it.
SIEGEL: As for today's Palestinian leadership, Shimon Peres says there are some good negotiating partners there; a far cry from the days when he says no Palestinian and no Arab state would recognize Israel or negotiate with the Israelis.
Pres. PERES: They made the U-turn to say we have to negotiate, we have to recognize, we have to make peace.
SIEGEL: What is the lesson from that experience about dealing today with, say, Hamas, the Islamist group that runs Gaza? Is it that like other groups that vowed to destroy Israel in the past, there may yet be a time to talk with them, or you can't deal with them at all?
Pres. PERES: I distinguish between political parties and religious parties. Political parties know that politics is based on compromises. Religious parties are uncompromising, and that's the trouble with Hamas. They're so haughty that they feel that they have the right to kill other people.
SIEGEL: So, no prospect of…
Pres. PERES: I don't think. I don't see a prospect with Hamas, as I don't see future for Hamas because they're putting their own people in trouble. They have divided the Palestinian people. They have invited an attack upon us, Gaza. They produced bloodshed. They didn't intend to use hope.
SIEGEL: I want to ask you about Iran. You are widely associated, years ago, with Israel's development of a nuclear arsenal that Israel will not confirm exists, will not talk about. But assuming that Israel has nuclear weapons, if they're not sufficient to deter Iran from a nuclear strike, what's the use of having nuclear weapons at all?
Pres. PERES: I won't refer to nuclear weapons, but I will refer to two things which make the difference. Nobody is threatening the life of Iran. Iran is the only country that is threatening the life of Israel, so you can't compare it. Secondly, there is a different in the character of the government. This is a group of warlords, fanatic, that thinks that to enrich uranium is the top of the world, that became a center of terror, that have agencies of terror; one in Lebanon of Hezbollah. The other in Gaza, Hamas. They use them. You cannot say about Israel.
SIEGEL: But do you think that the logic of deterrence in the way that nuclear-armed countries, such as the United States and the Soviet Union, the United States and China, had weapons and the threat was perceived as so outrageous that no one would use them? Can Iran be a party to that same logic, do you think?
Pres. PERES: No, you cannot because they don't have the same logic, so you cannot employ it the same way. The problem is: is Ahmadinejad serious?
Pres. PERES: If he's serious in his call to wipe out Israel, who can guarantee that he doesn't mean it? Nobody in the world. So, we have to be careful.
SIEGEL: Are you satisfied that the United States is taking that threat as seriously as you do and that U.S. policy is as affective as it could be right now?
Pres. PERES: I think they take it as seriously as we do. They suggest a different tactic in…
SIEGEL: A different tactic meaning?
Pres. PERES: Start, first of all, with engagement. Then maybe sanctions. Don't start with the most extreme option.
SIEGEL: Now, you know that there are Arab states as worried about Iran as Israel is…
Pres. PERES: Right.
SIEGEL: …who are saying to the Israelis, we would like to have a united front with you, but you have to satisfy some of the complaints that Arabs have against Israel. There has to be real end of construction of settlements, for example, to show some Israeli commitment that we can be on the same team…
Pres. PERES: We don't have an argument about it. We promised not to put in new settlements and we shall respect it. We don't have to be Arabs to make peace. We want it. We gave all the land, all the water, all the oil back to Egypt. We gave all the land, all the water back to (unintelligible). The difference under the previous government between the Palestinians and Israel was to present the plan, (unintelligible) bridgeable.
SIEGEL: That optimistic appraisal of bridgeable differences between Israelis and Palestinians from Israel's president, Shimon Peres.
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