Peace in the Middle East and in other parts of the world is threatened by the Islamic fundamentalist movement and the possibility that its leaders may someday possess nuclear weapons, former Israeli Prime Minister Shimon Peres warned an audience in a packed Battell Chapel on Jan. 11.
This threat, he said, fuels his belief that the "painful" peace process he and the late Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin began with Palestinian Liberation Organization Chair Yasser Arafat -- and for which all three leaders won a Nobel Peace Prize in 1994 -- must continue.
"We have to bring an end to the conventional conflict with our neighbors and try to prepare the Middle East economically, strategically and politically to face a new challenge, a terrible menace, hanging in the skies above all of us," said Mr. Peres. The dangerous spread of the Iranian-led Muslim fundamentalist movement has overshadowed what was Israel's greatest threat for half a century, "an invasion by hostile armies," Mr. Peres stated. To counter the new threat, Jews, Arabs and Palestinians need to form "a coalition of all the forces who are afraid to see the Middle East becoming both fundamentalist and nuclear," he said.
"It is not the first time in history that the civilized world is facing this sort of danger, this sort of evil movement, but it is the first time that an evil movement of this nature may be equipped with nuclear weapons," he added, noting that the Muslim religious movement has already spread to Algiers, Afghanistan and Sudan.
"If you were to listen to Arafat, Jordanian leader Hussein or Egyptian president Mubarek speaking about fundamentalism, they would use exactly the same expressions and descriptions that I have," he commented.
Mr. Peres, whose visit to Yale was sponsored jointly by the Chubb Fellowship and the David and Goldie Blanksteen Lectureship, also recounted some of the personal difficulties he has faced since signing the peace agreement with Mr. Arafat, Israel's former arch- rival, in 1993. The year 1995, he remarked, was "the saddest year in my life."
He recalled the peace rally in November of that year and how he and Mr. Rabin had stood joyously together on a balcony as they spoke to a supportive crowd. It marked the first time in his 50-year association with Mr. Rabin that the late prime minister embraced him, and it was also the first time Mr. Peres heard his friend sing. "I think it was the happiest day in his life," said Mr. Peres, who went on to recall how just five minutes later, after parting company with Mr. Rabin, he heard the three shots that mortally wounded his colleague.
"Is this peace?" is the question Mr. Peres asked himself right after the assassination and many times over in the days that followed, when he found himself leading a "confused" Israel while also contending with four terrorist attacks on innocent citizens. He recalled how he heard the shouts of "traitor" and "killer" aimed at him by thousands of Israelis in the Jerusalem square where the first terrorist attack took place; how he stood "silent and hopeless" in Tel Aviv after a bombing there two days later; and how, at the site of the fourth bombing, the voices of Israeli citizens crying "Why did you do it sign the peace agreement ? Why did you trust them the PLO ?" made him realize that he would not be elected over Benjamin Netanyahu to continuing leading his country.
"My heart was full of sadness, but my mind did not regret it," he said of his fellow citizens' bitterness and his quest for peace. Though he lost the election, he is consoled today by the fact that "peace is winning the day," Mr. Peres said. "They the opposition party understand they have to continue peace."
Citing the collapse of the Soviet Union, along with an end to the ideological divisions between East and West, as examples of how much the world has changed, Mr. Peres noted that it is not a nation's size or its wealth of natural resources that makes it great; rather, it is a nation's commitment to investing in education, scientific and technological advancement, and the free flow of information that determines its success.
"Science doesn't need a passport to go from one land to another land; technology doesn't require visas; and information today blows like the wind -- even iron curtains cannot stop its arrival," he said. But, he cautioned, "The same goes for missiles. A modern missile is not impressed by borders of time or space; it has a real strategic contempt for any frontier or fortification. ... And the same goes for terrorism. It can arrive at any place suddenly and you don't know where it comes from," Mr. Peres said.
-- By Susan Gonzalez