Israel and Iran could sit down and talk to each other despite the bitter enmity that has pushed the two nations to the brink of war, Shimon Peres, the Israeli president, has said.
Speaking exclusively to The Daily Telegraph, Mr Peres said Israel has no natural antipathy towards Iran and even praised Cyrus the Great, an ancient Persian monarch, for freeing the Jews from exile in Babylon.
But the Nobel laureate who, at age 89, is the world’s oldest head of state said Iran’s present Islamic-rulers were bent on building an atom bomb and destroying the Jewish State.
He expressed bewilderment over their aims and goals, saying: “You know what, I don’t understand what the hell do they want.”
Asked if Iran and Israel could ever have direct negotiations with each other, he replied: “Why not? The Iranians are not our enemies. We have nothing against Iran. The great king of Iran was the first Zionist in the world. King Cyrus called for the Jewish people in Iran to go and settle in Israel and build a second [temple] “That was 3,000 years ago. So I don’t have any hatred to the Iranians.”
Mr Peres was speaking before the surprise election as Iran’s new president of Hassan Rowhani – a comparatively moderate cleric who has vowed to lower tensions with the outside world.
Mr Rowhani’s landslide win has bred hope in Western capitals of a diplomatic thaw after relations were cast into deep freeze during the presidency of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who raised antagonisms by repeatedly forecasting Israel’s demise and denying the Holocaust.
It has been less warmly received in Israel, where Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister, urged the West to avoid “wishful thinking” over Iran’s nuclear programme and described Mr Rowhani as a man who “defines the State of Israel as ‘the great Zionist Satan’ “.
At his first post-election press conference on Monday, Mr Rowhani mentioned Israel just once – saying it was the only country benefiting from the sanctions imposed to punish Iran’s nuclear activities. Even calling Israel by its name marked a departure from Mr Ahmadinejad, who exclusively used the term “Zionist regime” in reference to the Jewish state.
The prospect of talks between Israel and Iran is less far-fetched than it seems. The two nations were close regional allies during the reign of the last Shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the pro-western monarch toppled in the 1979 Iranian revolution.
The Islamic theocracy that replaced him refused to recognise Israel and severed formal ties but there have been periodic covert contacts – principally during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s when Israeli technicians are believed to have serviced Iranian war planes.
Interviewed in the president’s official residence in Jerusalem, Mr Peres was unsparing in his appraisal of the current Iranian regime, led by Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country’s supreme leader and pivotal political figure.
“Iran is a menace to the world,” he said. “Why should Iran menace, tell me? What for? They are the centre of terror, they send arms, they hang people, they kill people, they provoke terror, they build a nuclear bomb. And they say that they want to bring an end to Israel.
“It’s the only case today where one nation says they are going to destroy another nation for no reason. Give me one reason why Iran should attack us. Nobody is threatening Iran. Iran is the only country that threatens another people.
“Who is threatening them? What are they worried about? They could have entered a new world, a new age. They have able people [but] a small group [says] some irrational things, like a Mahdi that passed away two or three hundred years ago [sic] is going to come back. To our rational education, it doesn’t appeal very much.”
Mr Peres mocked the views of Jack Straw, the former Foreign Secretary, who recently wrote in The Daily Telegraph that it would not be worth going to war even if Iran built a nuclear bomb. “I know Jack Straw. He is a fine gentleman. I wish he would be the foreign minister of Iran and I would really feel very well,” he said.
Nevertheless, Mr Peres – a three-time former prime minister whose role as president is mainly ceremonial – appeared to all but rule out the prospect of a unilateral Israeli strike on Iran’s nuclear facilities. “I don’t think this is the policy of Israel,” he said. “The policy of Israel is to support the line that was taken by President [Barack] Obama and supported by Europe [of harsh economic sanctions backed by threats of military action].”
The Israeli head of state – who today hosts an international gathering including Tony Blair, Bill Clinton and Mikhail Gorbachev at his annual president’s conference – also countered arguments that Israel’s interests would be served by the survival of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria’s civil war.
“We were never admirers of terror, of dictators, and of bloodshed,” he said. “[Assad] is a brutal dictator who kills youngsters and children and innocent people. To tell you that I would like to see dictators remain and create a bloody situation, no. But I must also admit the limitations. We cannot go into it. We are not going to intervene.”
Mr Peres, who turns 90 in August, confidently forecast that he would live to see a conclusive peace deal with the Palestinians based on the 1993 Oslo Accords – which envisaged a two-state solution and for which he won a Nobel Prize along with Yitzhak Rabin, the then Israeli prime minister, and Yasser Arafat, the late Palestinian leader.
Calling Mahmoud Abbas, the current Palestinian leader, Israel’s best-ever partner for peace, he predicted that Mr Netanyahu’s recently-formed government – which contains many Right-wingers opposed to a Palestinian state – would be driven to pursue a peace deal by prevailing realities in the Middle East.
The government would turn its attention towards the peace process after the state budget was concluded at the end of next month, he said.
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