Peace quest urgent, Peres warns Sharon


TEL AVIV, Israel -- As a former prime minister, foreign minister and defense minister, Shimon Peres apparently felt entitled to take a couple of liberties last night as Israel's politicians celebrated his 80th birthday.

He told an audience of dignitaries that good days for Israel lie ahead but then looked down from the stage at Tel Aviv University at Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, sitting in the front row, and warned him that the opportunity to reach a permanent peace settlement with the Palestinians was about to disappear.

"To Arik, you are aware that we have no choice but to see a Palestinian state," said Peres, once again leader of the left-of-center Labor Party and addressing Sharon by his nickname.

"I ask you, Arik, how long do you want to sit in the waiting room of history?" Peres continued as Sharon shifted and sank in his chair in the front row of a packed auditorium, and as his smile was replaced by a tight frown.

After months of leading the muted opposition Labor Party, Peres seized the spotlight afforded him last night. His admonitions might signal the re-emergence of an alternative voice in Israeli politics.

Peres serves as a reminder of a time when peaceful coexistence between Israelis and Palestinians seemed almost within reach. Now, as he continues to push for negotiations, he is viewed by many fellow Israelis with contempt, as a figure whose time has passed.

A decade ago Peres helped shepherd the Oslo accords, an interim peace agreement with the Palestinians that through exchanging land for peace was supposed to lead to the creation of an independent Palestinian state alongside Israel.

He shared a Nobel Peace Prize with Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, who was assassinated by a right-wing Israeli extremist, and with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, now shunned by Israel and the United States. Peres said yesterday that the prize for Arafat was correct at the time.

Some Israelis considered the two-day celebration in Peres' honor ill-timed with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict unresolved and Israel in a prolonged economic slump. They noted the irony of celebrating a man of peace when there is no peace to be had.

Private grants paid for plane tickets and for housing hundreds of visiting dignitaries, but there were complaints about having to foot the bill for the extraordinary security.

"The one thing that nobody can take away from him is his relentless optimism," said Uri Dromi of the Israel Democracy Institute, a former aide to Peres. "We all need hope. It's also that Peres was always blamed for being a bit aloof, or not in touch with reality, or too visionary, but then he delivered.

"I wouldn't brush off everything he says as some kind of hallucination. But look what happened to his dream of a new Middle East. It collapsed. His theory is right, but the gap between what he is saying and reality is a bit too wide to give his statements credibility."

In remarks Sunday, Sharon and Peres seemed to hold out their hands to each other. Sharon said, "Perhaps, Shimon, we will again go together facing one common goal."

Peres responded, "Arik, it may be much closer than what you think, and even closer than I believe."

Israeli newspapers speculated that the give and take might signal Labor's return to Sharon's coalition and a return to peace talks. As such, yesterday's double billing with Sharon and Peres took on added significance, but it quickly became apparent that the two men remain far apart.

Sharon spoke first. He noted that the Israeli state was established against all odds. "The experts were wrong," Sharon said, smiling and gesturing to Peres. "The visionaries were right."

He then quickly launched into a defense of his military tactics, saying he is forced to lead "with a sword in one hand to protect the lives of Israeli citizens." He said that one day "the enemy will realize that they cannot beat or defeat us. It is only after they purge terrorism and violence that they we can accept peaceful coexistence."

Peres then took the brightly lighted stage. He, too, warned the Palestinians, saying, "You do not have much time left for terrorism. If you continue with terror, then you will become the next target of the world."

Peres then turned to Sharon, urging him to make concessions to help assure the Palestinians that they don't have to resort to violence to achieve their goals. He urged Sharon to pull the Jewish settlements out of the Gaza Strip, where 7,000 Israelis live surrounded by 1.2 million Palestinians.

"You are aware that we have no future in the Gaza Strip," Peres said. "You know it in your heart."

"There is no point and purpose for swords when we can exist without them."

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