Shimon Peres, Israel’s vice prime minister and its leader best known for optimism regarding the Mideast conflict, put up a good front this week during a visit to New York, but acknowledged that the war with Lebanon was not going well.
“To be intellectually honest,” he began in a session with members of the press here Monday morning, “the war is not over” and “I don’t see a solution.”
The day before, an Israeli bomb, aimed at Hezbollah fighters launching rockets in the town of Kana, missed its target and landed about 300 yards away, striking an apartment building and killing a reported 56 civilians, many of them children.
Peres, 83 and a former prime minister as well as defense minister (and virtually every other minister) of the Jewish state, said the details still were not known of the incident but called it “a tragedy.”
“I was shocked to see it,” he said, asserting that even though Hezbollah was to blame for positioning its fighters in the midst of civilian areas, “images are stronger than reason.”
The Kana bombing triggered memories for Peres of an eerily similar incident that took place in the same town in 1996 when he was prime minister. As he related, Hezbollah had attacked Israel but Peres decided to try the diplomatic route before using force, calling on the U.S. and Syria to persuade Hezbollah to stop. After seven days, though, Peres called in the army, but when an errant Israeli bomb destroyed a UN building, killing more than 100 civilians who had fled there, world pressure forced Israel to stop its reprisals.
Peres noted that Israel is in a unique position in history, as a country facing a terror group governing another country. Since Hezbollah has no uniforms and no address, and its fighters store their arms in homes and mosques, “it is not easy for Israel,” Peres said, indicating that the Israel Defense Forces was still struggling to find a way to fight more effectively.
“Many would like us to provide a military victory but you cannot without an opponent.” Still, he said, Israel will prevail by being patient and changing its tactics. “This is a war not with a front, but with nests. We shall go from nest to nest and destroy the weapons and take the leaders,” he said. “It will be a different kind of war but we shall do it.”
“It’s a foolish war,” he added, sounding weary but on point. “Why did Hezbollah start it and what are its aims?” He answered his own questions, suggesting that the Iran-sponsored terror group seeks “not only to destroy Israel but to make Lebanon Shiite.”
After the fighting stops, Peres said, Hezbollah will have to answer to the Lebanese people as to why their country, which was on the road to economic and political stability, is in shambles.
He criticized Lebanon as a “prima donna” unwilling and unable to defend itself, calling on the world to intervene rather than using its own soldiers. But, he added: “We want peace in Lebanon. We have pity, but not hate.”
Describing himself as an optimist, Peres said that at his age he can take the long look at the Mideast situation, noting that after four wars with Israel, Egypt is “a partner,” and the same for Jordan. Eventually, he said, the Palestinians will make peace with Israel because “there is no choice.” He did not mention Hezbollah in that context, though.
The current conflict will end, Peres said, when there will be a deployment of “non-Hezbollah forces” in southern Lebanon, the disarmament of Hezbollah and the return of Israel’s kidnapped soldiers.
“It looks bleak today,” he said, “but we will make peace.”
The key to the international force in the buffer zone will not be its size but its degree of “initiative,” Peres said, adding that observers (like the UN forces in the area) are ineffective. “A sick person needs medicine, not a thermometer,” he said.
In time, Peres said, the U.S. will be able to form a “coalition of humanity” made up of the G-8, a number of Arab countries and Japan to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear arms because “war and destruction are not an option.”