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Thomas Friedman On The Legacy Of Shimon Peres


And I'm Steve Inskeep with a memory of Shimon Peres. The longtime Israeli leader's funeral came today in Jerusalem. Those who knew him include Thomas L. Friedman of The New York Times who's on the line.

Welcome to the program.

THOMAS FRIEDMAN: Good to be with you, Steve.

INSKEEP: What was it like to meet Shimon Peres?

FRIEDMAN: Shimon Peres really stood out for me among Middle East leaders because he was a man who was always looking to get to say yes, not no. You know, he was a man who, in a region of walls, really believed in webs. And he was a guy who always thought that the future could bury the past - that the past didn't always have to bury the future. And that was very different from virtually every other Middle East leader.

INSKEEP: What do you mean by walls versus webs - that he believed in webs?

FRIEDMAN: That he believed that, ultimately, Israel's security could only be derived by forging a set of relationships, both with its Arab neighbors and its Palestinian neighbors.

INSKEEP: Meaning that the wall, to just use that as a metaphor - some of the security barriers that Israel's put up - that's not going to be enough. He didn't believe that would be enough.

FRIEDMAN: Right. Ultimately, he knew that they had to forge an enduring peace between people.

INSKEEP: How popular was he as a politician?

FRIEDMAN: Very mixed. You know, he had both his detractors within the Labor Party and with Israel at large during his very long political career that spanned some 70 years. But later in life, as he became president, which is a non-power position in Israel, a symbolic one, Israelis really grew to, I think, appreciate his sort of optimism and that very sense of possibilities that things didn't have to be the way they were forever, that maybe we could forge a way out of this - you know, this hellish conflict.

INSKEEP: Did you like him, by which I mean, as a professional, did you find him - as a reporter, someone you could go to who would have an interesting take on things, who seemed smart and would level with you?

FRIEDMAN: Precisely, Steve. You know what was interested about Peres is that he was interested in many, many things. I mean, I'm interested in technology, for instance, globalization. He loved talking about that. The last thing he wanted to talk about was, you know, the latest round of negotiations frankly. So it was always a breath of fresh air interacting with him.

INSKEEP: Dennis Ross, the former U.S. ambassador, was telling us on the program his last conversation with Shimon Peres was something about the brain and brain science.

FRIEDMAN: Oh, absolutely. You could have a really intelligent conversation with him, you know, about any subject, be it literature, art, technology. He was a man interested in everything. But most of all, in a region that specialized in saying no, Shimon Peres was always trying to get to yes.

INSKEEP: Well, why do you think he ultimately could not keep a majority of Israelis behind his particular vision for peace?

FRIEDMAN: Well, unfortunately, after the breakdown of the Oslo peace accords, which he was one of the architects of along with Prime Minister Rabin and Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat's...

INSKEEP: In the '90s, right.

FRIEDMAN: Right, in the mid-'90s. The disappointment that flowed from that - and Oslo broke down, really, because of both sides. Israelis continued to build settlements, and Arafat continued to, you know, to support terrorism. You know, when you have war, you can hope for peace. And when you have peace, you can hope for final peace. But when you have war after peace, there's really nothing worse. It's like a couple that gets married and after six months, both the man and the wife cheat on each other. And that was what it felt like after Oslo. And as a result of that, everyone felt, you know, twice burned and three times shy.

INSKEEP: Thomas L. Friedman, columnist for The New York Times.

Thanks for sharing your memories this morning.

FRIEDMAN: My pleasure, Steve.

INSKEEP: Shimon Peres, his funeral came today. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.