DIPLOMATS FROM EGYPT, JORDAN, ISRAEL AND PALESTINE DISCUSS CONFLICT WITH DC INTERNS
On July 12, the Center for Policy Analysis in Palestine (CPAP) held a panel discussion as part of a series for Washington-based interns. The panel brought together diplomatic representatives from Egypt, Jordan and Israel, as well as a spokesperson for the PLO, and was organized by Jonathan Kessler, executive editor of Middle East Insight. "This kind of gathering is a significant milestone," said Kessler in his opening speech, "as is each and every time that former enemies and those currently involved [in the Israel-Palestine conflict] can share perspectives."
First to speak was Karim Haggag, second secretary at the Egyptian embassy and personal adviser to the foreign minister of Egypt on Egyptian-Israeli relations. He addressed misperceptions of the conflict that he described as "so deeply entrenched that they are raised to the status of myths."
The most pervasive, he said, concerns the Camp David summit. The conventional wisdom is that Arafat could not agree to Barak's offer, and thus instigated the recent intifada. Such a simplistic explanation of the collapse of Camp David, he said, "disregards the fact that the Palestinian public has a will of its own. Arafat cannot turn them on and off like a light switch."
The intifada began not because of Camp David, the Egyptian diplomat argued, but because the Oslo agreement was never implemented. After Oslo, the number of Israeli settlers doubled, destroying the Palestinian people's hope for an end to the occupation.
The second myth, according to Haggag, is that the Oslo agreement is dead. "If Oslo is dead," he warned, "it is a very dangerous thing, for it dealt with reciprocal agreements between Israelis and Palestinians....The message we are giving is that peace will not come." The only discourse available to the Palestinians then, said Haggag, would be that of Hamas and Hezbollah.
The third myth is that the current Palestinian leadership cannot be bargained with. Haggag summarized the resulting conventional wisdom as, "If Arafat is not responsible for the violence, we shouldn't deal with him. If he is responsible, we still shouldn't deal with him.
"The message: the current leadership should be deposed," he observed. "The important question is, `What was it that replaced the PLO in Lebanon?'" he reminded the audience.
Manar Dabbas, second secretary at the embassy of Jordan, wished to "underscore regional attempts to defuse the cycle of violence." The Jordanian-Egyptian initiative, he said, laid the foundation for a political basis to continue negotiations. It was followed, however, by the Mitchell Report, which focused only on security issues rather than on the political steps necessary to resume talks. But the Palestinians, Dabbas said, cannot be expected to perform on the political scene under Israeli economic siege and closure. He urged regional efforts to end their economic deprivation and integrate them into the regional economy, and suggested that the current foreign trade agreement between Jordan and the United States should lay the foundation for such integration.
"Israel came to Camp David with a far-reaching agreement," claimed Daniel Meron, counselor for congressional affairs at the embassy of Israel and previous foreign affairs adviser in the office of the president of Israel. "All we got was a rain of fire, mortar, shells, and daily shootings for the last ten months."
Meron waxed eloquently on Israeli security concerns, but resorted to the exact myths Karim Haggag had attempted to dispel. "We say that Arafat can and should control the violence," the Israeli counselor said. "He knows who the terrorists are and he should arrest them."
Palestinian television teaches young children to engage in holy war, he alleged, while in Israel, "We teach our children to love our neighbors."
Meron advocated a return to the negotiating table, but only if Israel sees a true and unequivocal attempt from the other side to stop the violence.
Deputy director of the PLO mission in Washington, DC, Said Hamad, who participated in the Wye River negotiations and the Camp David accords, began by describing the United States as "the other Israeli-occupied territory.
"This may sound harsh," he continued, "But your [American] representatives enact laws...with tragic consequences in the Middle East."
Mechanisms have continuously been devised to ensure the survival of Israel, said Hamad, while Palestinians undergo "the most harsh and total occupation of one people by another." He pointed out that Israel responds to the slightest resistance with collective punishment, detention, home demolitions, and the total denial of human and civil rights.
Hamad traced the last 15 years of Israel-Palestine relations: "In 1988, Arafat recognized the right of Israel to exist," he said. "Shortly after, there was a meeting in Madrid to peacefully resolve the conflict on the basis of U.N. Resolutions 242, 338, and land-for-peace. All subsequent agreements hinged on land-for-peace."
Ten years later, said Hamad, Palestinians are still struggling for the right to their lives, their land, and their territory. "With each successive Israeli government," he charged, "the rules of engagement are rewritten.
"What was wrong with Camp David?" Hamad asked his audience. He explained that the Israeli offer would have resulted in the creation of Arab ghettoes encircled by Israeli settlements. Most of Jerusalem's Old City would have consisted of unconnected Arab areas under "loose Palestinian control," while the refugee issue was not even addressed, Hamad said.
During the question-and-answer session, Meron was asked what kind of state the Israelis foresee. "Do we agree that Israel should have a right to be a state for the Jews?" demanded Meron. "If so, how can two people live side by side [within Israel]? Israel will never give up its security. We cannot allow three million refugees to enter and become a majority in the state of the Jews."
When questioned on the policy of home demolition, Meron insisted, "We have a right to demolish homes if terrorists shoot at us from within." He applied the same logic to the targeting of small children wielding stones: "There's always someone with a rifle hiding behind the kids throwing stones," he claimed. In closing, he told the audience that "we don't envisage a Norway-Sweden type peace in the next five years. We can have, perhaps, open borders and an open exchange of people."
Dabbas urged the international community to be even-handed. "Aren't we worried about Palestinian security as well?" he asked. "If we criticize them, Israel should look at its own actions. The Israelis are committed [to peace] in words, not deeds."
Palestinians are not asking for what they think is their right, Haggag added. They are merely asking for what they think the compromise is based on. "Look at the map," he said, "Is this a viable state that can give Palestinians viable rights?"
After the event, Jonathan Kessler privately commented on what he and CPAP expected the discussion, as well as the entire series, to accomplish. "We hope to break through the propagandist wall," he said. "We tried to involve younger diplomats so we can get a less biased viewpoint."
Daniel Meron was a last-minute replacement for another representative from the Israeli embassy, so Kessler had not been prepared for the party-line stance that Meron took.
"Doing this in 60 minutes is very hard," he added. "However, this is our fifth year [of the intern series] and things are no longer theoretical."
Kessler expressed pride in the overwhelming success of the series. In the last five years, it has brought together interns from organizations with very different agendas, and encouraged them to open constructive channels of communication. "This kind of networking becomes very important when these kids come back to Washington as Middle East policymakers," he concluded.
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