Shimon Peres on Iran: Overreaction Is Better Than Underreaction

Shimon Peres, the President of Israel, was in town this week, and I went to his hotel to talk to him about Iran and Israel and Obama and the Sunni-Shiite split and the future of the Jews; all the good stuff, in other words. The most interesting moment came when I asked him, in reference to Iran, if he thought that Israel had over-learned the lessons of Jewish history. He said: "If we have to make a mistake of overreaction or underreaction, I think I prefer the overreaction to underreaction." Here are some excerpts from our conversation:

Jeffrey Goldberg: While there is a perception that Prime Minister Netanyahu is particularly hawkish on the Iran question, listening to you in recent days, and listening to the Labor Party defense minister, there seems to be something of a national consensus on the Iran question.

President Shimon Peres: I want to make the following point about Iran, starting with the United States. The greatest asset for Israel, both moral and strategic, is our relationship with the United States. We should not permit any rift, any rupture. This remains our top consideration. And since Iran is a world problem, we should participate in facing its dangers, but without trying to monopolize it. Now there are many options. Whatever can be achieved diplomatically or economically is better. But if there will be a guarantee that these are the limits of our options, the Iranians may make the wrong call. The Iranian danger is composed of two parts: The weaponry and the character of its rulers. And I don't think that the present rulers of Iran are the permanent answer to the Iranian destiny. There were (government) changes in the past and maybe changes in the future. I don't suggest that other countries will introduce the changes, but others can call upon the Iranian people to come back to their own history.

JG: Is there a chance that Israel is over-reacting to the language that comes out of Tehran? Let me ask this another way: Is it possible to over-learn the lessons of Jewish history?

SP: If we have to make a mistake of overreaction or underreaction, I think I prefer the overreaction to underreaction.

JG: That's a lesson of Jewish history?

SP: This is a lesson of world history, not Jewish history. Because if the world had correctly read Hitler at the time, it would have saved 50 million lives.

JG: Are you equating Ahmadinejad or Khamenei with Hitler?

SP: No. I am equating the danger. I don't say they are the same. I'm talking about estimations. I think one of the greatest mistakes in history was to underestimate the danger of Nazism. All of us paid heavily for it. To prevent is better than to regret.

JG: Talk about this more in the specific Jewish context.

SP: One of the Jewish lessons is to have a state. Both to prevent the world from looking upon the Jews as a sort of helpless people. And because a state is a guarantee for Jewish life.

Zionism started, in fact, at the Dreyfus trial, 100 years ago. And in the Dreyfus trial you had Herzl as a journalist. You had two different reactions to Dreyfus. Jewish journalists asked questions: "Why is that? Why are they hating the Jewish people? What are the reasons?" And there were two different answers: One is, the world is wrong, the other is the Jews are wrong. The ones that say the world was wrong became Communists or revolutionaries. They said, we have to change the world to one without nations, without classes, without religion. They say if there won't be those differences, the Jews won't be different. The others said: "There's not a chance to change to the world. The right thing we have to do is change ourselves." They became Zionists. Let's go back to our land, let's return to our history. Let's go to normalcy. And this is the real lessons of Jewish history in the last 100 years.

JG: Isn't there a negative side to the subsequent ingathering? You have a situation in which you face a threat to your existence from a neighbor, and so many million of Jews lives within this small portion of land. Isn't one of the ironies of the success of Zionism that you've gathered too many Jews into too small a place?

SP: No. I'll tell you, it fell on us to make an army and to win seven wars. And not only did we face the threats, but we have advantages as well. Israel today is a very strong people. Don't judge us by the size. Judge us by our level. Today, physical sizes are inferior to spiritual, scientific capacities. And as we say, it does not matter how many square miles you have, what matters is how many scientists you have per square mile.

JG: There's a growing feeling in some quarters that Israel is not a strategic asset to America but sometimes that it drags down America's reputation in the Middle East. How do hope to counter that?

SP: Israel is the only country that has destroyed two generations of Russian weapons. Completely. I know that to produce weapons is an advantage, but to destroy competitive arms is also an advantage. We did it. Even today, strategically, I don't say that Israel is part of the American defense, but as an ally, politically and militarily, I don't think that we are passive or unimportant concerning information, intelligence, understanding the region. Imagine the Middle East without Israel. And imagine that Iran is a problem for us, but it's a greater problem today for the Arabs. So they have to think. The President has decided to try engagement. Okay. But he says he doesn't cross out other options.

JG: Do you believe engagement could work?

SP: I have my doubts. But I don't suggest that my doubts should become American policy. The President thinks differently. Let him try.

JG: Is the danger, in your mind, that Iran would use a nuclear weapon against Israel or allow someone access to a nuclear weapon to use against Israel -- or is the danger Iranian hegemony of the region? When I spoke to the Prime Minister a few weeks ago, he said he believes that Israel could be in a situation where it will actually fail to thrive as a state in a Middle East in which Iran has a nuclear weapon.

SP: My only answer I can give you is that we shall do what is necessary and possible to prevent it from happening. And we feel that we are not alone.

JG: Do you think the Iranian leadership means what it says about Israel, Jews and the Holocaust? Or is this simply a kind of propaganda directed toward Arab populations that Iran is trying to alienate from their own Arab leaders?

SP: Look, I cannot put myself in the mind of Ahmadinejad. Frankly, I don't know the answer. Since I don't know the answer, I have to consider the dangerous part of it, not only to the promising part of it.

JG: You mean you can't afford to assume that he's not serious?

SP: If there is a threat, if there is a danger, and we ignore it, we lose. Now I don't suggest that we shall lose our mind, but whatever is reasonable to do. Start with the preferred option, which is engagement and economic pressure

JG: Put this threat in the context of other threats that Israel has faced in the past. Is this comparable to pre-'67 in terms of existential danger?

SP: Nothing is the same. But the greatest danger was in the early '50s when the Russians started to supply the Arabs with the smaller weapons and we didn't have a reply.

JG: You're not just talking about the Egypt rocket programs, you mean the whole?

SP: Yes, I mean the heavy tanks, the anti-tank missiles, the anti-air missiles, modern planes, plenty. And we were empty-handed. We didn't have an answer. And I went to France to try to break the embargo.

JG: So you're saying the bigger danger is when Jews are defenseless.

SP: Right.

JG: You hear this more and more, people talking about the one-state solution. It used to be a radical idea to suggest a two-state solution, now we're moving toward a discussion -- at least on the left, obviously -- of a one-state solution. Do you think that the Palestinians and their supporters would ever agree to an end of claims --

SP: There is not a one-state solution; there is only one-state conflict instead of two-people conflict. Look, you have a conflict in Iraq; it's one state. You have a conflict in Lebanon; it's one state. You have a conflict in Sudan; it's one state. Who says that one state puts an end to the conflict? On the contrary, it makes it more dangerous. You have one state in Pakistan. You have one state in Afghanistan.

JG: But what I'm asking you is this: If you came tomorrow to the Arabs and said, "Fine, you want 100 percent of the West Bank and East Jerusalem as your capital, fine here it is, and Gaza too." Do you think that the Palestinian/Muslim side would ever say, "that's enough," and stop making claims?

SP: It will make a difference on the Arab side. I don't think all of them without exception, no. There will be exceptions, but it will clearly change the proportion of Palestinians (ready to compromise) once we shall have it.

JG: It will tip over --

SP: Tip over and not only that. You know, there is an Arab poet that I admire very much, Nizar Qabbani. He said, "The time has come for the Arabs to get rid of the yoke of imperialism. Thousands of years we live under the imperialism of words. We are victims of our words." So I wouldn't understand the Arab position by words alone. So I think, to be fair, I wouldn't judge everything said as though it is everything they think. I think many of them are sick and tired of war, of backwardness, of stagnation. I think there is a young generation, that watches television -- even their television -- and they see there is a different world.

You know, today, we have in Israel close to 1.1 million Arab citizens. Sixty thousand of them are university graduates. Where are they? Many of them are doctors. There is no hospital today in Israel that doesn't have Arab doctors and Arab nurses. Now look, an Israeli who would be reluctant to employ an Arab is not reluctant to enter the hospital, to lay on the bed and an Arab doctor will come with his knife and open his stomach. And he'll say, "Thank you." My hope is that what happens in a hospital with sick people will happen in the land with healthy people.