NOTE: This is a news brief of a July 31, 2006 meeting at the Council on Foreign Relations. A full transcript is available here.
NEW YORK—Israeli Vice Premier Shimon Peres said Monday the conflict pitting Israel against Hamas and Hezbollah is an “unprecedented war” with no clear end.
Peres told the Council on Foreign Relations that Israel is not fighting a defined conflict against the established military of a state, but struggling against an amorphous group of terrorists that could drag on for years. “Clearly, it won’t be the sort of victory we’re used to having with armies,” Peres said. “You can’t beat terrorism with military strength or maneuvers.”
Peres dismissed international criticism of Israeli actions like the July 30 bombing of the Lebanese village of Qana, which killed nearly sixty civilians, more than half of them children. He said Hezbollah was using civilians as human shields by hiding its missile caches under their homes or schools. “The Lebanese people know they are not suffering because of Israel, but because of Hezbollah,” he said. He also denied that Israel’s actions are driving previously moderate Muslims into the Hezbollah camp. “How do you radicalize radical people?” he asked.
“In wars, there are mistakes, unfortunately,” Peres said. “The biggest mistake is the war itself.”
A tactical victory from Israel’s perspective, Peres said, would mean that Hezbollah cannot endanger Israeli lives from southern Lebanon; the two Israeli soldiers kidnapped July 12 are returned; control is established over Hezbollah’s arsenal of some 12,000 rockets; and a serious attempt is made to disarm the group.
Peres said it would be catastrophic for the region if Iran succeeded in using Syria, Hamas, and Hezbollah to extend its influence and establish Shiite hegemony. “It would be going back to the Dark Ages. The [countries in the region] would lose modernity, freedom, and change.”
The regional perspective
Peres said the international community’s longer-term goals in the region must include stabilizing Lebanon and drawing it away from Iran’s influence. “Hezbollah wants a Lebanon with an Iranian orientation,” Peres said. “The Lebanese must decide if they will control their own destiny, or will be swallowed up by a larger threat.” If that happened, he said, “Lebanon would be a tragedy of Iranian ambition.”
Peres spoke at length about the threat posed by a rising Iran, saying the country’s influence derives not from economic or military strength, but its plans for a nuclear weapon, which it pursues because the global community allows it. “As long as the world remains divided, Iran will run wild,” he said. He said Iran is using Hezbollah and the fight in Lebanon to “divert attention from their nuclear bomb, which is still their first priority.” Despite Iran’s growing threat, Israel will not preemptively attack Tehran, he said; it will only respond if attacked.
Peres said Iran, taking advantage of a weakened Syria, is working with Hamas—which he called a “state-in-the-making”—and Hezbollah—a “state-within-a-state”—to assert Iranian influence in the region. Sunni countries like Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states, which have reason to fear the advent of a “Shiite crescent,” initially criticized the July 12 Hezbollah raid and kidnapping of two Israeli soldiers that started the latest conflict. However, Israel’s attacks on Lebanon have caused Arab states to line up against Israel.
Syria is running a “double-standard policy,” Peres said, by harboring Hamas leader Khalid Meshal in Damascus and shuttling Iranian arms and funds to Hezbollah in Lebanon. “Assad Sr. [former Syrian leader Hafez al-Assad, who died in 2000] never allowed Hezbollah to run the affairs of Lebanon,” Peres said, “but Assad Jr. [current Syrian President Bashar al-Assad] is a friend of [Hezbollah leader Sheikh Hassan] Nasrallah.” Peres called Bashar al-Assad “the son of a wise man” who had not learned enough from his father.
Peres said Israel, and what he called the “responsible countries of the world,” would eventually prevail in the current crisis, because groups like Hamas and Hezbollah are “shooting without reason or purpose, but [only] to destroy Israel and bring down our spirit.” He said the militant Islamic groups have no message for their people and cannot meet their needs for employment, education, or a stable, responsible, transparent government. The current violence could even create an opportunity for change in the region. “I think this is a chance to reinvent the Middle East,” he said.
Peres said that, even as much of the Arab world throws its support behind Hamas and Hezbollah, Israelis are uniting behind their government. “I went through all the wars and all the peace,” Peres said, “and Israelis have never been as united as they are now.” He said Israelis feel that they were clearly attacked and that they did not choose the war, but are fighting to protect themselves from persistent, deadly rocket fire from Hamas and Hezbollah fighters. Peres denied that Israel has territorial ambitions in Lebanon. “What we want to be is a nation that lives in peace with our neighbors,” he said.