November 29, 2006

Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres Visits C.U.

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It was early one morning in February 1996, and Shimon Peres joined hundreds of Israelis at the scene of a bombing in downtown Jerusalem. When he arrived, he found an Israeli population that was looking for someone to blame.

“People were chanting, ‘traitor, murderer, how could you let this happen to us,’ when I arrived,” recalled Peres, who was then the acting Israeli Prime Minister. “I knew then that something had to be done to stop this from happening [in the future].”

Now Vice Premier, Peres was on hand last night at Cornell University to talk about Israel’s relationship with the Arab world and the steps the nation has taken to curb terrorism since the first wave of suicide bombings hit more than a decade ago. Speaking to a near-capacity crowd in Cornell’s Bailey Hall, Peres explained that the Israeli-Arab conflict stems from the inability of some members of the Arab community to adapt to a modernizing world.

“The present struggle between and Israel and the Palestinians is not a clash between cultures or religions,” Peres contended, “but a clash among generations. There exists a generation in the Arab world that is afraid of modernity, and they refuse to [live in the future].”

The future, Peres continued, will be defined by globalization and the decreasing significance of individual nations in international politics. Already, Peres said, multinational corporations like Microsoft have begun to blur national boundaries, creating a world in which economic power and trade are more significant than national identification and military power.

“The most important organizations now are economic,” Peres explained. “Before, our lives were based on the land, on agricultural production. Now, we live with science and technology.”

Despite the world’s strong dependence on technology, Peres continued, a significant segment of the Arab population still rejects the advantages of modernity. Ultimately, though, the Arab world will be forced to live in the 21st century, where the power of economy and technology stand at the forefront.

“While [this conflict] is costly to both of us,” Peres said, “[terrorists who reject modernity] don’t have a chance to win, because you can’t live in the past. They have to embrace science and technology, and stop living exclusively on the land.

The greatest challenges facing the Arab world in its pursuit of modernity, Peres explained, is division among the preeminent political parties of the Palestinian community. While Mohammed Abbas and his Fatah party have shown a desire to negotiate with Israel and reach a compromise over Israel’s presence in the West Bank, the ruling Hamas party has been unyielding in its condemnation of the Israeli state and its refusal to negotiate peacefully with the Israeli government.

“The problem still is [the existence of] different political parties among the Palestinians,” Peres said. “Abbas is a serious, honorable person who tries to make peace, but Hamas is against recognizing Israel and for the continuance of terror.”

Still, said Peres, Hamas and its supporters will ultimately be forced to recognize the realities of the modern world. The future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, then, will depend on how quickly the extreme fringe of the Palestinian population embraces modernity and rejects violence and military power as a means of affecting change in the international environment.

“They will be pushed by the realities of their situation,” Peres argued. “But we can’t offer anything unless they change their course.”

Despite the primacy of Palestinian parties like Fatah and Hamas for the future of Israeli-Palestinian relations, Peres did not place the responsibility to achieve peace exclusively on the shoulders of Palestinian politicians. Israel, Peres explained, and the major players in Israeli politics, have an equally significant role to play in determining the future of the Middle East.

“The people are divided about the cost of peace,” Peres contended. “One party says we should give something back, and others say we should give back nothing. If we want peace, the problem is that we must be ready to bear the cost of peace.”

For its part, though, Israel is more than willing to negotiate with the Palestinian people in order to achieve peace in the region. After all, he said, the concept of peace is deeply rooted in the Jewish tradition.

“Our government is ready to withdraw from the West Bank,” Peres explained, “and to support a peaceful Palestinian state. For [Jews], it’s a moral preference. We didn’t leave a house of slaves in Egypt to build a house of masters in Israel.”

Indeed, Peres’ contention came just after Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert announced a pledge to withdraw from the West Bank in exchange for a promise of peace from the Palestinian government. Israel, Peres said, is committed to withdrawing its settlers and providing the Palestinian population with a region they can call their own. Israel, though, cannot act alone. In a world where economic power has become the driving force behind political change, Peres argued that private businesses and multinational corporations must take the lead in fostering peace in the Middle East.

“I believe that in the Middle East, we must introduce economic chances and opportunity instead of placing [exclusive] trust in the military and diplomacy,” Peres said. “Governments are bad for peace, and governments are bad [risk-takers]. Business, though, is based on a culture of risk-taking, and business [can take the necessary steps] for peace.”

Although Peres’ appearance at Cornell came only three months after Israel’s war with Lebanon this past summer, the vice premier did not address the conflict in his lecture. When asked to discuss Israel’s role in the war during a question-and-answer session, Peres explained simply that Israel was forced to react to the instigation of Hezbollah after major Israeli cities were hit by their rockets.

“A significant part of the Israeli population was in shelters,” Peres remembered. “[Israel] made some mistakes during the war, but the greatest mistake is war itself. [Lebanon and Hezbollah] should recognize not to start unnecessary wars and not to put people in danger.”

Furthermore, Peres continued, measures like the construction of a security fence along the Israeli border represent responses to the possibility of terrorism, much like the war in Lebanon this past summer. The unique geopolitical position of Israel, Peres explained, makes it necessary for the nation to take action against the threat of attack.

“Israel has existed for 60 years,” Peres said, “and we’ve already endured six wars. We’ve been outnumbered and outgunned in all of them, and the consideration was always how to defend our land. Terrorism was a huge problem ten years ago, and we had to stop it. Since the [security] fence has been constructed, terrorist bombings have gone down 80 percent. So it’s been effective.”

Despite the precarious position of Israel in the Middle East, and in spite of the Israeli disengagement from Gaza and its impending withdrawal from the West Bank, many remain critical of Israel’s relationship with its Palestinian neighbors. That criticism manifested itself yesterday in the form of a small protest outside Bailey Hall, where a group of Cornellians came together to voice their displeasure over the continued Israeli presence in primarily-Palestinian areas of Israel.

“Shimon Peres is responsible for Israel’s nuclear program,” said Kay Sweeney ’10, one of the protesters. “We’re trying to show opposition to Israel’s actions in Lebanon, [actions that] Peres defended.”

Many Cornellians who attended the lecture, though, were impressed by what the Israeli leader had to say.

“For someone with his political influence, he did a good job hitting questions we have as academics,” said Kevin Boroumand ’08, president of the Iranian Student’s Organization and a Sun staff writer. “As an Iranian student, [I was impressed that] he mentioned a lot of elements in the relationship between Israel and Iran, and we hope to continue that discussion in the future.”

Justin Weitz ’07, president of the Cornell Israel Public Affairs Committee, was equally impressed by the vice premier. CIPAC, along with Cornell Hillel, Caravan for Democracy, the Jewish National Fund and Media Watch International, sponsored Peres’ appearance at Cornell.

“I found Peres’ presentation to be inspiring and informative,” Weitz said. “He spoke about the current situation in the Middle East with an incredible amount of clarity, while acknowledging that it is also an issue fraught with complexity. As President Skorton said, Cornell is a marketplace of ideas, and I think that the ideas brought forth by Mr. Peres will really help foster a campus discussion about the Middle East.”