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Shimon Peres defends Israel's policies as vital to security

The Israeli president says the Gaza blockade was put in place to protect the Jewish state from terrorism, and those who haven't faced terrorism do not understand the need for such an action.

June 23, 2010|Edmund Sanders, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Jerusalem —

Israeli President Shimon Peres said Tuesday that his nation's policy on the Gaza Strip has not yielded the results the government expected, and he criticized municipal plans to tear down 22 Palestinian homes in East Jerusalem to make way for redevelopment.

But the 86-year-old former prime minister vigorously defended Israel's overall policies as vital to its security, saying international critics don't face the daily threat of terrorism. He spoke with the Los Angeles Times on Tuesday in his Jerusalem office.

As Israel prepares to ease the land blockade of Gaza — even though Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit remains in custody and Hamas is still in power — many Israelis have been asking whether the economic embargo over the last three years achieved anything tangible. Did it?

Israel wanted to tell the Palestinian people that [Hamas rocket attacks against Israel] would harm them. But with two reservations: first, that it not become a collective punishment and, second, that it not create an inhumane situation. So we measured everything. Is there enough water, enough food, enough medical supplies? I've seen reports about the situation in Gaza and the narrative was extremely negative. But when you looked at the people, they dressed properly. The markets were full. It was a contradiction. It's not by accident that there was not a humanitarian crisis. We felt responsible. But Hamas is the one who destroyed everything. That is being forgotten.

But did the Israeli restrictions on civilian goods and supplies help further Israel's policy goals?

I can't answer that, and I don't know if that's even important. We'd hoped for more. We'd hoped that once out of there [after Israel's 2005 unilateral disengagement from Gaza Strip], we would be out. But once we left Gaza, we couldn't understand why they were bombing us. We were seriously surprised by the reaction. I still don't understand. If the rulers of Gaza would demilitarize and de-terrorize Gaza, there would not be a problem. The fate is in their hands.

Some worry Israel is entering another period of international isolation. Turkish relations are on the rocks. The U.N. is pushing for an international inquiry into the May 31 flotilla raid. We've seen cultural boycotts. At the same time, some Western allies are angry over Israel's alleged misuse of passports in its spy operations. Is Israel losing its friends internationally?

The fact that [outsiders] are pressing us doesn't mean that they're right. There is an attempt to delegitimize Israel. It's quite easy. The Arab bloc has a built-in majority in the United Nations. We never stand the slightest chance.

But I ask myself the following question: If they are delegitimizing Israel, who are they legitimizing? They legitimize Hezbollah and Hamas and Al Qaeda too. They don't mean to. But if you delegitimize the fight against terror, which is very complicated, the consequences are that terror is being legitimized.

Isn't that an oversimplification? Is criticizing Israel's policies and practices the same as delegitimizing Israel?

Criticism is one thing. But when you say, "Go back to Poland. Go back to Germany," [as American journalist Helen Thomas recently said in a widely condemned remark] that's not criticizing. Or when they say Israel doesn't have the right to exist, that's not criticizing.

That was one woman's outburst. That's not the kind of thing people mean when they talk about Israel's isolation.

What would they like us to do? We agreed to a two-state solution. We agreed to ease the situation in the West Bank. We are easing the situation in Gaza. And there are still acts of terror. Countries that have to fight terror understand what we are doing. Countries that read about it don't understand. It's very hard for a person in Switzerland to understand. But the United States, they understand. We have a biography that no one else has. In 62 years, we've been attacked seven times in an attempt to [destroy] us.

On the isolation of Israel, I don't think it's true. There have never been better relations with the Vatican and Israel. Take India, we have excellent relations because they suffer the same thing we do.

The U.S. has always been a friend too, but President Obama appears to be setting new terms for that friendship. He's pushed Israel to stop settlement construction and signed a resolution calling for Israel to join the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty over Israel's objections. Is this a new kind of friendship?

The friendship between Israel and America remains. Obama was fair enough to say that on some points he was mistaken. And we should say the same thing, on some points we were mistaken. To be friends you don't have to agree 100% of the time on 100% of the issues. I don't think this is a crisis.

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