Let's Keep Peeling Tangerines

"Vegar Ze'ev Im Ze'ev" ("And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians"), by Joseph Alpher, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 141 pages, NIS 69.

"Vegar Ze'ev Im Ze'ev" ("And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf: The Settlers and the Palestinians"), by Joseph Alpher, Hakibbutz Hameuchad, 141 pages, NIS 69

"Operation Charlie" was Joseph Alpher's code name for a series of talks between a group of Israeli settlers and Palestinian public figures, which took place in Israel and abroad from 1994 to 1996, prior to the elections for the Palestinian Authority and its expanded control over all the large towns in the West Bank. In his book "And the Wolf Shall Dwell with the Wolf," Alpher reveals the contents of these talks, which were secret at the time.

This book reads like something from another galaxy, a galaxy that was once within our reach, a galaxy where it was not inconceivable for Israel Harel, Yosef Ben-Shlomo, Hassan Asfour and Sufian Abu Zaide to sit together and peel tangerines. In his flowing prose, Alpher describes how these people met, conversed for long hours, discovered one another, and arrived at some unexpected conclusions.

Alpher, the mediator of these talks, is not a neutral party, as is normally the case in such encounters: He is an interested third party, an Israeli, a Zionist, an important researcher, who came up with the idea while exploring options for a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict at Tel Aviv University's Jaffee Center for Strategic Research. Alpher had met with leaders of the settlement movement in the course of working on the draft of a permanent-status agreement, and in the wake of the Oslo accords, he felt the time had come for settlers and Palestinians to sit down and try to work out some way of living together.

Alpher ranks the participants according to their willingness to listen and to set aside the hackneyed slogans. An American-born rabbi, the head of a hesder yeshiva (Alpher does not disclose his name), is the most radical of the Israelis. His participation is meant to convey to the Palestinians that there is no point in dialogue and no chance of a settlement in the spirit of Oslo. Yosef Ben-Shlomo is prepared to listen, but not to accept the Palestinians as a partner. Uri Elitzur is a more pragmatic type. And then there is Israel Harel, to whom the author gives the code name "Charlie," who is the most political and flexible of all the settlers, possibly because he is chairman of the Yesha Council of Settlements and feels he doesn't have to prove his loyalties to anyone. Prof. Ozer Schild, former president of the University of Haifa, presents himself as a Holocaust survivor who understands that concessions will not solve the problem.

A change of heart

No one on the Israeli side was open to the possibility of dismantling settlements, but there were those on the Palestinian side who were prepared to accept outlying settlements as part of the Palestinian state, as long as Palestinians were not barred from living there. One is Dr. Ahmed Khalidy, a resident of London, who says his pragmatism is based on having no other alternative. "We will make peace with you Israelis because we have no choice," he declared. "But don't think for a minute that we will stop seeing you as a band of foreigners who have stolen our land and our country." Another Palestinian, who took part only in the first round of talks, is Prof. Yazid Sayag, whose family fled from Tiberias to Lebanon in 1948. His opinions are moderate, although he belonged to terrorist organization when he was younger. Prof. Khalil Shkaki, as befitting a nonaffiliated academic, adopts an independent, pragmatic approach. Hassan Asfour boasts about his communist past and his support of "two states for two peoples" while his friends amused themselves with the idea of the destruction of the Jewish state.

Sufian Abu Zaide, who learned Hebrew during his 12 years in an Israeli jail, prides himself on his familiarity with different schools of Zionist thought and on being able to talk to the settlers as neighbors, despite the serious differences of opinion between them. The same is true for Mohammed Dahlan, born in Khan Yunis, the founder of the Shabiba movement who was deported to Jordan in 1987.

The fact that each participant was asked to introduce himself at the first meeting and describe the changes in outlook and political approach he had undergone, helped to solidify the group and create a common language, which enabled the participants to take even the most negative statements in stride. These personal stories, which make up a large part of the book, are interesting because nearly all of them reveal a change of heart (for example, Prof. Ben-Shlomo, who started out opposing all forms of violence, now believes that sometimes it is called for, and that surrendering any part of the Land of Israel is to surrender all of it).

In the final reckoning, the real argument is between those who want to solve the fundamental problem and clear up the matter of ethical and historical rights, and those who are willing to make do with a temporary solution.

Ahmed Khalidy says: "We can live together despite our moral-ideological differences. We'll keep everyday life and political superstructure separate. Look at how the ultra-Orthodox sector in Israel lives. That way, at least we can put an end to bloodshed, which is the supreme moral imperative."

To which Israel Harel replies: "It's not enough. You can't separate us from our history."

Both sides prefer the wolf

The talks went on for two years, with lengthy interruptions. The agreements signed during this period, the Baruch Goldstein massacre, the terrorist attacks, the assassination of Yitzhak Rabin - all left their mark. But when Alpher asks the participants to sign a short, generalized declaration of principles on December 1, 1995, they don't feel ready yet. In a debate that begins with a smile and ends on a serious note, Uri Elitzur asks: If we are meant to live alongside one another, who is the wolf and who is the lamb? It turns out that both sides prefer to be the wolf.

Alpher asks himself what was achieved by these talks, and reaches a modest conclusion: Not much. I'm not sure that he is right. True, I am not really an objective observer - the issue is too close to my heart; I was in on the author's secret (he told me about the talks in 1995) and I myself am involved in negotiations with the Abu Mazen team, which includes two of the "Operation Charlie" participants (Dr. Khalidy and Hassan Asfour). But I say the most important achievement is the tangerine peeling. Anyone who took part in these heart-to-heart talks with our enemies/adversaries/neighbors, who are so different from us yet so much alike, will never return to square one.

It is easy to end such talks by saying: "Nothing happened. I haven't changed. I'm even more certain of my position than before." Both sides are inclined to say that. But nearly always, it is a lie. Being exposed to the suffering of the other side, to their concerns, to those issues which are sine qua non, and those which they might compromise on, prompts us to look into our own souls.

At the onset of 2002, this may sound like something from another galaxy. But even today, there is a chance that by holding more talks and peeling more tangerines, rather than spilling each other's blood, the madness can be replaced by a solution that can tide us through the present. The main thing is to keep our hands off each other's moral claims, and not to acknowledge the rights of one side while denying those of the other. To do so could set off a conflagration that may consume us both.

Yossi Beilin's book "Madrich Leyona Pitzu'a" ("Manual for a Wounded Dove") was published by Yedioth Ahronoth.