Interview: Shimon Peres
In an exclusive interview for the JC, Shimon Peres talks to Anshel Pfeffer about hecklers, boycotts and his relationship with Gordon Brown.
Here is the full text:
Mr President, all the red carpets are being rolled out for your visit to Britain. You are being awarded a knighthood and a doctorate and everyone you meet is making pro-Israel statements. But at the same time, we are seeing reports of unprecedented levels of hostility towards Israel in academia and parts of the British media. How do you explain the dissonance?
It is important to emphasize that all the leaders understand the severity of this issue and that this is a shameful thing for their country. But at the same time there are other people who are looking for something to pontificate about. It's like in football. Everyone thinks the British are a polite nation but then you see how the football hooligans behave.
But why do you think there is hostility towards Israel especially when there are so many other countries with much more dismal human rights records?
Maybe it has something to do with their previous record towards the Arabs, that now some British people feel they have some kind of duty to be on their side, some kind of colonial feeling of guilt. What I do know is that if Israel was in miserable state, there would be less anti-Semitism so I don't feel so bad because we are not in a miserable state.
Last night you were heckled repeatedly during your lecture at the Sheldonian Theatre in Oxford. How did that make you feel?
My job is to go to the places where they don't agree with us and I think I succeeded at Oxford in showing who is wild and impatient and who is acting in a respectable and civilised manner. So some hooligans shouted, why should I make a fuss, it was a fantastic event.
Dozens of countries have invited you to visit over Israel's 60th anniversary. Why did you decide to come to Britain?
First of all, there is an important Jewish community here and that is always a major consideration in my itinerary. The second reason is that I know that Prime Minister Gordon Brown is a true friend of Israel. He identifies with my economic outlook, we both speak the same language and have the same views and he is a key figure in Europe and over recent months, also on the world stage. By coming here, and having all these events, we are emphasizing the friendship that there is, not just the anti-Semitism.
You have addressed in your speeches the issue of the attempted academic boycott against Israel. There are different attitudes to the stand that Israel should take on this, what is yours?
I think that we should always say that this is their problem and they are the ones who should be ashamed. We should be saying to these academics, stop threatening us. Israel can cope very well without you and you are the ones who are making yourself irrelevant.
The most recent source of friction between the two governments has been the British initiative to label goods from Israel and from the settlements, how are you addressing this in your talks here?
We have an agreement with the European Union so why change it? The labelling will only cause unemployment since most of the employees working at the settlements are Palestinian so why spread more misery.
A more lasting dispute is over the arrest warrants brought against senior Israeli Army officers, which prevents them from visiting London. Is that coming up?
I am bringing this issue up in my meetings with British politicians. I am asking them, if this isn't just targeted specifically at Israel, then why are there no arrest warrants against American officers. And what about British forces operating in Iraq and Afghanistan with similar methods?
Another concern of the Israeli Foreign Ministry has been over the new energy of British diplomacy, especially Foreign Secretary David Miliband's visit to Syria this week. Are you concerned?
Not at all. There is a foreign secretary and he has to be active, I am looking at this from a very pragmatic point of view. You shouldn't make an alarm over everything and besides, we have been following Miliband's visit and he said some very pro-Israel things at the press conference in Damascus yesterday.
Throughout your entire political career of over six decades, you have been in contact with the British government and by extension British establishment and society, what changes do you see today?
First of all, I think that Israel has become a much more major factor than ever before, also because of our technological capabilities. I think that a lot of the criticism of Israel over recent years has been criticism of the United States by proxy, since Israel is seen as a close ally of the Americans. In that sense, Barack Obama's election is very good for Israel because it means there will be less criticism of Israel. I think that his election is a victory for Zionism, which was founded to end racism. His election reminded me of the 1936 Olympics in Berlin when Hitler left the stadium when Jesse Owens won the gold medal.