Shimon Peres on Donald Trump, Fighting ISIS and Peace in the Middle East


Tel Aviv, Israel — There are few world leaders with a longer résumé than Shimon Peres.

Peres, 92, is Israel's former president and two-time prime minister who won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 for his efforts to negotiate the Oslo Accords alongside Yasser Arafat and Yitzhak Rabin. At practically every turn in Israel's 67-year history, Peres has played a major role.

He's also one of the few political leaders in Israel who remains convinced that finding peace in the Arab-Israeli conflict is possible.

In recent years, the country has taken a rightward turn under the leadership of conservative Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was recently re-elected for his second term. Peres and Netanyahu have sparred publicly on several occasions, most notably over the Iran nuclear deal several years back. Peres' successor and Israel's current president Reuven Rivlin also recently declared peace "impossible." Ask many Israelis today, even in Tel Aviv, Israel's most liberal city, and they will tell you that although they want peace with the Palestinians, they consider the idea a pipe dream.

None of that seems to matter to Peres, who even in his old age, remains laser-focused on solving the Arab-Israeli conflict despite the fact that progress has stalled.

"Nobody must be stuck," Peres told Mic in an exclusive interview at his office at the Peres Center for Peace in Jaffa, a stunning view overlooking the Mediterranean serving as our backdrop. "All my life has been spent doing things that people say are impossible. We are never in an impossible situation, we are just in an impossible moment."

Peres and I discussed a wide range of topics, including his assessment of the chaos in the Middle East, his vision for finding a resolution to the Arab-Israeli conflict and, of course, his views on Republican front-runner Donald Trump. Peres was chock full of anecdotes and frequently shared his own history lessons throughout.

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Peres has enjoyed a surge in popularity late in his life, largely beloved by Israelis and immune from criticism since being elected president, although it is a largely ceremonial position in the country. But it wasn't always that way, and even Peres recognizes he has been at the center of controversy throughout his political career.

"When I was prime minister, I was very controversial," Peres told Mic. "In my government, I don't think many people liked me."

Peres is often heralded for his instrumental role in the signing of the Oslo Accord, but he has also drawn fierce criticism both within Israel and from Palestinians for his involvement in various peace initiatives over the years. Peres' detractors frequently chastise his time as Israel's Defense Minister between 1959 and 1969, when he presided over the development of Israel's still-secret nuclear program, as well as the creation of the first settlements in the West Bank, which represent a major ongoing source of tension. Many Palestinians also argue that, although Peres has boldly pledged his commitment to peace, he has played a pivotal role in leading Israel's occupation of the Palestinian territories.

Still, Peres' optimistic tone and his frequent calls for tolerance and peace represent a markedly different approach at a time when leaders like Donald Trump have surged in popularity in the United States by appealing to fear and anxiety. Perhaps for that reason, Peres addressed Trump head-on, revealing what he thinks of the Republican front-runner.

"He's a very talented actor, I must say," Peres told Mic.

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At a time when the Middle East has descended into chaos in places like Syria, Iraq and Libya, Peres' optimism might come across as outdated. Indeed, Peres frequently spoke about building a "new Middle East" while in office, a vision which has not materialized in the way he hoped, at least for now.

But Peres remains more convinced than ever that peace will come, primarily because of the innovative thinking he has seen from entrepreneurs and the transformative technology now at millennials' fingertips. Peres, who became something of a social media star following his recent role in a viral video, which landed him an appearance on NBC's Morning Joe, spoke about his admiration for tech innovators like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, who he believes are leading today's "revolution" while politicians take a backseat.

When I asked him what aspect of technology he's most excited about, Peres responded, "What fascinates me is the sharing economy."

"In a way, America is returning to the kibbutz, the sharing economy. Maybe this is the reason why Bernie Sanders all of a sudden has had some traction."

The following is a transcript of our conversation, which has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Mic: Many young people believe the Middle East has never felt worse, as they look around at things like Syria, extremism and what's happening in Libya and Egypt. You've lived through so much history. How do you assess the current state of the Middle East and where we're at today?

Shimon Peres (SP): The definition of the Middle East doesn't fit the situation anymore. It is a geographic definition, and geography doesn't play the same role it used to.

Previously in this region, people made their living off the land. So the more land they had, the better off they were, and if they wanted more, they had to fight. As a result, you had empires and wars, and fighting and fighting back. It was an age of borders, and nations spent a lot of money to defend their borders. Some went up high — and then fell down. Take, for example, Great Britain: They were the largest empire, and now they have been sent back to their small island.

The new age is totally different. It does not depend upon armies, because you cannot conquer knowledge by wars. Now, you have to learn, but there are currently no organized ways of learning, because learning comes from dreams and inspiration from brilliant minds and courageous people. For example, Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg brought about revolutions today, and they are spreading.

So the present crisis in the Middle East is that [leaders] did not depart from the past and they have not entered the future as quickly as they should have. Today, borders are becoming unimportant, governments have lost their prestige, and so have politicians. In their place, global companies have emerged that are not based on power, but on strength.

Democracy is not what it used to be. Previously, the basic idea of democracy was that you have the right to be equal. Today, democracy without borders means you have the equal right to be different. Equality and difference are now on the same level — all colors, religions, all people no matter where you came from.

But since many [leaders in this region] are very old, they are becoming very conservative, and that structures the way they govern. They feel uncomfortable with change.

Mic: So you think the ideas we are using to combat extremism are outdated?

SP: Yes. We're fighting the wrong way. There's a difference between war and terror. With war, you have to organize camps and fight enemies over land. Terror is a protest.

In order to have a democracy, you need to have a majority, to answer who will govern whom, what for, and why they want to govern. People say majorities should be nice to minorities. But it's not a matter of being nice.

You have to analyze what causes people to protest. Instead of just fighting terrorists, if you are serious, you have to fight the reasons why terror exists.

Mic: If you listen to the debates right now about terrorism, it's mostly about bombing the enemy. It sounds like you believe Mark Zuckerberg and Bill Gates and ideas coming from technology are the long-term bet to combat extremism.

SP: Right, and I think we need to spread knowledge. In most of the countries where you have extremism, heads of nations make themselves into kings. They don't care about others. Most of these countries also discriminate against women. They have slavery. If people are being discriminated against, it is the children who are the victims, because they suffer from ignorance.

In a recent interview with Jeffrey Goldberg, I saw that President Obama said he thinks that people were born good. I agree with him. What makes us bad is not our birth, but our circumstances.

Mic: I'm struck by your sense of optimism and hope. In the United States, people are hearing from Donald Trump a very different message. What do you think about him or his message?

SP: He too represents a protest. He's a very talented actor, I must say. But, it is not his fault what's happening in America. America has lost the majority in the past three years. It has become a country of minorities.

President Obama says it's very hard to fight in the Middle East because there are tribes. America has tribes too. There's no longer a white majority, and people are disoriented. They see what the politicians say and think they are talking nonsense. Politicians say, "I'm great and strong." But people ask, "Are you? Can you really bring an end to terror? Can you bring an end to the social gap?"

[These politicians] take power for their own advantages. In my judgment, the essence of leadership in the new age is to serve. If you want to be great, serve.

Mic: That's very powerful.

SP: It's true, I've seen it in different capacities. I've held the two top jobs in Israeli politics, prime minister and president. Prime Minister has power, controls the bureaucracy and holds the majority. But in my government, I don't think many people liked me. They felt in their heart, if it weren't me, they would be the prime minister.

Then I became president. The president doesn't have opposing forces. It's more symbolic. But I did more as a president then prime minister, because instead of giving orders, I asked people to volunteer. When I was prime minister, most people told me "no," and they thought I was trying to advance an agenda. But then I became president, and nobody saw any purpose than serving the people.

You have to understand the smallest thing in life is your ego. You can become great if you serve great issues. You're only as great as the issues you serve. When I was prime minister, I was very controversial. I became president, and I am very popular to this day. I could do more things because they didn't have objections.

You mentioned President Obama. He has a complicated legacy here in Israel. I want to ask you about experience working with him and your assessment of where we're at in terms of the peace process under his leadership?

Goldberg wrote that while other presidents will be judged by what they did, President Obama will be judged by what he prevented. There's a clear case for the prevention over war. War costs a lot of money, a lot of life, and death. What was the net gain in Afghanistan, or Pakistan, or Vietnam?

Actually, the results of the wars are funny. In the case of Vietnam, for example, Vietnam fought the Japanese, the French, the British and the Americans. They won the wars, but they lost the purpose of what they were fighting for. They are no longer Communists.

War produces war and people that think in terms of war. Call me an optimist. I can say with equal strength you're a pessimist. But I can show that history is optimistic, not pessimistic. History is not a repetition, history is an imitation. It doesn't have a reverse. History is a cemetery. It never moves back. And who wants to go back? At most, what you want is to keep the status quo, but you can't keep it.

What is promising is younger people. They don't want to be ayatollahs or old sheikhs that are very holy but are quite rich and powerful. On the other hand, the companies who are growing understand that their currency is not money, their currency is good will. If people stop trusting them, they are out of business.

Mic: What then is the message to the next generation? Many feel like the peace process is stuck, and they therefore disengage, rather than engage.

SP: I think these people are not young. Nobody must be stuck. All my life has been spent doing things that people say are impossible. But we are never in an impossible situation, we are in an impossible moment. Usually, when you have an idea, someone has an opposing idea, and then you go fight. I would recommend young people remember that there are more than two views. Take the third one, which is unknown, the one no one knows about it, so you will not have opposition. Surprise them.

Mic: If you could project into the future, what do you expect to see from the next generation in the next five years to make inroads toward peace?

SP: We can see it right now. There used to be the idea that high-tech was somehow mechanical, that we can produce better tools, better aiding instruments so we can be stronger or work better. Now we're beginning to understand that the problem is not that. The reason a man is strong is not because of technology, but because of his creativity.

They say we should build a robot that will be close to man. I'm not sure, maybe. There will be things a robot cannot imagine. Can a robot get pregnant? The superior instrument is the human being. And the human being is not made of any tools. A human being is made of materials that we haven't discovered yet.

Mic: Is there a piece of technology that you're most excited about?

SP: Yes. Since human beings are better collectively than the robot, we turn to the social side. What fascinates me is the sharing economy.

Young people are becoming poor because there are dramatic innovations happening without dramatic salaries so they can hardly compete. In a way, America is returning to the kibbutz, the sharing economy. Maybe this is the reason why Bernie Sanders all of a sudden has had some traction. The kibbutz is becoming more worldwide, and the world is becoming more kibbutz-like.

Mic: Speak directly to Mic's audience. At this point in your life, what do you want to tell young people in the United States?

SP: From my experience, when we came to Israel, we had nothing, just a tiny piece of land in the Middle East. We were hated by many. We didn't have water. We didn't know what we could do. But we discovered the most important natural resource: the brain.

Today, Israel is composed of 5% land and water, and 95% research and development. We are better off than the Saudis without oil. That is what we've learned. That you can think out of your imagination — dreams, fantasies and conscientiousness.

What I say to young people is you have wealth inside of you. Use it. Don't be afraid to change. Don't be afraid to be nice to someone else. You will discover that friendship creates friendship. You can't count it mathematically, but if I had to invest, I would invest in making a friend, not an enemy. Enemies are so expensive.

But don't think it will come from heaven. You have to work. Not with rifles, not with blows, but with dreams, imagination and courage. And never give up if you fall. If you have the strength to fall, you have the strength to discover. Overcome it.

We've reached a point where we have so much communication potential that we don't have enough words. What is needed now is not just free expression, but self expression. Try to express yourself, make change and don't take death as a victory. Death is a defeat, and all wars were defeated in the end. And so my message to everyone is you can be original in your taste and philosophy.

There is enough room in the world for our differences.