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'We are the only country that is threatened to be destroyed'

Israel's president Shimon Peres at his office in the Presidential Residence in Jerusalem, Israel.

Ahikam Seri for The Globe and Mail/ahikam seri The Globe and Mail

In a political career that has spanned eight decades, Israeli President Shimon Peres has been in on almost every important development in his country's history – from the violent birth of the state, through its many wars, its peacemaking efforts and its scientific development.

In every one of the decades, it seems, he has played a different role: from right-hand man to Israel's founding prime minister, David Ben Gurion, to defence minister, foreign minister, prime minister and now President.

He is known best today as a Nobel Prize-winning activist for peace, but the earlier edition of Mr. Peres was decidedly hawkish, such as when he started the country's nuclear program in the 1950s and 1960s.

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While he is sharply critical of Iran developing nuclear weapons, he makes no apologies for Israel's own nuclear program, one that could very well have produced a number of weapons.

Speaking with The Globe and Mail in advance of a state visit to Canada next week, Mr. Peres, 88, said he sees no hypocrisy in this. "We are the only country that is threatened to be destroyed, and we are a country that never threatened anybody to be destroyed," he said, speaking from his office in the President's residence in Jerusalem.

Israel's nuclear program is shrouded in mystery

The nuclear program, which was started with the help of France, is shrouded in mystery. Few people can say with certainty that Israel actually has nuclear weapons. What can be said is that the country's nuclear facilities, in the southern desert town of Dimona, has the capacity to produce them. But there is not necessarily a stockpile of them. Perhaps they sit in two or three parts ready to be assembled at a moment's notice. No one can be sure, and Mr. Peres relishes that uncertainty.

In fact, he credits that uncertainty with saving Israel in what would be a historic turning point for the country and for Mr. Peres himself.

It was 1973, in what would become known as the Yom Kippur War, when Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, joined by Syria's Hafez al-Assad in the north, attacked Israelis forces that had been occupying Egypt's Sinai peninsula since 1967.

What mattered, Mr. Peres said, wasn't what Egypt attacked. It was what it didn't attack: Israel itself.

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Mr. Sadat believed that if he struck at Israeli cities or industries, "Israel may employ other sorts of weapons," the President said, and it put doubt in his mind. "So he tried to create pressure [to withdraw from Sinai]but did not try to destroy Israel. ...

"This was a watershed," Mr. Peres said, "because until Dimona, the Arabs were sure they could destroy us."

This also marked the beginning of Mr. Peres's transition from hawk to dove. He told historian Benny Morris: "So long as the Arabs thought that they could destroy us, they refused to make peace. They weren't ready. During this period, I was a hawk. Once they showed readiness to make peace, the picture changed," he said.

Mr. Peres became a leading advocate for peace.

He recalls that several years after the Yom Kippur War, and after a peace treaty with Egypt was signed and the Sinai returned to Egypt, he was visited by Amr Moussa, then the Egyptian foreign minister.

"He came to me," Mr. Peres said, "and he said: 'Shimon, we're such good friends, why don't you take me to Dimona and let me have a look at your nuclear reactor?'" " 'Are you crazy?' I said to him. 'I should take you to Dimona, and you may see there is nothing there, so then you will stop worrying? That would be the end of my career.'" "Worrying is the purpose," Mr. Peres said this week. "We don't want to attack anyone, but we don't want to be attacked either.

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"So if this doubt serves as a deterrent, why not?"

There certainly was lots of doubt in the minds of Israel's first leaders 25 years earlier that their little country would survive. "We were 650,000 Jewish people against 40 million Arabs; they had arms and we had nothing," Mr. Peres said.

An international embargo on supplying arms to either Israel or the Arab states was being observed by the United States, Britain and Canada, three of the countries with the biggest stockpile of weapons from the just-concluded Second World War.

But Russia, and its allies, flouted the embargo and supplied weapons to its clients in Egypt and Syria.

Mr. Peres was tasked by Mr. Ben Gurion to find some weapons. He learned that Canada would be willing to sell some arms to us, weapons not covered by the embargo, and he asked if he could buy 30 "25-pounders," a widely used type of portable artillery, and some machine guns.

"The Canadian government, to my great surprise, approved the [artillery]and disapproved the machine guns," he said.

Canada saw the 25-pounders as "defensive weapons," Mr. Peres explained, and the machine guns as "attacking weapons" that, in the spirit of the embargo, they would not sell.

However, alarmed at the price the federal government wanted for the artillery ($2-million), Mr. Peres set off to Montreal in 1951 to seek help from Sam Bronfman, the Seagram liquor baron and an influential man in Ottawa.

Mr. Bronfman drove Mr. Peres to Ottawa in his Cadillac to meet the minister of supply and reconstruction, C.D. Howe.

It was a wintry day, the President recalled, and his millionaire guide wanted to stop for a glass of whisky along the way. "I thought that was nice," he said.

"We arrived in Ottawa and he [Mr. Bronfman]stormed into Howe's office," complaining about the outrageous price of the guns. "'These people [Israelis]don't have anything,' he said."

"Howe was impressed and he cut the price in half," Mr. Peres said.

On the way back to Montreal, a pleased Mr. Bronfman turned to Mr. Peres and asked where he was going to get the million.

"From you," he said he replied.

Mr. Peres recalls good relations over the years with many Canadian political leaders, especially Pierre Trudeau.

On the day the two met, Mr. Trudeau invited him for lunch at his home, and surprised him by insisting on taking lunch outside on a blanket on the lawn. "We sat like two young children and had our lunch," Mr. Peres said.

"And then we developed a really good friendship."

The Israeli President laughs when he recalls the time Mr. Trudeau called him out of the blue from Libya, where the Canadian was meeting one of Israel's greatest enemies, Libyan ruler Moammar Gadhafi, in the desert.

By the 1980s, the dove in Mr. Peres had fully emerged, but it was only in the early nineties that his efforts met success. He and his protégés ushered in the Oslo Agreement, the result of secret talks in Norway with Palestinian representatives.

While the accord in which Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization recognized each other did not result in a treaty, Mr. Peres believes that its spirit lives on and the two-state solution the accord envisioned remains the only way to achieve real peace.

It has become popular in Israel to mock or condemn Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas as ineffective or disingenuous for his efforts to win recognition at the United Nations and his refusal to negotiate until Israel ceases its construction of settlements. But Mr. Peres went out of his way last month to describe Mr. Abbas as a "worthy partner for peace."

"You know, the Oslo Agreement that was signed on the White House lawn was signed by him and by me," the President said, looking across his desk to the Nobel Prize he was awarded for that agreement. "So we have known each other for quite a long time."

Mr. Abbas "says publicly that he is against terror, that he's against war, that he understands the need of Israel for security, that he's for the two-state solution," Mr. Peres said. "I have the highest respect for him and I think he's a person that we can talk and should talk with."

Ever the diplomatic President, Mr. Peres refuses to point blame at either party for the lack of any negotiations during the past several years. "It took us [Israelis]a very long time to reach an agreement which is based on the two-state solution," he said. "That happened quite recently, historically speaking. ...

"And there was a split among the Palestinians too, between Hamas and Fatah," he said, referring to the Islamic resistance movement that rules Gaza and the more secular movement of Mr. Abbas that governs Palestinian centres in the West Bank.

One solution, many think, was the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia in the spring of 2002, when Mr. Peres was foreign minister in a Likud-Labour coalition government led by Ariel Sharon. The initiative, the first of its kind, offered Israel peace with all Arab states in exchange for Israel's withdrawal to its 1967 borders and accepting a UN resolution that provided for a just settlement of the issue of Palestinian refugees.

Yet Israel never picked it up.

"In principle, Israel agreed, but there were some conditions that Israel couldn't accept," Mr. Peres said. "For example, that Israel has to bring back all the refugees," he noted, referring to the hundreds of thousands of Palestinians who fled in 1948 from communities that now are inside Israel.

The Arabs made the initiative 'a take-it-or-leave-it offer'

Such a provision "would make Israel no longer a Jewish state," he explained.

The Arabs "made it a take-it-or-leave-it offer," and Israel chose to leave it, he said.

Chuffed by the initial success of the Oslo Agreement, and capitalizing on his Nobel Prize, Mr. Peres penned first an article, then a book on what he called the New Middle East, envisioning a region in which Arab states and Israel were linked economically, with all sides contributing to development and prospering in harmony.

Eighteen years later, he still thinks that day is coming. "I haven't changed my mind," he said. Not even the rise of Islamists in the wake of uprisings in the Arab world will prevent it from happening, he insisted.

"What's happening in the Arab world is that there's a young generation that wants to have a new Middle East so they can participate in a new world," Mr. Peres said. "They're the ones who introduced the Arab Spring or the Arab Revolution. It was stolen away by the old generation."

But the old generation, whether Muslim or secular, doesn't have the solution, he argued. "The problem in the Middle East is not politics, but poverty," he noted.

"I tell you with certainty, the young generation will continue the revolution," Mr. Peres maintained. "It will just take more time."

Patrick Martin is The Globe and Mail's Middle East correspondent.

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