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Generally speaking, when politicians or government officials do not want to admit that a diplomatic encounter was a total failure, they tend to offer the explanation that the "importance of this meeting lies in the very fact that it took place at all."

This statement is not, however, a mere cover-up when Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals hold a joint conference in East Jerusalem and, for three hours, talk about their plight. Even though the meeting ended without the participants reaching any overall agreement, both the Palestinian rejectionist fronts and Israeli rightists were quick to condemn the intellectuals on their respective side, because they know that academics, writers and newspaper columnists have always been the spearhead of the peace camp. They also know the contribution of the protracted silence (in the best of cases) of the muses when the cannons roar.

At the meeting, each of the participants uttered the same complaint: Ever since the events of September 2000, they have been unable to discern, on the other side of the fence, any substantive differences between rightists and leftists. The collective voice of the intellectuals sounds, to those on the other side, very much like the din of the marketplace.

If writers and persons with high moral standards like Amos Oz and A.B. Yehoshua do not protest the policies of the Israeli government, why should anyone criticize the settlers of Kiryat Arba? If wise, moderate individuals like Gabi Baramki and Albert Aghazarian of Bir Zeit University do not publicly protest the murder of a Jewish infant, who will be able to stop Hamas fanatics from appealing to the hearts of youths in Hebron?

Many years ago, before the signing of the Oslo agreement, Palestinian and Israeli intellectuals jointly - and clandestinely - created the formula "Two states for two peoples." They mobilized their writing and speaking skills for the sake of recognition of the legitimacy of the other side. They urged the abandonment of messianic verse and the preparation, instead, of the prose texts of fair peace treaties. They played an important role in molding hearts and souls on their respective sides and, to an extent, on the other side of the fence as well. When the generals whispered in the right ear of the politicians, the professors tried to whisper in their left ear.

Today, the intellectuals cannot allow themselves to be idle fence-sitters. The silence of the champions of peace is being interpreted as an admission of their having made a mistake and their having misled the masses who believed in them. Israeli historians and journalists must carry out research studies and must explain to the Israeli public why - if, as he claims, former prime minister Ehud Barak revealed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat's "true face" - no one has confronted Barak with the version offered by Robert Malley. Former American president Bill Clinton's special assistant for Arab-Israeli affairs, in an article that appeared in The New York Times (and which was run in Ha'aretz in Hebrew on July 10), argues that Barak actually tried to force Arafat to accept territorial concessions, including abandonment of claims to Palestinian sovereignty over Al-Harem al-Sharif (the Temple Mount).

Intellectuals must take their stand against the saber-rattlers and must loudly condemn those who demolish houses in East Jerusalem. The scholars must tell - and repeatedly tell - the nation that, if the land west of the Jordan is not partitioned, a Jewish minority will rule an Arab majority here.

In a lecture he delivered in early spring in Washington, Dr. Halil Shkaki, head of the Nablus Center for Research and Study and a leading Palestinian intellectual in the territories, reported that his research institute had discovered that, since the Camp David summit, only a minority of Palestinians believed that the gaps between Palestinians and Israelis were unbridgeable.

Some Palestinians, said Shkaki, are of the opinion that the only obstacles that stood in the way of a peace treaty were flaws in the negotiating process and an overly tight timetable. The majority of Palestinians, he noted, think that weak leaders, internal politics, questions of legitimacy and an Israeli public that is unprepared to make the necessary compromises are the factors preventing the signing of a final status agreement between the sides.

Palestinian intellectuals must throw their full weight into the battle against the speeches and writings of those who are inciting a war aimed at destroying the Jewish state. They must persuade both Palestinians and Israelis that, in adopting the compromise of two states for two peoples, they have given up their demand for implementation of the principle of a Palestinian right of return to the State of Israel proper.

And what is no less important - they must persuade both Palestinians and Israelis that, even if they are unable to formulate diplomatic solutions, the intellectuals of both sides must continue to meet. The importance of these meetings lies in the very fact that they are held and that they are seen to be held in broad daylight, so that the members of both societies will lose their fear of conciliation.