Shimon Peres, minister of regional cooperation in the Barak government, makes an impassioned plea for regional cooperation. He stresses his conviction that only through economic and scientific cooperation between Israel and its Arab neighbors is it possible to modernize the region and to raise the standard of living of its peoples, thus enabling the establishment of a lasting peace.

Victor Cygielman: Do you share the fear of many Israelis that there could be an outbreak of violence between Palestinians and Israelis in the period ahead?
Shimon Peres: No doubt, in order to reduce tension between Israelis and Palestinians, both parties must make a major effort not to lose control of the situation. However, what causes tension is not territorial proximity, but the enmity between the two parties. For years, our border with Jordan between the Dead Sea and the Red Sea has been peaceful. Jordanian Aqaba is a mere stone's throw from Israeli Eilat. Nevertheless, all has been quiet there for over 50 years, even when there was no formal peace between the two countries, because of cooperation and goodwill. This is how all the borders should be. Minefields won't help. People must be able to cross the borders freely, to trade, to visit each other. There is a need for industrial parks, for common tourist projects, for joint schools, etc., so as to create jobs and attract people.

One has the impression that you attach more importance to regional cooperation and development than to the process of peacemaking itself.
This is not true. What I say is that the two are intimately connected and that a Middle East not integrated in the modern global economy will stagnate, and ultimately its nations will go to war again. There are two modern economies: the global and the regional. The first knows no geographical boundaries, while the second is connected to geography but not to state borders. Can a border stop pollution, or divert the flow of rivers? Hence the need for regional cooperation in order to create a modern regional infrastructure benefiting all the peoples of the Middle East. The problem is not only to make peace between the peoples, but make peace for the region, facing a new era in a rapidly changing world. Otherwise stagnation and poverty will endure. Nobody is going to pay for the mistakes if we allow outdated concepts and ignorance to prevail.

Economic and political experts in neighboring countries often express concern that, under the guise of regional cooperation, Israel is, in fact, seeking to control and dominate the economies of the Middle East.
Nonsense! In many Arab countries there is no developed economy. They have poverty. Who wants to control their poverty? We can't control our own poverty and suddenly we are mad enough to want to control the poverty of Egypt or Syria? Our interest is to develop, to modernize the economies of all the countries in the region, for as long as there is poverty, there will be wars. Regional cooperation is the answer: thus water and electricity should be jointly managed and shared, regardless of borders, otherwise they become more expensive. Tourism is hampered by closed and mined borders. Unless we change our approach, we shall continue to live in a Middle East ruled by anachronistic concepts and regulations that are stifling all progress. Look at the USA and Mexico. The US economy is much more developed than the Mexican one. They joined with Canada and opened everything up. Instead of bringing Mexican workers to the USA, they brought US work to Mexico. This resulted in better relations and improved the economic situation in Mexico.
Likewise, Israeli manufacturers are transferring their textile factories to Jordan and Egypt, because of the much cheaper Arab labor. This increases unemployment in Israel.
In any case, competition from Asia is driving some Israeli textile factories out of business. One has to adapt to change. Israeli textile workers, even if they have reached the age of 40, should learn new trades in order to join the modern work market. The key is education. There is no future without education. This is as true for Israel as for our Arab neighbors. I am for assisting the Palestinian and Jordanian economies to reach higher technological levels. They need a better standard of living. The Palestinians have 52,000 students in eight universities. If those students, upon graduation, don't find work, they'll start demonstrating against Israel as well.

The editor in chief of the influential Egyptian daily Al-Ahram has been highly critical of your book A New Middle East and has taken exception to your statement that Egypt needs, and can develop, a modern economy based on Saudi money, Egyptian labor and Israeli know-how.
I never said that. What do those critics want? Yes, I support high technology in Egypt. One can no longer make a living only from agriculture. In a modern economy, agriculture goes down to 2 percent of the economy and tourism goes up to 12 percent. I state my opinion freely on such matters and don't look for compliments.
There is more money today in the world than ideas. Poverty in the world is not so much a question of money as of ideas. Nowadays machines are smarter than people and, without sufficient years of study, one cannot operate the machines. Everyone will understand this sooner or later.
In Israel it is a scandal that underpaid foreign workers results in lower wages, unemployment and poverty among Israeli workers, including Arab workers. Employers who do this should be taxed accordingly.

Can you give some examples of projects of the Peres Center for Peace?
Yes. We have 43 projects going. For example, in the field of health we are engaged in optometry - testing eyes for defects - in five centers: Morocco, Tunisia, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and Israel. We are involved in hi-tech in the region and have established a joint $63-million Israeli-Palestinian investment company to prepare Palestinian workers for hi-tech. Twenty-three individual Israelis have invested $1 million, along with Palestinian investments and World Bank loans. We are cooperating with the Jordanians to build a center along the Jordan River for fighting cancer, and a major investment will be the building of a new joint hotel between Aqaba and Eilat, part of a new development project called Jordan Gateway. Joint industrial parks have been established in Karni and Jenin, and now we are planning a hi-tech industrial park in Tulkarem. In the area of culture and sport, we have set up a joint theater group and joint television programs with the Palestinians. We even initiated a joint Israeli-Palestinian soccer team that played in Italy this May [2000] against an Italian/international team, watched by 80,000 people and attended by the greatest international soccer players like Pele, as well as by Arafat and myself. All the proceeds went to building electronic education centers in Palestinian and Israeli schools.

Are you not afraid that the growth of religious fundamentalism may put an end to the burgeoning cooperation?
The contrary is happening. Religious fanaticism is losing ground. The Jewish, Christian, as well as the Muslim worlds are all changing. The newly elected president of Indonesia, the largest Muslim country in the world, visited Israel twice and is a member of the board of directors of the Peres Center for Peace. There are struggles to change things in Iran. We see the changes taking place in Turkey and in Russia. None of this is enough, but it is hopeful.
Science and technology don't wear uniforms. The region has to work in this direction. The tragedy is that it is hard for people to change their ancient opinions. The enmity among peoples exists in the generation of the fathers. Why should the younger generation repeat all the mistakes we made? Once people have an economy based on brains and not on land, there will no longer be any need for war.