The Bush administration has “already given positive signs that it intends to help us,” he said. “The Jewish people ought to do the same.”
Intense Jewish support could be vital for passing the aid package, which would supplement the annual $2.6 billion in American economic and military aid that Israel receives each year. Though the Bush administration has signaled support, observers say the Israeli funding request will face stiff opposition in some congressional circles, since Israel is already the largest annual recipient of American foreign aid.
Israel is beginning its push on Capitol Hill for funding at a time when American Jews, according to Peres, are becoming increasingly “indifferent” toward Israel. The vice premier cited the shrinking percentage of funds that local Jewish charitable federations have sent to Israel during the past decade. Sources close to the 82-year-old Israeli statesman, a veteran of 56 years in public life and 46 years in the Knesset, said that Peres is also dismayed over what he views as the relatively slow and timid expressions of support by American Jewish organizations for Israel’s decision to dismantle all the Jewish settlements in Gaza and four more in the northern West Bank. Sources close to Peres said that major Jewish organizations also have not done enough to counter the boisterous right-wing opposition to the Gaza disengagement plan or Israeli Prime Minister Sharon’s willingness to re-engage with the Palestinian Authority, since Mahmoud Abbas took over as leader.
“We closely follow what American Jewish groups do and say,” said a source close to Peres, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “We didn’t like what we saw in this past year, leading up to the disengagement.”
Peres told the Forward that the new push to develop areas within Israel’s pre-1967 borders, as opposed to the territories, could serve as a new, inspirational goal to revitalize American Jewish support for the Jewish state, which he said has not been satisfactory in recent years. A new national vision that combines educational and technological progress with social justice could redirect Jewish resources — human and financial alike — to the Jewish state, he said.
The plan to develop the Negev and the Galilee is necessary for maintaining the stability of Israel’s government, Peres insisted. “This government cannot only be a government of evacuation,” he said, referring to the dismantlement of Jewish settlements in Gaza and the northern West Bank. “It has to also be a government of construction.”
Peres said that the post-disengagement era will provide an opportunity to resurrect the embattled Labor Party, which he has been leading — on and off — since 1977. “The party must shift from personal competition to ideological clarity,” he said. “There must be an agenda, and the Negev and Galilee must have a central part of that agenda.” Referring to the aggressive market-economy policies of Likud’s finance minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, Peres said: “What Israel needs is not Margaret Thatcher but Roosevelt’s New Deal or the Great Society of Lyndon Johnson.” He added: “We are not a country of tycoons. We support privatization but we can’t ignore other sectors of society.”
The disengagement from Gaza, Peres said, is bound to re-energize efforts to end Israeli-Palestinian conflict with a two-state solution. At the end of this process, he predicted, Israel will keep Jewish settlements “concentrated in small blocs” in the West Bank “in exchange for swapped territories” inside Israel.
Asked if Prime Minister Sharon shares this vision, Peres replied: “I know Sharon well, and I also know the circumstances well. It is the circumstances that must change politicians, including Ariel Sharon. A person is not stronger than history, and no one can withstand the strong wind of historic change.”
Sharon may hope that withdrawing from Gaza will help him strengthen Israel’s hold of the West Bank. But “he is not alone in the world,” Peres said. “And changes in circumstances would compel him to change.”
In the end, Peres said, he does not believe that the withdrawal from Gaza and the northern West Bank will turn into a debilitating trauma that will paralyze the peace process. “After we leave Gaza, the debate will soon be forgotten,” he said. “It will be immediately forgotten, because there is no logic in staying in Gaza. It is utterly illogical, and illusions are hard to maintain.”