Where Should Peace Begin?

Dear Akiva,

It is very hard to ignore the bloody events of the last few days in the Middle East - from Palestine and Iraq to Lebanon. But one very unique event caught my attention, even though it was not the usual violence: On Monday, Ghaleb Majadele, a member of the Knesset, was sworn in as the first Palestinian Arab minister in Israeli history!

The situation in Palestine appeared to be deteriorating toward a civil war, similar in many ways to the sectarian violence in Iraq, and the developments in Lebanon were also ominous, as sectarian divisions threatened a violent confrontation. But amid the growing religious and ethnic intolerance throughout the region, an Israeli prime minister decided it was a good idea to appoint a Palestinian Arab-Israeli as a member of his cabinet, regardless of the obvious controversy and opposition such a step may have engendered from either side.

As I read your account in Haaretz of a secret Israeli-Syrian channel to explore a possible resumption of bilateral negotiations, I remembered a story I had not been able to publish in my newspaper at the time. Back in 2000, a senior Arab official visited Damascus for a meeting with President Hafez Assad, hoping to convince him of the benefits of making peace with Israel, just as Jordan and Egypt had done. The meeting took place soon after Assad's failed summit in Geneva with U.S. President Bill Clinton. This is how part of the conversation reportedly went:

Arab official: "Mr. President, you are making a big issue out of Syrian claims of access to the Tiberias lake (Sea of Galilee), but don't you see that the strategic benefits of making peace with Israel far outweigh a few hundred meters you insist on reclaiming?" (Assad at the time was said to have insisted on having the right to swim in the lake).

Assad: "What strategic benefits are you talking about?"

Arab official: "Mr. President, the more the Israelis feel safe with their Arab neighbors, the more flexible they are with the Palestinians and their claims."

Assad: "What do you mean?"

Arab official: "The Israeli Knesset has Muslim, Christian and Communist Arab MKs."

Assad: "So?"

Arab official: "Mr. President, there are more Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset than there are Palestinians in the Jordanian Parliament!"

Assad: "And?"

Arab official: "If you make peace with Israel, they will feel more relaxed about giving rights to the Palestinians and the broader requirements of peace in the region."

Assad: "That's nonsense. I would never, ever shake hands with an Israeli."

Arab official: "You don't have to do it yourself. We could always find someone else to do it on your behalf."

Assad: "Forget it!"

Thus ended an interesting attempt by a senior Arab envoy to convince the late Syrian president that it was in the interest of the Syrians, the Palestinians and all Arabs to make peace with Israel, simply because that would change the dynamics and help both Israelis and Palestinians to bridge the gap. I happen to believe that the Arab peace plan of Saudi King Abdullah, which is conditional on Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, aims to achieve the same goal. Perhaps this is why Israel has not really embraced it.

The bottom line, in my view, dear Akiva, is that Israel has two options for peace with the Palestinians and its neighbors: Either make peace with the peripheral Arab states to force Palestinians to come through with an acceptable compromise, or make peace with the Palestinians so that peripheral states no longer have an excuse to be at war with Israel. I would certainly like to hear your opinion on this suggestion. It seems to me that Israel finds it easier to seek peace with neighboring states than with the Palestinians closer to home and under its control, which is quite bewildering to me. How come a powerful and prosperous state such as Israel fails to make peace with its immediate, suffering neighbors, the Palestinians, after all these years? Surely, it is partly a Palestinian and Arab failure, but what about Israel's responsibility?

As I write this, I am pained by the murder of three innocent Israelis by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Eilat, almost at the same time that Ghaleb Majadele was sworn in as a minister. I am as pained and outraged by the suffering of innocent Israelis, as I am pained and outraged by the suffering of innocent Palestinians in this vicious cycle of violence. But despite all the pain, I see the appointment of an Arab MK to the Israeli cabinet as a candle in a region dominated by darkness. We need a partner to light a candle on the other side, rather than just curse the darkness. Perhaps Jordan's King Abdullah, whom you interviewed last week, will finally make this trip to Israel, as he promised you, carrying a powerful message of peace and a promise of sanity in a region that seems to have gone mad.

I wish you all the best.

Salameh Nematt is a political analyst for the London-based Arab daily Al Hayat.

Dear Salameh,

Your last letter reached me shortly before I started an interview with the new minister Ghaleb Majadele. I was pleased to read him the warm words you wrote about his appointment as the first Arab minister in an Israeli government. Like many in the Israeli peace camp, I also hope that this event portends not just a change in the status of the Arab citizens of Israel, but will also lead to a substantial improvement in our relations with our Palestinian neighbors. Similarly, in order to achieve a profound and real co-existence with the non-Jewish population that lives within the Green Line, we need to reach a just and mutually agreed settlement with the Palestinian people who live in the occupied territories.

As an individual who identifies with all peoples under the yoke of a foreign occupation, I can sympathize with the major conflict experienced by the Arab citizens of Israel. How can one expect them to identify with their state as long as it occupies their people? As members of the Jewish people, who were educated to stand in solidarity with persecuted Jews who face prejudice because of their origins, we must respect the solidarity the Israeli Arabs demonstrate toward their brothers and sisters imprisoned in a tunnel with no exit, who cannot see the light.

My problem - and, according to your last letter, this seems to bother you too - is the Arab leadership's lack of solidarity with the Palestinian people. Hafez Assad's conversation with the Arab official you mentioned reflects, more than anything else, this brutal steadfastness toward people that he and other Arab leaders describe in speeches as "our brothers." You know I am not among those who claim the State of Israel behaves fairly toward its Palestinian neighbors. I repeatedly condemn my government for missing the opportunity of the March 2002 Arab Peace Initiative. However, the Israeli public will choose a leadership to advance such initiatives, especially on the Palestinian track, only once it is convinced Arab partners will make similar efforts. We, the Israelis, need to be convinced there is a solution to the refugee problem.

Nothing is more likely to deter Israelis than the expression "right of return." In their eyes, these words are a synonym for the destruction of the Jewish state. Politicians on both sides know that it is inconceivable to strip a sovereign state such as Israel from its authority to decide whom to accept as its citizens. New cities have been built on the villages where the refugees lived. Children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees from Europe were born in houses that remained standing. Anyone in his or her right mind knows that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is not to create a Jewish refugee problem. The solution can be found in a peace process based on two states and the absorption of most of the Palestinian refugees in their new state.

Dear Salameh, I also have a story about a conversation with an Arab leader about the interests of the Palestinian people. More than six years ago, shortly after the collapse of the Camp David summit between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, I visited the Muqata in Ramallah in order to interview the chairman. I asked him why hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children must spend their lives in wretched refugee camps until he is satisfied that the right of return has been included in a peace agreement - a right that even he knows these refugees will not be able to realize. I asked what these wretches had to do with the argument over the precise border between Israel and Palestine. I asked why he does not call on the rich Arab states and Israel to declare a Marshall Plan to rehabilitate the refugees. Arafat muttered in his usual way, "Why not? Why not?" As you know, nothing happened.

The main - and sometimes only - contribution of Arab regimes to the 1948 and 1967 refugees, who are crowded into wretched camps, is lip service. Instead of dealing with this terrible humanitarian problem, they prefer to perpetuate it so that they can accuse Israel. The restrictions the Lebanese government has placed on the refugees it has "hosted" for almost 60 years, including the prohibition of employment in countless professions, is reminiscent of race laws from another millennium in another continent. Israel cannot turn its back on the problem that arose as a direct or indirect result of the conflict between the Zionist movement and the national Palestinian movement. Just as we, the Jewish people, recognized our responsibility to the Jewish refugees from Russia and Ethiopia, we need to demonstrate generosity to our Palestinian refugee neighbors.

Dear Salameh, here is my answer to your question about whether I prefer to advance the Palestinian track or the peripheral one. I suggest that first we find a solution to the refugee problem. That will pave the way for all the tracks. What do you think?

Akiva Eldar is a senior columnist for Haaretz.

This exchange, commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (www.commongroundnews.org), is appearing simultaneously in the Palestinian newspaper Al Quds and here in Haaretz.