In an exclusive interview by Ahmad Rafat of Radio Farda, Israel's new Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres said he is encouraged by changes in the Palestinian leadership but warned that Iran and Syria continue to negatively impact prospects for peace in the region. Peres accused Syria of exporting terrorism and called Iran "the greatest danger in the Middle East."
Tel Aviv, 12 January 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Shimon Peres is an influential and veteran politician, having taken part in political life since Israel's creation in 1948.
Born in 1923 in Volozhin in what was then Poland but is now Belarus, Peres has been a member of the Israeli parliament since 1959 and served as deputy minister of defense from 1959 to 1965. From 1974 to 1977, he served as defense minister. Peres was prime minister from 1984 to 1986, and for two years after that served as foreign minister.
As foreign minister, Peres won a reputation as Israel's leading dove by helping to conclude the Oslo peace accords with the Palestinians in the early 1990s. For his efforts to achieve peace in the Middle East, Peres received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1994.
On 10 January, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's ruling Likud Party formed a coalition government with Peres' Labor Party. On the same day, Mahmud Abbas was declared the winner of the Palestinian presidential election.
RFE/RL sat down with Peres in Tel Aviv yesterday and asked him about all the recent developments.
RFE/RL: Why has your party joined a coalition with Sharon's Likud Party?
Shimon Peres: The main reason that we are entering the government is to assure that the withdrawal from Gaza will take place. Without it, the government would fall and then we would go to elections and nothing would happen.
RFE/RL:Do you think the Israeli disengagement might take place even without Palestinian participation?
Peres:: I think we have to enter into discussions with the Palestinians. Finally, the unilaterality cannot be implemented without the Palestinians. And we have to start talking with them sooner or later.
RFE/RL: Was Yasser Arafat a hindrance to solving Palestinian problems, and does the new leadership of the Palestinian Authority offer more hope for peace?
Peres::The death of [former Palestinian leader Yasser] Arafat probably introduced a great change, because Arafat was not ready to fight terror. We don't know if he initiated terror, but he didn't fight it, whereas the new leaders think that terror is harmful to the Palestinians and they have to stop it.
RFE/RL: Syrian officials are hinting that they are ready to restart talks with Israel. Is Israel ready to negotiate with Damascus?
Peres:: Maybe the Syrians changed their language, but not their policies. And as long as some of the headquarters of the terrorist organizations are there, the language will not change. I mean we know for example that the headquarters of Hamas is in Syria. And we know that the headquarters in Syria is much more extreme than the local leaders of Hamas. So, they export terror.
RFE/RL: However, some of these organizations, such as Hizballah, are supported by Iran. What is your attitude to this country?
Peres:: I think Iran is the greatest danger in the Middle East. They are a center of terror and they spread terror all over the place, from Iraq to Gaza. Secondly, a nuclear option in the hands of Iran will become a very serious problem for all of our countries, in the Middle East and even in Europe.
RFE/RL: What steps might Israel take to counter this threat from Iran?
Peres:: Iran is a problem for the rest of the world, not only for Israel. And we don't want to narrow it to Iranian-Israeli relations. So there are other people and other countries that have to take the lead and decide. We are not going to be the main player there. I think that they should start with economic pressure and political pressure, not with the military one.
RFE/RL: However, Britain, France, and Germany, who are discussing nuclear issues with Iran, seem to be rather optimistic.
Peres:: They [Britain, France, Germany] may be optimistic about the future, but they cannot be optimistic about the past, because many of the promises that Iran has promised didn't come true. So even if they are showing optimism for tomorrow, they must be pessimistic about yesterday.
Peres has never left politics, despite the scorn of some Israelis who call him a dreamer. He suggested yesterday that with the election of moderate Abbas, there is now reason to dream again.
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