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Shimon Peres on Peace

Having spent the last six decades negotiating for peace in the Middle East, 1994 Nobel Prize winner Shimon Peres, an HBS AMP alum, was on hand to impart his learned wisdom to Harvard students at the John F. Kennedy School of Government on October 20th. In his remarks, Peres covered a range of issues including his thoughts on why the Israeli peace process has taken so long to unfold, examples of negotiated resolutions to global conflict he most admires, and his take on the situation in Iraq.

Looking back, Peres identified what he called a lack of “generosity” on the part of Israel in negotiating a just peace settlement with Palestine. Pointing out that “occupation” is by no means a Jewish virtue, he pronounced the eleven years since Palestinian agreement to abide by the 1967 map (versus the 1947 map, which would have allotted Palestine nearly twice as much land) to have been filled with a number of Israeli “mistakes”-mistakes that the Israelis, including current Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, have learned from over the years.

One mistake, Peres intimated, was in neglecting to negotiate as seriously with the interest groups on one’s own side and not merely the other side. Peace, Peres said, is a necessarily inclusive process, as well as being a complex end to which either rightist or leftist factions could potentially lead. Currently, “We don’t intend to monopolize peace,” announced Peres. “We can even privatize it,” he added to laughter.

Shifting away from his broad-strokes comments on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Peres noted several examples of negotiated peace that he believes to be admirably instructive. For one, said Peres, the “liberation of women” throughout the world has been “the greatest invention” the necessary path by which “children become agents for a new world, a better world.” The successful coexistence of Islam and Modernism in Turkey, he pointed out, is another example of a difficult peace successfully achieved: an example that is particularly instructive to the United States as it negotiates a just peace in Iraq.

Peres expressed profound sorrow that the dawn of the 21st century has ushered in violence and war to the world. This is an age, he said, in which the “economy of land” model of physical territory-seeking imperialistic powers has given way to an “economy of mind” paradigm in which competing worldviews clamor for supremacy. “Nobody thinks the U.S. has ambitions on land,” said Peres, but thanks to the phenomenon of globalization, terrorists have cropped up to defend their way of life from the spread of modernity in many Muslim nations.

The war in Iraq, however, stressed Peres, is not seen by the world as a war against Islam. Rather, he said, most people in the free world think that Saddam Hussein was a “catastrophic” leader whose removal has done some good for the spread of democracy. This, Peres emphasized, is a reality that the U.S. can leverage as it leaves behind the “easy” activity of war to the “different story” of making peace. It is important for negotiators of peace to be “hawks when there [is] danger,” Peres stated, but to also be “doves when there [is] a chance.”

Throughout his talk, Peres sprinkled bits of advice for the mostly undergraduate student audience. “If you want to make peace,” he said in one instance, “don’t win too much.” “Peace is very divisive,” he said in another, but take care to not “be like us [in the older generation].” “There is so much to remember,” Peres advised, “but make a history of your own because the world is changing.” The “right questions always lead to the right answers,” he said, adding that he credits his Harvard experience for helping his realize this. “[So] think rather than remember,” he concluded, for “you’ll always be as great as the cause you sell.”

November 2, 2004
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