Israel's Way Forward: A Talk with Shimon Peres

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Mihai Barbu / EPA / Corbis

Israeli President Shimon Peres

Perhaps it's the dignity of the office that restrains Shimon Peres. Perhaps it's personal decorum. But on the morning after Israel's Prime Minister delivered a speech that all but threw a padlock on the already shuttered peace talks, the country's President offered only the most oblique criticism of Benjamin Netanyahu — and of Israeli politics that long ago stopped being as audacious as the state Peres helped to found.

"Leaders must go ahead even when moving ahead is controversial," Peres says in an interview with TIME. "You must be ahead of time, because if you want to represent the status quo, what do you need leaders for? Most people anyway prefer to remember rather than to think. And even you don't have to remember: Ask the Internet; it remembers everything. You have to imagine and look ahead."

Looking ahead is something Peres does to a striking extent for a man of 87. His latest undertaking — next month's Israeli Presidential Conference — will be the third since he assumed the largely ceremonial post in Israel's parliamentary system (which he headed twice as Prime Minister, in the 1980s and '90s). Of the perhaps 4,000 people expected at "Facing Tomorrow 2011," the guests he is excited about aren't the heads of state but the experts who study the human brain.

"By the way, in 10 years it will be a totally different world," Peres says. "Forget the present world. I think the greatest industry will be human spare parts. It will be renewal of human cells in the brain. It will be dialogue between the brain and other parts of the body."

But when he talks of Israelis' contributions to the field — "We are very near to having an answer to blind people ... Alzheimer's and Parkinson's, strokes" — the effect is double-edged. Once upon a time, Israeli statecraft was as daring and ingenious as the inventions that drive the country's fabulously successful high-tech sector. But for all the energy in the private economy, something very much like stasis has become the norm on the public side. Once known for its dynamism, the Jewish state lately is more acted upon than acting. A variety of recent surveys shows a public turning inward against a world that doesn't understand, and a young generation more nationalistic and less inclined toward democratic values.

At the same time, a recent poll by Haaretz shows that Peres, by his own account once the least popular politician in Israel, now ranks above all others. He quotes Gandhi, Nehru and Mao Zedong ("a great leader until he became one"). His touchstone is David Ben Gurion, the George Washington of Israel whom he served as a deputy in the defense ministry, and whom Peres regards as his mentor in the Labor Party, now nearly defunct. Says the protégé: "When the world is global it doesn't make sense to be provincial."

Among the things Peres doesn't want to talk about is the Arab Spring, for the perfectly credible reason that anything any Israeli official says might well be counterproductive. But, he says, "I'm asking myself, what is the real problem for the Arabs? That is to escape poverty." In 1952, the year Gamal Abdel Nasser and other military officers overthrew the king, Egypt had 18 million people. Today it has 84 million. "The Nile didn't grow five times in that time," Peres says.

Technology did, however. At the intersection of science and human enterprise — where Peres appears to feel entirely at home — he spies a promise awaiting the new governments struggling to emerge across the Middle East. "There is an opening, because the same Arab countries that wouldn't like governments to intervene are ready for private companies from abroad," says Peres. "Because how do you overcome poverty? Israel doesn't have land, doesn't have water, and has the best agriculture on earth. We came to the conclusion it's not the number of acres that makes you rich or poor, it's the yield of a single acre."

A few weeks ago the President visited a cooperative farm, or moshav, in central Israel. The people who started it 60 years ago decided to grow cucumbers. In the first year, their yield for a single dunham (about a quarter acre) was 1 ton. Twenty years later, it had tripled, to 3 tons. "This year," he says, "30 tons. And half the water! I came to them, they were happy people. They say, 'Mr. Peres, if another country wants to learn, send us, we will go without money.' "

In point of fact, Israel was doing just such work in Egypt, reclaiming the desert as part of the 1979 peace treaty. But the Egyptian government unilaterally suspended all development cooperation with Israel in 2002, during the Second Intifada. Still, that doesn't mean help would necessarily be turned away if offered outside state channels, especially via the people-to-people formats (including social media) that have played such a role in the uprisings. People do, after all, have a pretty good sense who they can trust.

"Sixty years in politics, I was the most controversial person in this country, now I'm the most popular man in the country," says Peres. "You ask me when I was happier, I wouldn't know the answer," explaining that he reveled "in controversy [because] you're fighting."

In politics, he says, intention is everything. "It's not the person who wants to arrive at the top; it's the person who is ready to move ahead. Not to woo, but to move forward. And I think this is also why you are more popular or not. If people think that you serve a cause, they love you. If people feel that you're self-serving, you lose the confidence."