Peres: Gül epitome of contemporary man

Israeli President Shimon Peres said concerns regarding whether or not the Justice and Development Party's (AK Party) government's second term, this time with more electoral clout in the wake of the July 22 polls, are baseless because they are not based on

Peres: Gül epitome of contemporary man

Erdoğan declared that he is for a secular government, not for an Islamic government. You might be suspicious of his words. The more important thing is his actions. Is he behaving like an Islamist fundamentalist? The mere fact that Turkey is maintaining relations with Israel is the best declaration about the nature of the government," Peres said.

Regarding former Foreign Minister Abdullah Gül's new role as president of Turkey, Peres said: "I met Mr. Gül. I think he is a responsible man and he contributed positively to our relations. I feel that he is a man of contemporary times and a politician who really would like to see Turkey as a free and democratic country. I think he will act with a sense of secular responsibility."

When asked why US-based Jewish-American organization the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) had changed its traditional position concerning the killings of Anatolian Armenians in the early 20th century -- the ADL recently said the killings of Armenians by Ottoman Turks "were indeed tantamount to genocide" -- Peres stated: "I hope they will return to their traditional position. I talked to [ADL Director] Mr. [Abraham] Foxman. He told me that they are going to publish an open declaration that would say two things; they won't support the proposing of this issue before the American Congress, and secondly they would support the idea of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to have a commission including historians from both sides to study the matter. I think that historians, not governments, should deal with history."

In an exclusive interview with Today's Zaman, a few hours before Abdullah Gül became the 11th president of Turkey, Peres cast no doubt on the new government's intentions to keep the regime secular. When asked about First Lady Hayrünnisa Gül's headscarf, he laughed and said: "I'm not a fashion designer. So you should not ask me this question."

Recipient of the 1994 Nobel Peace Prize together with Israel's then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat for the peace talks that produced the Oslo Accords, Peres became president this year in June following the resignation of Moshe Katsav amid impending charges of sexual harassment crimes -- later dropped.

During the interview on Aug. 28 in Jerusalem, Peres answered our questions, spanning the concerns of Israel's 1 million-strong Muslim Arab population to the embargo on Iran, the possibility of Iraq's disintegration and Turkey's role in the region.

After the AK Party's success in the July 22 elections there has been many concerns, particularly in Jewish-American circles in the US that see this as the end of the Turkish Republican era, heralding a new and more Islamic Turkey and marking the end of Atatürk's regime. How do you see half of the Turkish population's supporting Erdoğan, is it something to be feared?

The concerns are baseless for two reasons. Erdoğan declared that he is for a secular government and not an Islamic one. You might be suspicious of his words, but the more important thing to keep in mind is his actions. Is he behaving like an Islamist fundamentalist? The mere fact that Turkey is maintaining relations with Israel is the best indication of the nature of his government. Israel's founder [David] Ben-Gurion used to say, "Judge the leaders on their record, what they do, not on what they say." It is only fair that we take a look at Erdoğan and his government's record -- a very impressive record at that: he created a middle class that has led to current stability, encouraged modern science and technology to Turkey, reduced the numbers of people below poverty line and improved the economy. Meanwhile, [Iranian President] Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, never asked to become a member of the European Union -- a democratic organization. Erdoğan, on the other hand, wants Turkey to be an EU member.

So the concerns have been exaggerated?

The concerns are not based on facts and I can only judge the factual situation.

Similarly, some people in Washington argue that relations between Israel and Turkey have lost momentum due to AK Party governance. Do you agree with that?

I don't think so. Even if Turkey and Israel do not have the same past, they belong to the same future. Even in the past, you know, some of our leaders were educated in Turkey, including our first prime minister and the first president -- they even wanted to be members of the Turkish Parliament.

A new president will be elected in Turkey today. Abdullah Gül will probably be your colleague as the 11th president…

I met Mr. Gül. I think he is a responsible man and he has contributed positively to our relations. I feel that he is a man of the modern age and a politician who really would like to see Turkey be a free and democratic country. I think he will act with a sense of secular responsibility as well.

His wife's headscarf has been a topic of debate for some people.

Today, I read in the newspapers debates that she may change her style. And I saw some of the styles suggested for her.

So it's not a problem?

I'm not a fashion designer. This is an issue people of fashion should talk. [laughter]

Mr. President, Turkey has become a more active country in the Middle East. How do you see it?

We welcome it. We are very glad to learn that Union of Chambers and Commodity Exchanges (TOBB) decided to build industrial parks in Palestine, starting from Gaza all the way to Jenin. We are negotiating with a Turkish university to build a branch here. We are very happy about Turkey's readiness to play more active role in the region.

You underline in your books that 'for peace in the Middle East' and 'for peace between Israel and the Palestinians,' the Palestinians should be empowered. What more can be done in that regard?

When we say "empower" we have to refer to it in modern terms. Today "to be empowered" is having a better economy, not necessarily having a better army. I think that we cling too much on strategy, too much on diplomacy, not enough on economy. What's changed Turkey is her economy. And if you are talking about headscarves, there are Turkish women without scarves. So women have a choice; if you don't enforce that then it's okay. Now I think that Palestinians should be given a chance to promote their economic life. There was an attempt to help Palestinians financially; unfortunately it didn't function. Palestinians got $1 billion a year from the world in the last 12-13 years, but it created a lot of corruption that brought [major Palestinian political party] Fatah down. It has created a lot of administrative costs and produced very little. Instead of financial aid we have to create economic opportunities so people will be able to get jobs and work. A peace process must be a meeting of people with a new fortune in which they personally believe that peace brought bread and butter to their homes and an open life to their children.

Do you have practical suggestions for Turkey in empowering Palestinians?

Turkey can build new industrial parks. Turkey made a name for itself as a good builder. It is also building in Russia, for example. So why not build here? We have to build bridges instead of building walls.

But you are building walls?

Because we are forced to, it's not our choice. The walls stopped suicide bombings; we haven't had it since then. It wasn't our pleasure [to build the walls].

Do you think that one day it might be demolished?

One-hundred percent. We are experts in dismantling walls.

But it took 60 years for the Berlin wall…

The walls must be shorter to be dismantled. It's not the age of walls, but it is the age of terror and I think terror will disappear finally. Because it doesn't have a message, it is a violent protest and they don't know where they are going.

So aren't the ideas to empower Palestinians economically and international communities' and your embargo on Palestinians contradictory?

No, no, no. We don't have any embargo on the Palestinians. We have an embargo on Hamas.

But it punishes ordinary Palestinians.

Who punishes them? Hamas punishes them. What can Israel do if Hamas fires every day three or four rockets over our civilians? We left Gaza completely. There is no Israeli there -- neither civilians nor soldiers. We took out our settlements. What do they want more? I am afraid they aren't looking for a Palestinian state. What they are looking for is an Iran-like religious hegemony in the Middle East, and for that reason they want to destroy, not to achieve.

Is there any way to engage Hamas into the political system, and how do you perceive Turkey's efforts in that respect?

I think the chances are very low. For example, Turkey cannot engage with Iranians about the UN resolutions. Same goes with Hamas. Of course you can have a dialogue, but not with a wall.

But Turkey has good relations with Iran, don't you think it may contribute to world peace or to peace in the Middle East?

What relations? Turkey can do business with Iran but cannot influence Iran to stop terror, cannot influence Iran to stop building bombs and threatening other people. I am sure Turkey would never agree to what the Iranian leadership says -- to wipe out Israel. Do you agree with it? Nobody does. Do you agree with Hamas that terror should be continued, that they don't have to negotiate? Nobody can, and nobody will, pay for terror. Hamas wanted to continue terror and shoots rockets, and hopes the world will pay. ... The world will not pay for terror. So we are not talking about Palestinians, we are talking about terror. Because, when it comes to the people, as you have said, we continue to supply electricity, we continue to supply water, we continue to open passages in spite of their firing rockets, but that doesn't mean you can negotiate with them, because there is no reason to. Nobody can explain why they are still shooting after Israel has completely left Gaza. What do they want?

Some people say that Turkey can be a mediator between Israel and the Palestinians, but some say that Turkey may side more with the Palestinians so it cannot be a mediator.

I think Turkey should support peace, not one side or the other, because the negotiations must be directly between the Israelis and the Palestinians, no other country can take part. Now -- when we are in negotiations -- when you negotiate, you negotiate with two parties, your enemy and your own people. Occasionally it's very difficult to convince your own people to give up land or something else. People don't like it. So the negotiator cannot be [anything] but Israeli, because he has to convince his people. No other country can convince Israelis but their own messengers, their own representatives. And for that reason I think the negotiations have to be face to face, between Mr. [Mahmoud] Abbas, the president of the Palestinian Authority, and Mr. [Ehud] Olmert, the prime minister of Israel. They talk, if they establish chemistry. Mr. Abbas has the same problem with Hamas as we do. It is not only a problem for Israel, but for the Palestinians as well. The latest polls shows the supporters of Hamas are beginning to be disappointed, saying, "What are you doing in Gaza?"

You do not buy the arguments that Turkey may be a negotiator?

I believe Turkey could and should support peace. Why should Turkey be one-dimensional when it can be two-dimensional like us? I mean we also want good relations, I told you. But I think if one must contribute, they should contribute more in the economic domain than the political one, because to negotiate politically you have to have a mandate of your own.

Again, regarding Turkey's role in the Middle East, how do you think we can be inspired by the Ottoman legacy, a time of peace for centuries in the region?

The Ottoman legacy is over, like the British Empire is over, like the French Empire is over. And you are not coming from the Ottoman legacy, you are coming from modern Turkey. Modern Turkey's example is the greatest contribution for peace in the Middle East. I went to Rafiah once when we were governing it. The mayor of Rafiah was a good friend of mine. He said: "Look, I don't know what we can do. You cannot negotiate with the Egyptians -- they are stubborn, we cannot go with you or the Jews -- we are Muslims." "So what do you want us to do, why can't you call the Turks back," I said. "Because Turks don't want to come back, they don't want to build a new empire, it's over," he said. We live in a world with borders. Distances disappear with the power of transportation and communication. The racial differences are over too. Today it's really not important if you are yellow or black or white. If you adopt the right policies, color has nothing to say. Even the relations between men and women are changing; we are becoming more and more equal. So we cannot go back, we have to move forward. And you can pray like a Muslim. Why should I shoot you and you shoot me? You should pray and I should pray. We accept all prayers go straight to heaven, so let the Lord be the judge.

Yesterday I was at the Al-Aqsa Mosque. I told one of your Arab citizens there that I planned to interview you and asked him to tell me his concerns. The humble man said he is a citizen of Israel, but his brother just five kilometers away, cannot come here to pray, though American Muslims or European Muslims may do so.

Let them behave like the American Muslims and they can come. That's all. We don't want them to stop being Muslims. We want them to stop shooting. If they continue shooting they will not be able to move freely. Look, there were 50,000 Palestinians working in Israel. But they have begun to commit acts of terror. We have in Israel a million Muslim Arabs, as our citizens. Five thousand of them are academics. Twenty-thousand Arab students every year enter into our universities and most of them are women.

What those graduates are doing in Israel? Some of them are teachers, some of them doctors. Today you come to every Israeli hospital and find Arab doctors. You'll find Arab nurses and Arab patients. Now look how ridiculous the situation is. A Jewish patient wouldn't mind being treated by an Arab doctor; an Arab patient can be treated by a Jew, a Jewish doctor. What I am saying is the only healthy relations are in the hospital. The doctor has a knife but only to perform an operation, to make somebody healthy, not to cut somebody -- that's the difference.

So easing the visitation restrictions are dependent on the level of violence?

One-hundred percent. Jordanians come and we don't have a problem. Turks are Muslims and we don't have problems.

Yesterday I was with former Israeli Ambassador to Turkey Zvi Elpeleg in Tel-Aviv. I realized a serious problem faces Muslim Arabs and Mr. Elpeleg was very concerned as well. Israel, according to a 1950s law, confiscated the properties of Muslim foundations. Mosques have been used for purposes other than that they were designed for and cemeteries have been sold. Once it might have been a security issue, but times have changed. As a man of peace, how would you help solve this issue?

I think we are responsible for all holy sites of all religions. We have to honor them, we have to respect them, we must not endanger them. It's our responsibility, the safety of the churches, of the mosques, of the synagogues. All of them are holy in our eyes, and as a government we have to do whatever we can.

A lawyer brought the cemetery case to the Supreme Court but they said, under the law dating back to the 1950s, it's not illegal.

I don't know which law you're referring to…

I'm referring to the 'present absentees' issue. It's the law about the properties belonging to the Palestinians who were displaced during the 1948 war but currently live in Israel.

According to our Constitution, we have to respect all religions, enable free worship and respect their holy sites.

Some neocons, the ones close to the Jewish lobby, say partition of Iraq would be good for Israel because this will decrease Iran's power, helping Israel. How do you see the issue?

It's not our problem. Nobody knows what's helpful and what's not helpful. It's for Iraq to decide what they want, to be together or to separate. We don't have a say. We have enough problems of our own. We don't run the lives of other people.

How do you feel when you look at your Nobel Prize and the current situation? What went wrong?

Many reasons… There was a split among the Palestinians; they couldn't unite and make up their minds, and as a result Mr. Arafat started zigzagging. Without him we wouldn't be able to even start the negotiations but with him we couldn't conclude because of this zigzagging. On the other side, Israelis became disappointed; they said "land for peace." They thought Israelis decided to give all the land but failed to get peace. In spite of it all, the result has not been so bad. Without Oslo, Palestinians wouldn't be people that could negotiate -- maybe all of them would be in Hamas. In Oslo we also agreed on some principles, including the 1967 borders and not those of '48. But history takes time, you know. You have to overcome many prejudices, many hells, many fears and many worries. Personally, 14 to 20 years seems to be a long time period, but in fact it is not -- it's a short period of time.

This year was the 40th anniversary of the 1967 events. Some in the Israeli media have been quite critical of what was done after 1967, especially the occupation.

Was that the only thing they were critical about? [Laughing]

No, there was a lot of criticism, but they say that the occupation was not right.

What else could we do? Take the West Bank? It was under Jordanian control. Our then prime minister sent a message to the king of Jordan and said, "Don't attack us, we shall not attack you." Then they turned their guns against us, so we were left without any choice but to silence them.

But you are still for the withdrawal from the West Bank, and you have been criticized by some rabbis for being against Jewish law.

I think there was a solution accepted by most Israelis: that there should be two states for two people. It's clear. What I say is in that direction.

Some say that the absence of a Muslim state in the Quartet diminishes its power. Wouldn't an Islamic country or the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) -- representing 57 Muslim states -- help to strengthen its legitimacy?

We have to negotiate outstanding questions. Some of the proposals are music without an orchestra. They made their opinions known, but you cannot negotiate with opinions. Therefore we are negotiating with Palestinians politically and with the Jordanians and the Palestinians economically. I think this is the right framework.

Why did the Anti-Defamation League (ADL) change its traditional position and make such a decision [equating the 1915 events against Anatolian Armenians to genocide]?

I think there was internal pressure and they departed from their traditional position. I hope they will return to their traditional position. I talked to [ADL Director] Mr. [Abraham] Foxman. He told me that they are going to publish an open declaration that would say two things; they won't support the proposing of this issue before the American Congress, and secondly they would support the idea of [Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip] Erdoğan to have a commission including historians from both sides to study the matter. I think that historians, not governments, should deal with history.

Do you agree with the argument that this was a reaction to Turkey's relations with Iran and Turkey's invitation of Hamas?

No, I don't think so. I think it's an internal matter. I don't think they play into world politics. They don't get orders from Israel and I think they didn't have a political underpinning.

Could the experiences of the Armenians, who formed gangs during World War I and demanded independence, be compared to the experiences of the Jews, who faced genocide just because of their identity?

No, I don't think you can compare them. I think it's reasonable what Prime Minister Erdoğan suggested -- bringing together a group of historians that will judge history based on history, not based on politics. I mean they would not adapt history depending on the present political arguments. History is over, it cannot be changed. It must be investigated professionally and we have to continue with our lives. We cannot change the past; we can only change the future. A rabbi asked Ben-Gurion once what even God couldn't change. Ben-Gurion asked, "What?" and the rabbi replied, "History."

Do you think Turkish society can be assured that Israel would not change its position on the events of 1915?

Israel is firm in its position. For us relations with Turkey are very important and if we had to fight, we would fight Ahmadinejad's policies of destruction, threats, terror and bombs.

So do you support the idea of a nuclear-free Middle East?

I declare the Middle East free from the threat of destruction. Arms don't destroy, people destroy. Pakistan has a bomb but has not hit anything. But here comes a declaration of the leader, a member of the United Nations that he wants to wipe out another member of the United Nations. Nobody can accept it. Israel is being threatened, but Iran is not being threatened by anybody.

So do you think Israel could also be part of the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT)?

Well, that's another story. Israel never said we should detonate a nuclear bomb in the Middle East, but people are suspicious. And if the suspicion is a deterrent, it's good enough. We are satisfied with the suspicion. We don't want anything more.

Interview by Abdulhamit Bilici

Last Mod: 01 Eylül 2007, 10:06
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