(Part One of a Two-Part Interview)
Each time I see Shimon Peres, the 9th President of Israel, I'm filled with a sort of wistfulness: Imagine if it were this man who was leading his country's Foreign Ministry today, and not the current minister, who is so vulgar and embarrassing that his own government forces him to sneak in and out of Washington. Not so with Peres, who last night was awarded, in the presence of a former President, Bill Clinton, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, by the current president, Barack Obama. Peres, who turns 89 this year, and is the last living connection in the Israeli government to Israel's founding father, his mentor David Ben-Gurion, seems, at least for him, somewhat awed by the honor. He is America-centric, a man who can articulate the idea of American exceptionalism better than most Americans. He is also partial to the two presidents he sat with last night at the White House. Of Obama, he says, "My God is he smart." And of Obama's commitment to Israel, he said he has no doubt.
The ceremony last night was a tribute to Peres, and his efforts - many flawed, but all sincere - to bring peace to Israel, and to bring about the birth of a Palestinian state. It was also a bit of a display of passive-aggressiveness by the White House, which venerates Peres, Israel's titular leader, while not appreciating very much at all Israel's actual governing leader, the prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. The show of affection was designed, it seems, to send a message to Netanyahu: Try a bit harder to bring about peace, and you, too, will be welcomed to the White House the way we welcomed Peres.
A couple of weeks ago, David Bradley, the owner of the Atlantic, and I sat down with Peres in his garden in Jerusalem to talk about Israel's relationship with the U.S., about Iran and the Palestinians, about the future of brain research (Peres can go on long riffs about science), and about the person who may be his favorite Jew in the world, Mark Zuckerberg. Two years ago, Peres, in a meeting in Jerusalem, asked me, "What is the name of the Jewish boy with the Facebook? Zuckerberger?" I said, "Zuckerberg." He answered: "I met him. A very nice boy. Also the Jewish boy from Google, a nice boy." (That would be Sergey Brin.)
In the two years since, Peres has gotten his own Facebook page, and has developed an elaborate theory of Zuckerberg, that he is a symbol of both Jewish ingenuity and the soaring spirit of American individual achievement. What he's looking for in Israel, in its energetic hi-tech sector, is the next Zuckerberg, he suggests. Science, creativity, and intellect are what will save Israel, he believes -- as opposed to holding on to specific pieces of territory.
In a meandering and charming conversation, Peres talked about the presidents he has known at some length. Ronald Reagan seems to be a personal favorite, along with George H.W. Bush and Clinton. The first president he met was Harry S. Truman, the man who helped make Israel a reality by recognizing it moments after it declared itself born. "With Truman I was surprised. I took him as a simple man, but he had a great sense of history, in part because of his Bible background. He had the strength of his convictions. He was elemental."
The first president he worked with closely was John F. Kennedy, and he told us a startling story about the day Kennedy forced Peres to create, on the fly, Israel's policy of nuclear opacity - not fully admitting that it possesses nuclear weapons.
"I was then the deputy defense minister, and the president invited me to the White House, but through the back rooms. I went with our ambassador in Washington, and I came in and Kennedy started to ask me questions like a machine gun, about our intelligence chief, about other issues. One after another, the questions. All of a sudden he said, 'Do you have a nuclear bomb?' I said, 'Mr. President, I assure you, Israel will not be the first country to introduce a nuclear weapon into the Middle East.' I didn't have a better answer."
He went on, "When I left the room our ambassador said, 'How dare you say that. You can't make government policy.' And I said, 'What would you like me to do, tell him, ' Mr. President, just a moment, I will ask our government for an answer.' Then I got a cable from the prime minister, saying, 'How dare you?' And then of course, it became official policy. This has been the official policy answer of Israel for half a century."
Peres makes it clear that on the most pressing matter of the day, Iran, and its nuclear intentions, he is, in some ways, the leader of the opposition: He argues, in the manner of Meir Dagan, the former Mossad chief, that there is little feasible way for Israel to carry out a successful strike against Iran. The actual strike could work, but it's the day after that worries him. What also worries him are the consequences of extreme Israeli unilateralism: "One of the things the United States does well is building coalitions. What the U.S. knows is that if you don't have a coalition with you, you will have a coalition against you. I don't want to see China and Russia on the side of Iran more strongly than they are."
Peres, of course, is the father of the Israeli nuclear program, and, that day in the garden, we put a question to him that he's usually uncomfortable answering: As someone with direct experience in creating a nuclear program, would armed intervention be effective in stopping the Iranians?
"You can answer it in two ways," he said. "I think of the case of Iraq (the 1981 Israeli strike on the Osirak nuclear reactor) and of Syria (the 2007 Israeli strike on Syria's nascent nuclear program a strike not acknowledged by Israeli leaders publicly, but apparently acknowledged publicly by Peres). Those were single shots. But you must think of this in a comprehensive way. You have to ask what is the next step. Suppose someone will destroy the installations in Iran. Iran is not Syria or Iraq, it is a different story, a larger land. This is a situation in which we would need the United States. Only the United States could manage the Iran situation. You would need someone to handle the verification, because otherwise you postpone for two years or three years or who knows? You would have to think about coalitions. You would you have to focus on second steps and third steps, who will be with you, who will be against you, what will the Iranian people do. There are so many questions. You can't just think about the thinkable."
He suggested that some of Israel's leaders underplay the potential impact of a strike on the Iranian people. "Every time Ben-Gurion had a French visitor he would ask him, ' Why did you lose the war?' I felt uncomfortable when he did this. I told him one day that I had investigated why the French lost the war. He asked for the reason. I said the French lost the war because the enemy didn't cooperate."
Peres does not seem to harbor illusions about Iran: "We don't threaten Iran. It is they who deny the Shoah while threatening a Shoah." But he thinks the U.S. is the only country with the capability to handle the Iranian threat. We cannot do what America can do, with all due respect to ourselves. If you are attacked, you must defend yourself. But if you take the initiative you have to take into account the consequences."
I'll have more of our conversation with Peres in part two of this post.