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Israel Diary: Shimon Peres on Peace, Obama's Tough Love, and Working in the Shadows

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JERUSALEM -- It's hard to spend any time with Israeli President Shimon Peres and remain pessimistic about the possibility of peace.

"I'm 86," he told me, "and at a moment in my life when I have no personal agenda. I'm not interested in money. I'm not jealous of anyone. My only agenda is my country. I feel freer than I've ever felt before -- and with this freedom I can be most effective. At my age I don't want a suntan. I like being in the shadows."

But from the shadows he can influence all the players in the sun. "I meet regularly with Netanyahu and talk to him all the time," said Peres. "He asked me to meet with President Obama before he did and prepare the ground. I talk with Abbas and Fayad a lot too. We've never had better leaders to deal with. Fayad is an economist; he understands the importance of producing real results for his people."

I met with Peres at Beit HaNassi, the official presidential residence in Jerusalem (which is being given a green makeover). I had brought him my book on fearlessness, so our meeting began by talking about fear and the role it plays in undermining peace efforts.

The conversation quickly turned to what great role models of overcoming fear our parents had been: my Greek mother, who hid Jewish girls in the Greek mountains during the German occupation and had to confront Nazi soldiers who came looking for them; his Polish father, who had volunteered for the Royal British Army, and was given shelter by Greek monks, who fed and hid him for two years.

Peres' father was eventually captured and forced into hard labor at a concentration camp near Auschwitz, where one of his jobs was to take dead bodies out of the camp. At great risk, he and another prisoner used this position to help a few condemned prisoners escape, hidden among the dead.

The family eventually made its way to what would become Israel. "I remember my father in later years," Peres told me, "singing Greek songs he had learned from the monks to his grandchildren."

Peres is a powerful storyteller -- and the tale of his father's war experience has more cliffhangers than an old Saturday matinee serial -- so I felt almost sorry that I had to drag him back to the prosaic world of tripartite talks in Washington.

"It was an important first step," he said of yesterday's meetings, "because, as leaders, the main problem that both Netanyahu and Abbas face are their own people asking, 'Why are you giving away so much?'"

And, indeed, this morning the Israeli papers featured comments from Israeli politicians calling the summit "a shameful farce" and accusing Netanyahu of "humiliating Israel." Danny Danon, a member of the prime minister's Likud Party, said: "The summit proved that the peace process is not a Hollywood movie." On the other side, Abbas was accused by Hamas' leaders of "stabbing Palestinians in the back."

"You are going to be criticized," said Peres. "But you have to give things away. Indeed, you must have the courage to keep giving things away. But we need to understand that the leaders' rhetoric is often for domestic consumption. So when Abbas makes statements that are difficult for Israelis to hear, I choose to judge him not by his rhetoric but by his actions."

"The path to peace is never perfect," he continued. "Too many critics demand perfection. But what we are trying to achieve is to allow people to stay alive so they can dream of perfection. Better an imperfect peace than a perfect war."

Given this clear preference for an imperfect peace, what, I asked, is the best way for Israel to deal with Iran? Meir Dagan, the director of Mossad, has said that Iran will not be in possession of a nuclear weapon for several years. So, I asked the president, why are Netanyahu and Ehud Barak pushing the U.S. to enforce sanctions by the end of the year that may lead to military action? What is the urgency?

"We are not planning military action," he told me. That is the same thing Russian President Medvedev recently said that Peres had told him, an assertion that Israel's deputy foreign minister quickly disavowed, saying: "Medvedev may have misunderstood or misinterpreted. But, categorically, Israel is not taking any option off the table, as nobody should."

But it was clear that what Medvedev reported is what Peres believes. "Sanctions are the best way we can help our Iranian brethren to build the pressure from within," he told me. "The Iranian people are way ahead of their leaders in power. Ahmadinejad is a throwback to the middle ages. He would have been at home presiding over a 12th century Inquisition. What's happening in Iran is that the Islamic revolution that overthrew the Shah is now being devoured by its children."

In Iran, it is the children's children -- today's young people -- who represent the best hope for a break with a barbaric regime. In Israel, Peres sees education and innovation as the key to his country's future.

"Our brains," he told me, "are our only real resource. We have 100,000 cows in Israel but we produce more milk than Ethiopia, which has four million cows. Technology is what makes a difference. So, for us, it's all about science and education. That's why I want to turn the army into a university. I want to turn camps into campuses. We need to educate our soldiers, not just train them."

But, I countered, brains without heart and empathy are never enough. After all, Germany in the 30s was a highly educated country. "Yes," he replied, "and we need to express our empathy in practical terms. That's what we are trying to do through the Peres Center for Peace. We've brought 5,500 gravely ill Palestinian children and their mothers to be treated in Israel. We've also trained Palestinian doctors in -- and provided equipment for -- fighting cancer."

There is an enormous amount of philanthropy in Israel but the horror of what happened to civilians, especially children, in Gaza continues to overwhelm the good that's been done.

I asked Peres whether Obama's tough love approach will, in the end, benefit Israel by helping to end the stalemate. "If there is love," he told me, "it's never really tough. But you must have love. At the end of the day, you have much more influence through generating goodwill than through applying pressure."

Clearly, this is the strategy Shimon Peres has chosen for this final chapter of a remarkable life on the world stage that started when David Ben-Gurion handpicked him at age 24 as his deputy minister of defense and which he now hopes to conclude by doing everything he can -- in public but especially "in the shadows" -- to make real his mentor's vision of an Israeli state peacefully co-existing next to a Palestinian one.