43 April 2003


An Optimistic Outlook

At the age of 79 and known as Israel's elder statesman, former Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Shimon Peres remains  optimistic that peace can be achieved in his life time. By Adel Darwish

Shimon Peres has become  Prime Minister by default after the Assassination of   peace maker Yitzhak Rabin in 1995. The Israeli left and liberals who pinned hopes on him in the 2001 election - when labour under Ehude Barak was humiliated in the polls- knew in their hearts he never won an election to become a Prime Minister. Instead he has been working for peace with another former Prime Minister Ehud  Barak, Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and now Palestine first Prim Minister Abu Mazen- Mahmoud Abbas.

In a series of small briefings with newspapers editorial staff, dinners and one little advertised public speech, Mr Peres was preaching his optimistic view for peace,   surprising every one this week by saying he believes  the conflict in Iraq might just be the key that opens the door. 

Cconflicts in the 21st century were no longer about borders or resources, said Mr Peres,  but about progress, modernity and advance against the forces that wanted to pull the world backward or keep it where it is.

This latest conflict  is `` a war for modernity'', the Israeli statesman said, and one that will finally give the people of Iraq and other Arab nations a chance. ``The past is written in red ink, in blood and hatred. None of us can change this. What everyone must do is think about the future. We are living in a revolutionary age. Twentieth century wars were about ideologies, flags and borders. The new age is a world where science and technology allow us to co-exist, no longer divided between east and west, north and south.''

Interesting ideas and fine words; yet, by design or by default most of questions, by a Palestinian woman, a man from the Guardian and an English woman activist in one of many pro- Palestine British campaigns as well as Palestine Diplomatic rep in Britain Affif Safieh, kept Mr Peres well entrenched in the past having to defend some policies of Israeli government with which he was clearly uncomfortable.
His argument about the irrelevance of national borders in the age of globalisation and giant multinationals and search for markets and modern ways to make wealth might be applicable in in most cases. However he couldn't convince his audience that border and land wouldn't mater for Israel which is in the heart of the conflict with the Palestinians. Although he clearly said that illegal "outpost" occupied by settlers have to be dismantled in a final deal with the Palestinians.

As he cited China and Russia's realisation that if they were to have innovation, prosperity and applicable science, they also must have truth to free their mind form the  totalitarian restrictions of an age of ideology that passed its sell-by-date.

"The new age is knocking on the door of the Muslim world as well," Mr Peres said. ``They cannot live in the past, their traditions will not enable them to make a living. Islam needs a reformation.'' 

He was not challenged by Muslims present on religious ground or taking his remarks as an affront to Islam.
Instead, they  applauded him. The challenging questions from a Palestinian lady - whom Peres recognised her distinguished old Jerusalem family, were of nationalistic nature regarding Israelis illegal occupation of  a house. 

But this golden 21st-century vision is threatened by ``Islamic terrorists,'' - as they call themselves by the name - Like Islamic resistance, Islamic Jihad, Hizbollah -  perhaps one day armed with weapons of mass destruction, who are ``afraid of modernity.''

This particular notion has been explored by intellectuals in Egypt- although  they were discouraged from publishing their work. They have argued in the past two years that traditional businesses funded by Islamic finance houses - who  crossed swords with the Egyptian government in 1988 over pyramid saving schemes that deprived thousands of billions of their savings- were also financing terrors groups. Bin Laden himself and Al-Qaeda have a vast investment and finance in Yemen, Bosnia and Albania. Egyptian economists point to   the Islamists' campaign against Sainsbury first supermarkets in Cairo which forced the British firm to withdraw loosing $100 million.
It was their fear that this particular positive phase of globalisation - providing employment for Egyptians, market for local produce and cheap reliable goods for consumer would harm the interests of  supertmarkets owened by Islamists businesses. However the giant Islamic finance houses and businesses - who incidentely own Islamic fashion design, manufacturing and stores selling variety of Islamic veil and Islamic dresses- saw the Sainsbury venture as a threat, which mosque vicars on their pay roll preached anti-sainsbury message suggesting it was part of a Zionist imperialist plot to run national economy.

Whether aware of the small, but dedicated work of little known Egyptian economists, Mr Peres's argument echoed what they expressed in their private seminars in Cairo over the past two years.

Mr Peres acknowledges that there are other countries in the Middle East, such as Iran, Syria and Libya, that have as strong, if not stronger, links to such terrorism than has Iraq. But they also have more potential to reform and he believes that America has made ``the right choice`` in deciding to oust Saddam Hussein ``as a warning to the rest``. Those who cite the anti-American demonstrations on the streets of Gaza as evidence that this war is fuelling the fires of Arab extremism, are dismissed by Mr Peres. ``This war will help the Middle East peace process. It will show that the world is not wild.'' 
He stopped short of criticising Mr Arafat - even though the members of his labour party are still angry with the Palestinian leader believing he didn't help them win the election by not using his great influence to call off the uprising which played into the hands of Ariel Sharon and the Likud party. Instead, Mr  urges Oslo Mahomoud Abbas -Abu Mazen-, the new Prime Minister of the Palestinian Authority, - and his co-architect of Oslo peace agreement - ``to show he has the will and the teeth`` to tackle the myriad paramilitary and terrorist organisations in his midst and appoint a ``credible`` internal security minister. 

``If he cannot control Hamas and Islamic Jihad, what is the point in us talking to him? If you have five or six armies, you cannot be a proper state. We need a partner for a peace process because you cannot clap your hands if you only have one hand.'' 

He acknowledge mistakes made by labour and Likud. Labour made mistakes in believing they could sell the idea of peace to a sceptical Israeli electorate without firm commitment to make sure there was a Palestinian partner willing to take the risks, he said. Meanwhile he saw Likud's mistake as believing that too can have peace without a partner by imposing their brand of peace by force.

He couldn't bring himself round to say that he believes Sharon was a credible partner for peace. ``I cannot make any promises for him but I can say that every leader must relate to reality. If you get a proper Palestinian Authority government, then Sharon would have to react properly. '' However Mr Peres didn't sound too sure of the unpredictable Sharon.

``A leader can wake up in the morning and order peace instead of coffee. If he wants coffee, that's easy, he can have it. But if he wants peace, he must do more than wake up. He must have a partner.'' 

British Prime Minister Tony Blair is staking much of the political capital he has earned in Washington on a gamble that he can persuade George Bush to force through the implementation of a road map for peace leading to Palestinian independence by 2005. 

While Mr Peres says that Mr Sharon would undoubtedly be susceptible to American pressure, he is sceptical about the chances of Washington paying much more than lip service to the new initiative, not least because Bill Clinton's previous efforts had proved to be in vain. 

In a reply to cynical question as whether the Americans were just publicising the idea of a road map to soften the opposition to war in Iraq and make the Middle East warm up to an American role, Peres again was not 100% sure. 
``Bush will not do it unless he can see the Palestinians are ready to be real partners. He does not want to embark on another failure.'' He meant of course the failure of  President Bill Clinton which made him quite bitter towards Mr Arafat. 
`` I don't think the international community can bring peace, it can only help and encourage. Peace cannot be imposed, that is a contradiction in terms.''

Mr Peres  is not  impressed by the road map itself wither. In each stage of the journey would have to be completed before another could proceed. ``This must not be like a train with wagons but like a fleet of ships. If one wagon gets stuck, the train becomes paralysed but a number of ships can sail in the right direction independently. We need to fight terrorism, negotiate, have economic reform and bring in aid, all these are separate ships.'' 
He admires Mr Blair's  `` political courage and stamina'' but he says Mr Blair must  do ``what he can to help the Palestinians reform and keep a trusting relationship with all the partners.''

This was of course in reference to remarks made by British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw which angered Tel Aviv. Mr Straw implied a degree of moral equivalence between Israel and Iraq's failure to obey UN resolutions. The British ambassador in Tel Aviv was given a strong protest from Israeli officials. 

``Language is a tool of diplomacy,'' he said and ``that is why I prefer not to mention any names.''

Copyright © Adel Darwish & Mideastnews and its parent company World Media UK Limited 2003. All rights reserved. No part of this site may be reproduced or transmitted in any form by any means or used for any business purpose without the written consent of the publisher. Whilst every effort has been made to ensure that the information contained herein is as accurate as possible, the publisher cannot accept responsibility for any consequences arising from its use. 

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