Text size

Ziad J. Asali, M.D., is the president and founder of the American Task Force on Palestine, a non-profit, non-partisan organization based in Washington, D.C.

Asali is a long-time activist on Middle East issues. He has been a member of the Chairman's Council of American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) since 1982, and has served as ADC's president from 2001-2003. He served as president of the Arab-American University Graduates (AAUG) from 1993-1995, and was Chairman of the American Committee on Jerusalem (ACJ), which he co-founded, from 1995-2003.

Dr. Asali was born in Jerusalem, where he completed his elementary and secondary education. He received an M.D. from the American University of Beirut (AUB) Medical School in 1967. He completed his residency in Salt Lake City, Utah, and then practiced medicine in Jerusalem before returning to the US in 1973. (More bio here).

We will discuss the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Readers may submit questions to rosnersdomain@haaretz.co.il.

Dear Ziad,

In a couple of days Israel will celebrate its 60th Independence, and this is an opportunity for me to ask not a specific question, but for a more general expression of your thoughts at this time. What would you say to the celebrating Israelis had you have a chance to speak to them as a group?

Thank you for this dialogue,

Shmuel

Peace is not easy. Achieving it requires summoning the deepest forms of courage. It means examining one's darkest prejudices that dehumanize and demonize the other. The quest for mutual recognition of humanity and dignity is an arduous task.

The question facing both Israelis and Palestinians is, do they prefer to cling to the pain of past injuries and the suffering of their forefathers, or will they determine to move forward and build a better future for their children?

While there have been all too many shrill voices lamenting the grievances of decades and centuries between Israel and the Palestinians, there is a harmony that strums through us all. When we fight for peace, we fight not against each other, but together and for all of us. This means accepting that there are like-minded people on the other side, and identifying, making common cause, and building peace with them.

Israelis and Palestinians live in the same land with divergent national narratives, and both want and need sovereignty and self-determination. The only means to reach a reasonable accommodation is to have two states, Israel and Palestine, living side-by-side in peace. No other solution has any serious prospect of ending the conflict and creating a modus vivendi between the parties. The two-state solution for all its faults is the only way out of the cycle of violence and hatred that has plagued Israel and the Palestinians since 1948.

This idea enjoys the support of solid majorities of both Israelis and Palestinians, and of the international community. In many ways we have never been closer to realizing this all-important goal. And yet, as I write, the only realistic hope for the future is in serious jeopardy due to the actions of extremists, driven by nationalist fantasies or religious zealotry, among both Israelis and Palestinians.

Extremists on both sides feel that time is on their side. Some Israelis delude themselves that Palestinians over time will become exhausted or new generations will forget their national identity. They believe they will win complete control of the entire area between the river and the sea. Meanwhile, some radical Palestinians are under the illusion that Israel is an artificial foreign imposition akin to the Crusader states that cannot last and will eventually collapse. They too believe that time is their greatest weapon, and that the best strategy therefore is to never compromise.

We cannot afford to sacrifice generation upon generation in order to test the validity of these competing metaphysical visions and certainties about the trajectory of history.

These dangerous delusions are most damagingly expressed in the expansion of Israeli settlements and by the use of terror by Palestinian extremist groups. Settlements threaten a peace based on two states by strengthening rather than loosening Israel's grip on the occupied territories and greatly complicating the process of creating a Palestinian state. They also profoundly erode Palestinian confidence that Israel is interested in allowing a viable, contiguous state of Palestine to be born. Similarly, the use of terror by Palestinian extremist groups makes Israelis question whether Palestinians would ever accept Israel and agree to live with it in peace and security.

It is up to both peoples to decide whether they will allow themselves to be driven by extremist agendas, or to pursue what is plainly in their national interests. Their past trespasses against each other, both real and imagined, have to give way to the recognition that Israelis and Palestinians clearly now need exactly the same thing: an end of conflict based on two states.

I do not believe that the conflict should be seen any longer as pitting Israelis against Palestinians, but must be re-conceptualized as a struggle between those who are committed to ending the conflict based on two states against those on both sides who persist in clinging to hostility. Those who are prepared to recognize each other's dignity and self determination in two sovereign states share a common purpose, and have more in common with each other than with their compatriots who are bent on conflict for generations to come.

At 60, Israel is a technologically and politically sophisticated state with a diverse population and a vibrant economy. Israelis deserve a peaceful country with security and economic progress. Palestinians deserve no less.

Dear Mr. Asali,

As a student of Middle East affairs, I would like to ask a more specific question. You wrote a couple of days ago that "a significant difference in positions remained" between President Abbas and the US administration, but did not elaborate. Can you be more specific and tell us what are the issues on which there are such differences, and what are the positions of the two sides - as far as you understand them?

Thank you for an interesting exchange.

Abir Abidine

There is broad agreement between President Mahmoud Abbas and the Palestinian Authority on the one hand, and the Bush administration on the other, when it comes to the ultimate objective and the general outlines of peace in the Middle East. Both agree that peace can only be realized through the creation of a Palestinian state along the lines of the 1967 borders to live side by side with Israel in peace and security.

In his recent visit to Washington, President Abbas focused on two sets of issues: one was the final status issues, including borders, Jerusalem, refugees and security, the other was the question of the ongoing Israeli settlement expansion.

On the final status issues, both sides agree that this is a matter to be resolved primarily by the Palestinians and Israelis themselves through the recently resumed negotiations. As such, while United States continues to closely follow the progress between the parties, it has yet to clarify its position on these issues.

On borders, the Palestinians want a state along the 1967 lines with a minimal land swap to accommodate the exigencies of the two state solution and to rationalize the border between the two states. The Bush administration is committed to a viable, contiguous Palestinian state that does not resemble a slice of Swiss cheese, as several people have put it. President Bush made it very clear during an earlier meeting with President Abbas that any changes to the 1949 armistice lines (which in effect is the same thing as the 1967 borders) would have to be mutually agreed upon by both Israel and the Palestinians.

On Jerusalem, Palestinians want the city to be shared, with the Palestinian capital in East Jerusalem and the Israeli capital in West Jerusalem. On the refugees, the Palestinians want the return of a fixed number of refugees ? to be agreed upon by the parties - over an extended period of years. The US did not take a firm position on these issues.

On the question of security, the Palestinian Authority aims to bring about security not only to create progress in the peace process, but also to ensure law and order for Palestinian citizens, and to start building the institutions of statehood. On this issue, the Palestinians and the United States see eye to eye.

The main difference emerged on the issue of a settlement freeze. The difference is less about positions ? after all, the US is clear in its opposition to settlement expansion ? but rather about urgency and prioritization. Palestinians are extremely concerned about the expansion of existing Israeli settlements or the creation of new ones, especially in and around Jerusalem. If the goal of peace negotiations is the creation of a Palestinian state, new or expanded settlements obviously deepen the difficulty of creating such a peace agreement. These activities erode Palestinian public trust in negotiations, bring into question Israel?s seriousness about concluding a peace deal, and give extreme voices ample ammunition to discredit the peace process. As long as settlement expansion continues, it will be increasingly difficult for Abbas to muster the necessary public support for the continuation of negotiations. Palestinians would like to see more American engagement with Israel on this issue as a matter of higher priority and urgency.

Dear Ziad,

This question is from a reader in New York:

What will be the solution, in the agreement that you write about, for the Palestinian refugees - or to the so-called "right of return"? this seems to me like a bridge that no side is ready to cross.

Thank you,

Howie Spiegel

You have asked one of the most significant and difficult questions that the negotiators on both sides will have to deal with. The most important thing to recognize is that this issue will be decided by negotiators working for the national governments of Israel and the Palestinian people. It is also important to realize that the refugee issue cannot be resolved by any kind of stand-alone deal, but can only be settled as an aspect of a comprehensive agreement that resolves issues regarding borders, Jerusalem, security, natural resources and all other outstanding issues between Israel and a State of Palestine. It cannot be isolated from the other aspects of the conflict and its only viable solution.

That said, no doubt this problem is deeply emotional and highly charged for both peoples, and especially painful for the Palestinians. As a refugee myself, I fully understand the depth of emotion this issue evokes. But I do not agree that this is "a bridge that no side is ready to cross," and I do think that the negotiators working for the Palestinian Authority, as well as the Palestinian people, are willing to accept a reasonable compromise on this issue as part of a final status agreement. No one can say for certain what the eventual agreement on this issue will look like, but all of us are entitled to our views.

In my view, a practical solution to the refugee problem, as part of an agreement that resolves all outstanding claims, should be rooted in a limited and symbolic return of a number of refugees to be negotiated and agreed upon by the parties. Palestinians who are allowed into Israel would become citizens of Israel. Needless to say, Israel will exercise sovereign discretion over who becomes a citizen. A practical solution would also involve compensation for refugees, acknowledgment of moral responsibility by Israel, and the acceptance of Israel by Palestine and all Arab states. All Palestinian refugees should be eligible for citizenship in the newly established state of Palestine.

I believe in separating the right from the return. A practical solution requires Palestinians to understand that Israel will not agree to a return of refugees in a manner that threatens its national interests. Israelis have to understand that Palestinians cannot renounce the right as a principle. Therefore we should separate these two issues.

I would add that particular attention should be paid to the plight of Palestinian refugees in Lebanon, who are in a desperate economic and social condition. All parties have a moral obligation to ensure safety and decent living conditions for these deeply vulnerable and impoverished refugees. I do not believe that naturalization or the granting of Lebanese citizenship to the Palestinian refugees in Lebanon is acceptable. They should be granted citizenship in a newly established Palestinian state.

These ideas are painful for many Israelis and Palestinians. But such difficult compromises are necessary for a permanent end of conflict to be achieved. An overall agreement reached between Israeli and Palestinian government negotiators, about all outstanding issues, is essential to the future of both peoples, the region and the world in general. I am convinced that Palestinian negotiators and the Palestinian people are willing to accept such a historic compromise. Such a comprehensive agreement is the best hope for Palestinians to finally achieve freedom in their own state and for Israel to achieve normal relations with all its neighbors and to live, at last, in security and peace.

Dear Ziad,

You say (in your previous response) that there is an "urgent need to bolster Palestinian moderates" - but it seems as if most of the talk now is about cutting a deal between Israel and Hamas in Gaza. Will this help or hurt Palestinian moderates? Is this a deal the Palestinian Authority should encourage or reject?

Best,

Shmuel

Israel cannot hide from the fact that its actions will play a decisive and determining role in shaping the political character of its Palestinian neighbors. The Palestinians are presently politically split between a moderate faction led by President Mahmoud Abbas and an extremist faction led by Hamas.

Unless Hamas modifies its positions, cutting a deal with it would be a risky proposition with serious consequences. For any party to have a place at the table, they must recognize the basic norms of diplomacy. For Hamas, this means accepting a two-state solution, renouncing violence, and accepting existing Palestinian agreements.

An Israeli deal with Hamas under the present circumstances would confirm an impression among Palestinians that already has justifiable traction: that Israel only responds to violence. This is compounded by Israel's continued use of violence in the occupied territories with mounting Palestinian civilian casualties. At a time when Palestinian moderates are achieving almost no results from negotiations, making a deal with Hamas would not only hurt the moderates in Palestine, it could also undermine the strategic Israeli interest in finding a Palestinian partner for peace.

To be blunt, modifying Hamas' behavior - as with any political actor - is less a matter of dialogue and more a function of cool-headed political calculation. If Hamas feels it can get what it wants (namely, Israeli and international recognition) without paying the price of modifying its present extreme policies, it will have no incentive to change.

However, the long-suffering people of Gaza should not pay the price for Hamas' intransigence and Israel's siege. A de-escalation package that is moderated by a third party (such as Egypt) could be extremely useful, especially if it stipulates the reopening of the Gaza crossing points under Palestinian Authority control with international monitors.

This could serve the very important function of lifting the siege. It would also help break the identification that has developed between the Gaza population and Hamas, since ordinary Gazans feel today that they are as much a target of the current blockade as Hamas. Lifting the siege will avert an unconscionable humanitarian crisis and relieve the people of Gaza while exposing the futility of Hamas' radical policies.

Eventually, however, no matter how Hamas is handled, the fact remains that without progress both on the ground, and - more importantly in the long term - on permanent status negotiations, Palestinian moderates will continue to be deeply undermined. If a peace agreement is reached, and if its credibility is rooted not in words but in implementation by concrete measures on the ground, then the moderates can convincingly advocate their case and win over the public. If, however, negotiations falter, then moderates could loose the leadership of the Palestinian people and be replaced by either Hamas or, even worse, by complete chaos and fragmentation within the Palestinian body politic.

Israel can choose through its actions what kind of neighborhood it lives in and what kind of neighbors it gets: moderates, who want to end the conflict and turn their attention to building a stable, prosperous Palestinian state alongside Israel, or extremists who thrive on the continuation and escalation of conflict. To fail to make a distinction between both sides is political malpractice.

Dear Ziad,

Palestinian President Mahmud Abbas was in Washington last week for a series of meetings, including one with U.S. President Bush. At this stage of the peace process, what, in your opinion, does Abbas need from president Bush, and what will be the top priorities?

Best

Shmuel

Five months after Annapolis, with no tangible progress made at the official Palestinian Israeli negotiations, president Abbas arrived in Washington last week with one remaining card to play. A genuinely engaged U.S. Administration that is looking for a legacy with only a few months left, represented to him the last hope to achieve a Palestinian state before his own term expires in less than a year. With low expectations, but with a sense that what he proposes is decidedly in the national interest of the United States, Abbas came to Washington to provide his clear vision of the future state of Palestine and its relation to Israel. He wanted to elicit support from President Bush and Secretary Rice in the context of their own stated goal of reaching an agreement about a Palestinian state in 2008.

He asked for two things: First, an American endorsement of his request for an immediate end to settlement expansion, a matter that, more than any other, profoundly undermines Palestinian faith in the Annapolis process. Second, he aimed to get a commitment to a shared vision of the contours of the state on the three permanent status issues: borders, Jerusalem and the refugees.

All issues- and that in itself is a sign of hope- were discussed in Washington. The Administration?s traditional hands-off position was set aside as discussions of final status issues took place, and in some detail. However, a significant difference in positions remained, and President Abbas left Washington less than satisfied with what he heard. The expressions of goodwill and benign intentions, although well received and appreciated, were not matched by the conflict-ending positions he felt he could live with, or that would be accepted by the Palestinian public in a referendum.

At the Hill, he argued that a viable Palestinian state, negotiated on the basis of 1967 borders, is the best answer to the forces of extremism, violence and conflict. He explained the significant role he and the Palestinian moderates play in rolling back the radicals and painted a dark picture of the future of the Middle East should his policies and Administration fail. His message was that he did not believe that the U.S. had a real sense of the urgent need to bolster Palestinian moderates in the fight against the radicals in the region and beyond.

Aware of the complexity of political decision-making in Israel at the present time, he steered away from discussing Israeli politics. He knows that the U.S. understands its strategic ally well enough and should be able to hold a full conversation with Israel without inserting the Palestinian leadership?s input.

He did not get side tracked by the much-discussed issue of talking to Hamas. While his position is unchanged- namely that Hamas can only be engaged once they fulfill certain preconditions- he remains authorized by all parties to negotiate on behalf of the Palestinian public who will vote on any future agreement in a referendum.

A steadily deteriorating situation on the ground, the toll of a divided Palestinian polity, and the relentless building of settlements have eroded both his position and the hope of achieving a viable state by the end of his term. However, the dire consequences of the failure of moderate Palestinians to cut a deal with Israel, sustains his quest for reaching a framework agreement. What he heard in Washington left him less than encouraged but not quite resigned to abandon hope.