WASHINGTON -- The threat posed by a network of Sunni extremists sweeping through Iraq and Syria is changing the political calculus in the Middle East, Israeli President Shimon Peres said in an interview this weekend after receiving the Congressional Gold Medal in Washington.
Israel, he said, is no longer the most significant threat to the majority of Arabs in the Middle East.
"Until now, maybe Israel was the first problem in the eyes of many Arabs," he said. "Today, they have to say it openly, the real problem for the Arabs and for us are not the mutual mistrust but really the problem of terror, which is a common danger to them and to us."
Peres said the peace process could be kick-started by the new common enemy.
"We have to take the joint interests, which are many, and didn't exist before," he said, proposing "to establish a functional headquarter of Arab countries and Israel to fight a common danger, because the terrorists are destroying the Arab world. They are the greatest danger to the Arab world, as well as to us a great danger. We have to fight them in order to stop it."
The Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS) has pledged to take Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and to "liberate Palestine" as part of its campaign.
"The headquarters would be functional, not territorial, because Hamas or the terrorists don't have a certain place, they don't respect borders, they don't respect law, they are mobile," he said, never mentioning ISIS by name. "We have to fight them in every corner, to search after them in every place they are, to do whatever we can to prevent them before they are killing people."
The Middle East, said Peres, has entered a new phase of history and won't turn back.
"The future is already here. You see the first part of the future, and that is the dismantling of the Middle East as we used to know it. One country falls after another country," he said. "There is a real need to construct a different Middle East. The Middle East must change because the world has changed. And instead of oppositional armies that are fighting usually one against another, now we have a net of terrorists that are trying to destroy everything. They are not two; they are hundreds. They don't have a common ground; they don't have a common future."
Peres was interviewed by a HuffPost blogger as he completed his last official visit to the United States. The Nobel Peace Prize laureate, who has served in the Israeli government for 67 years, leaves the Israeli presidency in July. Many in Washington, including Supreme Court justices and congressional leaders, came to fete the 90-year-old leader at the Israeli Embassy on Wednesday. The former Israeli prime minister and defense minister was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal in the Capitol Rotunda on Thursday. Besides Peres, only three other individuals -- Mother Teresa, Nelson Mandela and Myanmar's Aung San Suu Kyi -- have received the trifecta of the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal.
Asked if Israel is willing to risk Israeli lives to protect Jordan if ISIS attacks the kingdom, Peres said that doing so would not be purely a selfless act.
"We are not risking one life for another. We are trying to defend the life of the two of us because we have a common enemy," the Israeli president said.
Peres, who met with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office on Wednesday, praised him during the interview.
He said: "I have the highest respect for Obama. I have worked with 10 American Presidents, both Republicans and Democrats. As far as Israeli security is concerned, he has done the most that an American president can do. We trust, appreciate and are grateful for the support."
He had harsh words for those who say that Obama has not been a friend of Israel.
"The people who make these remarks are gossips. We are living in a world where image-making is important, so we ignore the facts. What counts is his record not the gossips."
He also defended Obama against the critics of his administration's Syria policy.
"When it comes to the Sunnis and Shiites, it is not for the United States or for us or for anyone else to settle who was the heir of Muhammad," he said, referring to a long-standing blood feud. "This is a Muslim and Arab problem and they have to deal with it. I think the best and the right way is to tell the Arab world ... gentlemen, it is your problem and you must find a solution. American soldiers cannot settle a religious problem that is basically Muslim."
In Syria, he said, at least one group has come out a step ahead. "The Kurds, as a matter of fact, have established their own state. It's a matter of fact," he said.
Peres also denounced the formation of the Fatah-Hamas Palestinian unity government as "wrong" and questioned its long-term viability. He emphatically denied that the Obama administration has recognized the terrorist group Hamas, which the administration's foreign policy critics have charged.
"Obama did not recognize Hamas," said the Israeli president. "His position, vis-a-vis Hamas, remains the same.
His condemnation of Hamas did not stop him from lauding his friend of 20 years, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, as "a courageous man and a great partner." He particularly highlighted Abbas' recent speech at the Islamic conference in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
"For the first time, an Arab leader stood up not outside the Arab world but in the heart of the Arab world, Saudi Arabia. He spoke not in English, not in Hebrew, but in Arabic. He condemned the kidnapping and terror and called for peace. He called for cooperation between the Israeli and Palestinian forces to bring an end to terror. Look, it is something unmatched and unprecedented."
Peres, who is known as the eternal optimist for Middle East peace, seemed to want to nudge Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to begin peace talks.
He said, "If we have disagreements, the purpose of negotiations is to overcome the disagreements and find common ground."
The Friday morning resignation of U.S. special Middle East envoy Martin Indyk did give the usually sunny idealist pause. He was forced to concede that Indyk's leaving causes the diplomat to be "not too optimistic" that any progress can be made in the peace talks.
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