Standing gravely in his office, in front of pictures of historic handshakes and his Nobel peace prize, Shimon Peres once again appears to be the likeable face of Israel. At a time when the most common images of Israel in the public mind are of the Prime Minister, Ariel Sharon, regarded in some European quarters as a war criminal, and dead Palestinian children, Mr Peres has agreed to this interview because he wants to address the British people who are most sceptical towards his country.
"I ask you to look at the whole picture. Israel has been asked to trade land for peace. We did it with Egypt. We gave back everything to the last inch, all the water, everything. Did we get peace?" He shrugs, offering a pained look. "Judging by the Egyptian press, no. We did it with Jordan. We gave back all their land. And we have peace without an ambassador, without normality. We offered at Oslo to give back the West Bank and Gaza, but they didn't stop the terror. I lost the elections [in 1996] because they wouldn't stop. Israel has been attacked five times, out-numbered, out-gunned. Nobody came on our side. So I say, 'Gentlemen, what sort of complaint do you have?'"
I furrow my brow a little, and he moves to distance himself from the Israeli right wing. "Look, I am glad we pulled out of the territories before [prime minister Yitzhak] Rabin was assassinated [in 1995, by an ultra-Orthodox Jew]. We managed to give back to the Palestinians 460 villages, six cities. I advocated compromise, time and again, time and again.
"And then there was the Camp David offer, which [Yasser] Arafat refused, unnecessarily in my judgement. It's hard, you know. I don't know of any other nation that was attacked on so many occasions, where they won, gave back, won, gave back. This is the whole picture." Mr Peres is once again leader of Israel's Labour Party, this time as a caretaker leader for a year. He is 80 next month. Most commentators in Israel believe it will be a bleak summer for him.
He has dedicated his life to political dialogue with the Palestinians, yet the popular perception in his homeland is that the Peres way was tried at Oslo and collapsed in ruins at Camp David and Taba. When I ask if he ever hopes to return to government, he says: "I hope not. I am disillusioned with governments and powers. On so many occasions, the difference between what people think and what the realities are is great. I prefer to stick with persuading the people and arguing my case."
But he does not believe that Oslo failed because the idea of dialogue between the two sides was inherently flawed. Rather, he argues that Ehud Barak, his successor as Labour leader after he lost the 1996 election, mishandled the process.
When I say there is a perception on the Israeli left that Mr Barak was incompetent, he says: "Yes. That is the case. He was warned, including by myself, that asking the Palestinians to declare [at Camp David as part of the "final status" agreements] that they have no further ambitions, saying they had to renounce the right of return and concerns about the rest of Jerusalem, which are insoluble at this period of time, would go wrong."
But he is scornful of the argument that Oslo failed because the Israelis were insufficiently generous towards the Palestinians. When I point out that during Oslo the number of settlers doubled and Palestinians saw a huge increase in restrictions on their freedom of movement, he says: "The Palestinians are blind if they don't distinguish between the right and left in Israel. The right was for a Greater Israel. The left was all the time for a Palestinian state. How can they not see that? We went to Oslo, all the time opposed by the right. We took risks. I think it is shallow, what they say."
Mr Sharon and Mr Peres are the last political survivors of the generation that created Israel in 1948. When I ask when he first met Mr Sharon, the answer is a reminder that his history and Israel's are the same. "I met him 55 years ago. He was a young officer, and I was the right-hand man of David Ben-Gurion [Israel's first prime minister]. I took him to meet the Prime Minister as a very promising young officer." And what was the impression of him then? "Very deep. Impressive." He elaborates: "I think Sharon would like to achieve peace, but his peace. His map. I doubt that his map is workable. He thinks I'm too fast, I think he's too slow." He is especially critical of the "security fence" that Mr Sharon defended against criticisms in Washington last week.
"Politically, I am not enthusiastic. Militarily, the army say it's OK but if it is a military fence, then the line [along which it is being built] is a problem." The fence does not follow the 1967 borders, but cuts into Palestinian land. "The line is following a certain vision of the future. When that happens, it stops being a security fence and becomes a political fence. Nobody will admit that it is being built for these [political] reasons, nobody will admit that it is a political line. But the results are political, even if it is true that those are not the intentions."
It is hard, critics believe, for Mr Peres' criticisms to have much credibility, because he was part of Mr Sharon's national unity government until earlier this year, which much of the Israeli peace camp saw as a betrayal. His former aide Gideon Levy accused him of being "a partner in crime".
Mr Peres responds: "The problem with the left is that they think that being for peace is a matter of singing a song. I say, if you want to sing songs, become a singer. If you want to build peace, you must build a majority, and a majority does not come just with the left, but with the centre. We [in the Labour party] deserve a share of the credit for shifting the current government from its right-wing position in favour of a Greater Israel towards a position in the centre, where they accept a Palestinian state and the road-map. I am proud of that. Mountains do not move, but parties do." Mr Peres believes he "probably" stopped the Israeli government from expelling Arafat from the territories. He even believes that "at their core" his vision of a resolution to the conflict and Mr Sharon's are not dissimilar.
Mr Peres has discussed his 1993 book The New Middle East with Mr Sharon. It is a manifesto for a normalised Israel beside a Palestinian state accepted by the Arab world. It reads now like a Utopian delusion. Yet Mr Peres says: "Sharon said that he basically agrees ... but he thinks I am a bit in a hurry." Really? He agrees with the idea of a regional confederation of Middle Eastern countries modelled on the EU? The sharing of water resources? A free Palestine? "Yes. And I told him that the only difference between a politician and a messiah is the time limit."
One Israeli left-winger laughed when I told her this. "Peres has become a tragic figure, dreaming of a peaceful Middle East and writing these lovely speeches, but all the while holding Sharon's hand and imagining that this butcher wants it too."
From the frown on his forehead, I suspect he knows the question of whether this will be the verdict of history is in the hands of that promising young officer he met 55 years ago.
BORN: 1923 in Vishniva, Poland (now in Belarus)
EDUCATION: Moved to Tel Aviv in 1934; studied at the Ben Shemen Agricultural School
1943: Elected secretary of the Labour youth movement
1947: Joins Israeli Defence Forces after creation of Israel
1948: Head of naval services
1953: Director general of the Ministry of Defence
1959: Member of Knesset; deputy minister of defence
1968: Plays a key role forming the Israeli Labour party
1974: Minister of Information and Minister of Defence. Presides over the Entebbe hostage rescue operation
1978: Elected vice-president of the Socialist International
1992: Foreign Minister under Labour-led government
1994: Nobel peace prize for work on Oslo peace accords
1995: Prime Minister and Defence Minister after Yitzhak Rabin is assassinated by an Israeli right-wing extremist
1996: Loses premiership to Benjamin Netanyahu
2001: Joins Ariel Sharon's government as Minister of Foreign Affairs and Deputy Prime Minister
2002: Resigns from Sharon government with other Labour party members
2003: Elected interim leader of Labour party in oppositionReuse content