JERUSALEM — Shimon Peres had not even been sworn in as Israel's ninth president last Sunday when he began making news. While vowing to use his new post to "unify" his deeply polarized country and "speak to all Israelis," Mr. Peres told the Associated Press only hours before his induction that Israel must "get rid of" the territories it has occupied for 40 years and, by implication, the Jewish settlements he helped create. A majority of Israelis agreed with him, he asserted.
"Even before entering his job, he is doing everything to divide the nation . . . and playing into the hands of his friends--the murderers of the PLO," said Zvi Hendel, a Knesset member who represents the influential settler movement. When Mr. Peres took the oath of office in Israel's parliament later that day, a few outraged parliamentarians, unlike most Knesset members, Cabinet officials and 1,000 guests at the nostalgic ceremony, refused to stand, much less applaud.
The provocative declaration was vintage Mr. Peres. In a single sentence, the 83-year-old veteran of veterans--he has held virtually every available possible cabinet job, some of them twice--signaled his determination to use what has traditionally been a ceremonial post to press for peace, fight poverty and promote issues he has long seen as vital to Israel's national security. "The Jews have never been satisfied, neither personally nor collectively," he told me. "And they are right to be so. When you're satisfied, you become a bore."
Judging by its debut, President Peres's tenure will not be boring. During our 90-minute interview and subsequent lunch, at a hotel not far from the Knesset, Mr. Peres seemed to revel in his role as presidential provocateur.
Was he worried about an Iranian atomic bomb? I asked the man who led Israel's successful, once-secret effort to acquire nuclear weapons.
"Terrorism and the warming of the earth are the two great threats to Israel," he began.
Yes, he insisted, the warming of the "earth's refrigerator" ranks second only to terrorism in terms of threat. One day, Israeli homes, factories and cars will run on solar energy. "Better to depend on the sun than the Saudis," he said.
Israel's top threat, however, is nuclear terrorism. Now that President Bush has "boldly and courageously" toppled Saddam Hussein--he declined to give advice about whether, how and when Mr. Bush should bring American forces home--the theocratic rulers in Tehran are Israel's greatest challenge. Iran "wants to destroy all that is modern. But it is a failed state," he said. When the mullahs seized power after the 1979 revolution, Iran had 30 million people; today it has 70 million.
"The regime cannot feed them," Mr. Peres said. There is corruption and drugs, and Persians are barely 50% of the population." The regime, like the Soviet Union, will eventually fail.
But would it do so before acquiring atomic weapons?
"Will the Muslim world enter the modern age before Iran and terrorists get the bomb?" he said, answering a question with a question. No one knows, he continued.
The prospect of nuclear arms controlled by fanatical mullahs and the terrorists they support threatens not only Israel, but all states. "So the world will unite against them," he said. If there is a united front against President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, "he will lose."
Europe, including Russia, will apply financial pressure on Tehran, he predicted. Russian President Vladimir Putin, with whom he had recently met, "understands" the threat. "He knows that Chechnya has a Muslim majority and that Russia is losing population," according to Mr. Peres. Meanwhile, the election of Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and the emergence of Labour's Gordon Brown in Britain means "there is a different Europe now."
Mr. Peres went on to say that using military force against Iranian nuclear targets would be premature, since it is possible that Iran could still be deterred by peaceful means. But military action is not off the table. If peaceful deterrence fails, "the red line" on force has to be set by a united front. "It would be the greatest mistake for Israel to draw that line," he warned.
Is Tehran not justified in seeking nuclear weapons given Israel's development of them?
Mr. Peres bristled. "Pakistan did it before us, and India," he asserted, apparently referring to the nuclear tests of those two countries. (Israel has never acknowledged testing a weapon.) His comment would seem to be a departure, by the way, from Israel's steadfast refusal to publicly confirm or deny its possession of what analysts estimate is a nuclear arsenal of some 300 weapons. And "Dimona helped us achieve peace with Egypt," he added, referring to the site of the country's largest nuclear reactor. "Sadat said it openly."
It's preposterous to compare Israel and Iran, Mr. Peres continued. While Israel is determined "not to be the first to introduce nuclear bombs in the Middle East," he said, returning to Israel's deliberate ambiguity regarding its nuclear capabilities--a policy he helped formulate in 1963 as deputy defense minister, and for which he was fiercely criticized--"Iran's leadership says openly they want to wipe us out."
While Mr. Peres said he wanted Tehran to worry about his country's intentions and capabilities, he added that Israel might not be troubled by a nuclearized Iran under non-militant stewardship. "We learned to live with Pakistan," he said. An Iran ruled by moderates "would be a different thing altogether." The peace process itself, or "peace processes," as he called them, are to some extent leadership-dependent.
Mr. Peres doubted, for instance, that peace would be possible with a Syria led by Bashar Assad. As long as Mr. Assad keeps encouraging radical Shiite Hezbollah and undermining Lebanon's integrity, "President Bush is right to resist direct negotiations," he said.
At the same time, Mr. Peres insisted there is now "a good opportunity to make peace with the Palestinians" whose militant Islamic party, Hamas, has rejected the West-Bank-based leadership and seized control of Gaza, the impoverished home of 1.5 million Palestinians.
"We must choose the PLO or Hamas," he said, referring with little nostalgia to the party founded and led by the late Yasser Arafat, who in 2000 finally torpedoed the Oslo peace process that Mr. Peres had secretly launched as Yitzhak Rabin's deputy in the early 1990s. In the Oslo Accords of 1993, Israel and the Palestinians agreed to divide the land that both claimed--precisely where was one of several key issues deliberately left to be clarified in "final status" talks that did not occur.
Though Mr. Rabin--Mr. Peres's long-time rival--Arafat, and he won the Nobel prize for what was then hailed prematurely as the end of the protracted Arab-Israeli conflict, Oslo crashed and burned in 2000 in a resurgence of Palestinian violence.
"Let the Gazans do whatever they want," Mr. Peres said. "We shouldn't stop delivering water or electricity and other basic necessities to them. But if Hamas fires at us, they should not expect thank-you notes. We will strike back. And we will negotiate with the West Bank Palestinian Authority wherever they are," he said. Such negotiations would be no favor to the Palestinians, Mr. Peres insisted.
Mr. Peres left the Labor Party where he had spent most of his political life to join former Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's new Kadima faction, he said, only after Mr. Sharon had accepted his argument that the land had to be divided. Israel had little choice, he argued: Continued occupation of the territories would result either in a non-Jewish Israeli state, or a nondemocratic one, or both. "We cannot defeat or manage the territories," Mr. Peres asserted.
As he discussed Israel's fateful choices and his own policy preferences, Mr. Peres sounded more like a ruling prime minister than a ceremonial president. And with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's approval ratings in the single digits, Mr. Peres is in fact likely to enjoy more political latitude than he would have under a strong, popular leader.
Does he think that Mr. Olmert's government will survive the upcoming report by a commission investigating his disastrous stewardship of last summer's Lebanon war, as well as the various corruption investigations against the prime minister?
"I wouldn't exclude it," Mr. Peres replied--hardly the ringing endorsement that Mr. Olmert gave him in lobbying Knesset members to support his presidency.
But Mr. Olmert's embrace of Mr. Peres was also coolly calculated--aimed not only at strengthening his faltering Kadima, but eliminating a potential rival for Israel's top job. Even at his advanced age, associates said, Mr. Peres had flirted with the notion of becoming prime minister again, the post Israelis had denied him after Rabin's assassination in 1996.
Despite Israel's mistakes and failings, Mr. Peres said, its greatest days are ahead, thanks to globalization. Israel's once agriculture-based economy has been "revolutionized by 15,000-20,000 young people" who have replaced vegetables and fruit with high-tech exports, a once-mocked Peres "vision." "It's the individual capacity to create that counts today," he said. "It's a Jewish age."
In a globalized world, Jews will excel, Mr. Peres went on to say. His own son is but one example. Nehemia Peres, known as "Chemi," 49, the youngest of his three children, heads a venture capital firm called Pitango which is headquartered in one of the glass skyscrapers in Herzliya, a Tel Aviv suburb. Founded in 1993, Pitango now employs 35 people and has invested some $1.2 billion in 130 hi-tech, high-growth start-up companies owned by young Israelis at home and abroad.
"My father is not just a dreamer, he's a doer," said Chemi Peres, 49, the morning after his father's swearing in. "I've seen enough of his dreams come true--Dimona, the development of an indigenous aircraft industry, peace with Egypt and Jordan, an economy of Israeli billionaires"--not exactly the dream of Israel's founders--"in which $2 billion a year is invested each year in over 1,000 companies." And all despite the lack of peace with the Palestinians.
The elder Mr. Peres might have been elected president seven years ago, but the Knesset rejected him in favor of Moshe Katzav, a lackluster former minister from the conservative Likud Party. This was his father's most frustrating and humiliating defeat, Chemi Peres said.
But Mt. Katzav, like President Ezer Weizman before him, was forced out of office by scandal. On the day of Mr. Peres's induction, Mr. Katzav was reportedly closeted with his lawyers discussing a plea bargain in which he had acknowledged charges of forcible indecent assault and sexual harassment in lieu of graver accusations of having raped former female employees.
Some Israelis quietly fear that this presidency, too, may end in tears. Mr. Peres, who will turn 84 in August, is the oldest person ever to hold the post. He would be 91 if he completes two three-and-a-half year terms. "I'm healthy," Mr. Peres replied when I asked about this concern. "I was 12 pounds when born. I nearly killed my mother."
Most Israelis welcomed Mr. Peres's inauguration as president last week. They may be hoping he can restore to the now tarnished office dignity and honor at home, as well as its lost stature and moral authority abroad. But it says something disturbing that, despite the country's impressive prosperity and scientific achievements, there is no one younger on the political scene to play this role.