JERUSALEM – Israeli President Shimon Peres urged a resumption of Middle East peace talks Thursday, dismissing the Palestinians' plan to instead ask the United Nations for recognition as "an illusion" and arguing that a peace deal — despite widespread skepticism on both sides — was possible within months.
"In a strange way the differences are rather psychological than material," the 87-year-old head of state and Nobel laureate said in an interview with The Associated Press.
"I don't exclude that in spite of the shortage of time we can conclude an agreement with the Palestinians" before September, Peres said, referring to the month the Palestinians, in the absence of a peace deal, plan to ask the United Nations for recognition as a state.
Peres warned the U.N. gambit could backfire. The U.S. is expected to veto the measure in the powerful Security Council, forcing the Palestinians to turn to the General Assembly, where a majority seems likely but any decision would have no legal force.
"It will remain (on) paper and it will raise false hopes," Peres said. Israel would simply ask: "Can you stop terror, United Nations? Can you stop the politics of Iran that finances Hezbollah and finances Hamas? Can you stop the smuggling of arms? ... And if the United Nations cannot answer it, so what is the value of their resolution?"
With his comments, Peres joined a chorus of world leaders, including President Barack Obama and European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek, urging the Palestinians not to follow through with the U.N. resolution. Palestinian officials have acknowledged they are having second thoughts, but insist they will press forward if peace talks don't resume.
The Israeli president dismissed skepticism about the gaps between any Palestinian leadership and the current right-leaning Israeli government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu:
"I know a little bit about negotiations," said Peres, who won the Nobel Peace Prize for his role in the 1993 Oslo interim peace accords with the Palestinians. "The opening position is extremely loud and very maximalist ... But then you have to go down, quietly."
Would the Palestinians give up the so-called right of return by refugees and their millions of descendants — a persistent and principled demand that Israelis across the spectrum reject out of hand as demographic suicide?
"I think so," he said, insisting a "creative" solution is possible.
Among the obstacles to talks even beginning is Israel's rejection of an emerging Palestinian "unity government" between Fatah, the moderate grouping of Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas which controls Palestinian autonomy zones in the West Bank, and the Hamas militant group, which seized control of the Gaza Strip in 2007.
The sides reached a reconciliation agreement last month and are still laboring to implement it, wrangling over issues like the appointment of a prime minister. But Netanyahu has already made the deal an obstacle to talks, saying he cannot negotiate with a government even partly backed by a sworn enemy like Hamas.
Peres noted the United States and other world powers have insisted that Hamas recognize Israel, renounce terrorism and accept previous agreements. Hamas' acceptance of these terms, Peres suggested, would enable such talks between Israel and a unified Palestinian leadership.
As president, Peres is a figurehead, but his words carry weight because of an elder statesman status achieved over six frequently turbulent decades in Israeli public life — a period marked by achievement and electoral futility in seemingly equal measure.
As leader of Israel's center-left Labor Party, Peres lost an improbable string of elections — in 1977, 1981, 1988, and 1996 — and managed only a tie in 1984, with Israel's economy mired in hyperinflation and its army in a costly and unpopular war in Lebanon.
Despite these difficulties, he has managed to serve in practically every top government position, including three brief stints as prime minister.
Peres' dogged pursuit of peace has made him a regular at global gatherings such as the annual World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where his penchant for visionary pronouncements and his extraordinary longevity have given him a somewhat iconic status.
Alert, jocular and surrounded by adoring aides, Peres spoke to the AP at his presidential compound as he prepared to host his own version of Davos — the third annual "Israeli Presidential Conference" — an event which he said would this year attract 1,700 figures from outside Israel.
The diverse guest list ranges from Colombian singer Shakira and U.S. comedienne Sarah Silverman to Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales, advertising magnate Martin Sorrel and European Central Bank chief Jean-Claude Trichet, in addition to a cluster of leaders and government ministers.
Peres said the three-day event next week will focus on "the issues of tomorrow — in Jewish life, in world affairs, in Israeli development, in all domains — science, technology, politics."
He said he had special interest in exploring the workings of the brain, cybernetics, and what he perceived as an unprecedented type of generation gap.
"Youngsters are equipped with ... Facebook and the Internet. They don't want their parents to get involved in their own way of life. They respect the parents but without much admiration. They say: ... 'The world you have handed over is full of blood and suffering and mistakes. Let us have our own future.'"
Peres credited Facebook-wielding youth for the current upheavals in the Arab world and offered his neighbors free advice: "If you don't give equal rights to (women) you're half a nation ... No money can compensate (for) this mistake."
Peres clearly feels the changes in the region belatedly vindicate the optimism he espoused 18 years ago in a book titled "The New Middle East" — which earned him some derision at the time by critics who considered him naive.
He dismissed the concerns of many Israelis today that Arab democracies would elect Islamists and authoritarians: "The moral call is the right one and the preferred one. Don't make too many calculations. I shall be a happy person when the Middle East will become free and democratic."
Peres predicted that the unusual Israeli presidential conference — despite its association with him personally — would continue after he leaves office, because the Jewish state has a global role in advancing knowledge.
"A good Jew cannot be satisfied," Peres said. "All the time he feels he has to improve ... which creates, in a way, creativity and imagination."