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Peres Speech Lauded Abroad, but More Controversial at Home

November 16, 2001
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American Jewish leaders say Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres’ address to the U.N. General Assembly this week will help consolidate a growing consensus in Israel on the need for an independent Palestinian state.

However, furious reaction from right-wing politicians at home cast doubt on how broad the supposed consensus really is.

Addressing the General Assembly on Thursday, Peres set forth a vision of an international community united in devotion to scientific and technological progress that is starkly at odds with the barbarism of terrorist groups such as Osama bin Laden’s Al Qaida.

Cutting to the core, however, leaders of American Jewish groups focused on Peres strong support for the idea of a Palestinian state.

Other world leaders, including President Bush and many Arab diplomats, made similar calls during their speeches at the assembly this week.

“Yesterday you would hardly find, for example, support for a Palestinian state,” Peres said, while today “there is support for Palestinian independence, support for a Palestinian state.

“We do not want to dominate the Palestinians,” he continued. “We want them to breathe freedom, to create a new economy, to maintain their tradition, to enjoy the highest level of education and provide real security to all parties.”

American Jewish leaders lauded the speech.

David Harris, executive director of the American Jewish Committee and a veteran of Jewish diplomacy, called it “one of the most poetic and thoughtful speeches I ve heard in a very long time.”

Peres “touched all the right buttons,” Harris said. “I only hope that the messages struck home.”

The Anti-Defamation League’s national director, Abraham Foxman, agreed.

Peres “articulated a consensus that exists in Israel on the issue of a Palestinian state, and even the consensus of the American Jewish community,” Foxman said. “He articulated where we are and gave a pragmatic vision of where we would like to be.”

Though Peres long has advocated a “two-state” solution, it was important for world leaders to hear such a message from an Israeli diplomat at the United Nations, according to Tom Smerling, director of the Israel Policy Forum.

“To say this to the General Assembly is one more step toward the mainstreaming in Israel of the idea of a Palestinian state,” Smerling said. “Israel always breaks taboos in small increments. All they are doing is acknowledging and confirming the obvious.”

Just how obvious remains unclear, however.

In an apparent last-minute addition to his speech, Peres noted that his support for a Palestinian state is “not yet a formal policy of the government of Israel.”

Indeed, Peres reportedly said he toned down a reference to the breadth of support in Israel for Palestinian statehood because of complaints from right-wing ministers that the government had never taken a formal decision on the issue.

Prime Minister Ariel Sharon said last month that he, too, envisions an independent Palestinian state, but critics say the contours of the state Sharon wants would render it meaningless.

In any case, Sharon’s remarks came before the assassination of an Israeli minister in mid-October, which set off a particularly bloody spiral of violence that has not yet been fully controlled.

Sharon on Thursday sought to disassociate himself from Peres’ remarks, according to the Jerusalem Post.

The Israeli daily Ha’aretz, however, reported that the two coordinated the speech before Peres left Israel last week, and that top aides worked out last-minute problems in a phone call Thursday.

Still, right-wing politicians in Israel were furious.

Tourism Minister Benny Elon said Sharon should consider firing Peres.

“I think a foreign minister should not say things in the name of the Israeli street as he imagines it,” but should stick to government guidelines, Elon said.

“He has no mandate to declare what he declared,” agreed Dan Naveh, a minister without portfolio. It was “a serious mistake.”

Former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who is considered Sharon s most serious challenger for leadership of the Likud Party, told Israel’s Channel One television that Peres speech rewarded the Palestinians for terrorism.

Peres “has a problem adjusting to reality,” Netanyahu said, and is among a small minority of Israelis who still believe Arafat can be trusted with a state.

“It is absurd to allow Arafat to set up a terrorist state in the heart of Israel,” Netanyahu said.

In Washington, Smerling said Peres’ vision “can give the Palestinians some inkling of hope that if they pay the price of truly clamping down on violence, there is something in it for them at the end of the day.”

Despite his support for the Palestinians, Peres was adamant about Israel s need for security.

“As long as terror persists, Israel has no choice but to defend its people,” he said. “The word terror does not describe an abstract dilemma for us, it refers to a reality of between 30 to 40 violent incidents every day shooting, bombing, ambushing, killing.”

In addition, he appeared to give oblique backing to Israel’s controversial policy of assassinating suspected Palestinian terrorists.

Terror “is perpetrated by suicide bombers that have no respect for life their own or others,” Peres said. “The only place they can be intercepted is at the point from which they depart.”

Peres also called on the Palestinian Authority to exert control over terrorist groups it allows to operate from its territory but then ducks responsibility for attacks the groups carry out.

“If you have one political authority and several armed groups, you can have neither democracy nor security,” he said.

“The Palestinian Authority, which is a state in being, must establish one authority over all arms, all armies, all use of arms, not for the sake of Israel, but for the sake of peace, for the sake of their own destiny, so that bullets will not negate ballots.”

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