President Shimon Peres
President Shimon PeresIsrael news photo: Flash 90

During his visit to the United States, where he received the Medal of Freedom, President Shimon Peres discussed strategic challenges in the Middle East, in a special session with U.S. Secretary State Hillary Clinton.

The event, held on Tuesday at the Brookings Institute, was hosted by former U.S. Ambassador to Israel Martin S. Indyk.

In regards to Syria, Clinton said that “we continue to support Kofi Annan’s efforts, and we do so because he represents both the United Nations and the Arab League.”

She noted that “the red line for us was the inclusion of Iran [in the implementation of Annan’s plan]. We thought that would be a grave error since we know that Iran is not only supporting the Assad regime, but actively mentoring, leading, encouraging not merely the regular army, but the militias that are springing up, engaging in sectarian conflict.

“So we have a timeline in mind to see whether or not this effort of Kofi’s can be successful,” she added. “The outer limit of that is mid-July when the Security Council has to decide whether or not to extend the mission. And certainly, if there is no discernible movement by then, it will be very difficult to extend a mission that is increasingly dangerous for the observers on the ground.”

She added, “We have confronted the Russians about stopping their continued arms shipments to Syria. They have, from time to time, said that we shouldn’t worry; everything they’re shipping is unrelated to their actions internally. That’s patently untrue. And we are concerned about the latest information we have that there are attack helicopters on the way from Russia to Syria, which will escalate the conflict quite dramatically.”

Peres said that the bravery of the Syrian people “is admirable and unbelievable. People are facing fire every day, a dictator that kills children. For me, the most shocking photo is to see a small coffin and a dead child in it. I can’t stand it. People are reluctant to say, ‘Well, if Assad will go, we don’t have an alternative.’ My answer: Assad stopped to be an alternative. Even if there is no alternative, he’s neither an alternative.

“The leaders of the world, and what can Russians do? The Russians will be finally accused of intervening,” he added. “They may be admired in Syria, but they are creating a great deal of opposition in the rest of the Arab world. So no single country can do it without being accused. The Arab League should and can do it. And if you ask for my advice, this should be the right policy.”

Regarding the peace process, Peres said, “I think now it is the time to make peace with the Palestinians. The Israeli Government has a wider base. The Palestinians understand that not everything which was happening in the Arab Spring is necessarily bringing them time, because one of the important thing about the Arab Spring is the Arab youngsters understand that their situation is not a result of the conflict between us and the Palestinians. They know that reform begins at home. What’s happening in Syria has nothing to do with Israel. What happened in Tunisia has nothing to do with Israel, or Libya. And I think we should let the Arabs reform their lives and stop using the Palestinian-Israeli conflict as an excuse.”

The session also dealt with Iran, and Peres said, “What revolts the world against Iran is that in the 21st century, the Iranian leaders, not the Iranian people, are the only one that wants to renew imperialism – we can’t accept it – in the name of religion. From that, it started. That’s the reason why many Arabs are against not Iran, but the Iranian hegemony. The Iranians don’t say the hegemony should be Arabic, because they’re not Arabs. So they want to say it Muslim, because they’re Muslims.

“And we see the way they want to construct an empire – by terror, by sending money, sending arms, hanging, bluffing. We cannot support it. The world cannot support it, whether you are a Russian – I am speaking in – with Putin and Medvedev to say we cannot support a nuclear Iran. Now, if Iran will win, the whole Middle East will become the victim. Actually, the world economy will become the victim, because the way they rule is without any regard to anybody else. And this is the first problem. We cannot allow it to happen – all of us.”

Clinton referred to the upcoming negotiations with Iran in Moscow and said, “I can’t, sitting here today, tell you what the Iranians will or won’t do, but I am quite certain that they are under tremendous pressure from the Russians and the Chinese to come to Moscow prepared to respond. Now, whether that response is adequate or not, we will have to judge.”