On May 21, 1993, I was the first Israeli official to meet formally with the PLO in Oslo. Abu Ala (Ahmed Qurei) was my counterpart and became a negotiation partner for many years.
In that first meeting, the atmosphere was cold, tense and the air was filled with suspicion and cigarette smoke. It began with formal greetings and the relaying of demands from Rabin, Peres and Arafat. After several hours of rather formal diplomatic statements and hardly a sign of human exchange, Abu Ala, then the No. 3 in the PLO, decided to break the ice. He asked the six of us gathered in a secluded Norwegian cottage if he could tell us a story.
The story was about a couple married for 50 years.
One sad morning the wife passed away. For days, hundreds of people came to console the distressed widower.
They embraced him with warmth and memories, so that he barely felt the departure of his beloved. After a week, family and friends stopped visiting him, and he found himself all alone in a big house, finally realizing his loss. Imitating the sad widower, Abu Ala began to quote him, almost crying: “I am alone… I am alone….”
Repeating this many times, his face turned from distraught to glad and then elated, bursting into a sort of Zorba, the Greek dance, he shouted with joy: “I am alone, I am alone, finally I am alone!” We all burst out in raucous laughter. This humorous, sweet and sour interlude is the last thing we expected from our archenemy.
Humor creates a common language with common humanity. Upon my return to Israel, I repeated this story to then-foreign minister Shimon Peres. He asked me to convey a message to Abu Ala, quoting an Indian proverb: “I am alone, you are alone, let’s be alone together.”
It became a sort of motto of the human side of our encounters. We were at the very beginning of a process of turning enemies into partners. In the words of Abraham Lincoln: “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” The art of peacemaking is to turn enemies into partners, and working with friends to achieve this goal. A real peace process must gradually erode the total mistrust that characterizes relations of hostility in order to forge partnerships and cooperation.
Such changing relationships should not be based on full trust, but on mutual self-interest. The trust is only about each side following its own self-interest, as defined by negotiations and agreements.
Today in the region, we live in a transitory period, between conflict and peacemaking. In such a period, it is important to define a common basis of self-interest, develop partnerships and work with existing friends to create this new reality. In concrete terms: work with our American friends for the definition and realization of common interests between us and the Palestinians as well as relevant Arab countries. In war, it is critical to “know your enemy” – that is what intelligence services do. In conflict resolution, it is important to “know your friends” and how to make new partners. For this, one needs good diplomacy. It seems that our current government has entered the peace process with a conflict mindset – making enemies out of friends, and ensuring that existing enemies remain so forever.
Our leaders are being led by the ear to the negotiation table, kicking and screaming. For negotiations to succeed, one must have a clear vision of goals and a firm determination to achieve them. One must be ready to sacrifice political popularity and serve the people’s future.
In reality, the government led by Netanyahu is seeing, in the process, a threat rather than an opportunity, maneuvering in between American positions and settler pressures; a compromise between Secretary of State John Kerry and Bayit Yehudi chairman Naftali Bennett, not between Israel and Palestine. The government perceives the American determination to move the peace process with the Palestinians ahead as an unwanted intervention in its desire to freeze the status quo.
John Kerry, one of Israel’s greatest friends on the American scene, is depicted by most senior ministers as hostile to Israel. The defense minister described him as a messianic peace obsessive – peace obsession being the worst possible curse. Obama’s America is seen as naïve because it does not espouse our view of the Arabs as unfit to live in peace. There has not been an administration so committed to Israel’s security interests – not only in word, but also in deed – than this one.
Yet we depict them as the enemy of the Jewish people.
This is not only shameful, but also harmful for a country dependent on this strategic alliance. A country with needs like Israel’s should be a master in making friends, yet we are a champion in making enemies.
In today’s world, where power relations and deterrence count less due to the lethal capacities of the weak, creation of goodwill counts much more. One cannot force any country to assist or to compromise; however one can create the necessary goodwill for such cooperation.
We cannot force the Palestinians into submission. We can, through dialogue, mutual understanding and compromise, create the goodwill necessary among their leadership for the respect of Israel’s legitimate concerns and interests. Yitzhak Rabin, Shimon Peres, Ariel Sharon and Ehud Olmert understood this; Binyamin Netanyahu does not. The same goes for the Palestinians in terms of convincing us to respect their legitimate interests.
This must be based on a relationship between equals, understanding that on the other side of the border there are people not very different from us, and not just “the Arabs.”
The prime Palestinian interest is freedom, and ours is security. The two are compatible. To achieve a fair and balanced framework, or basis, for the detailed permanent- status negotiations, we have to make every possible effort to help John Kerry. The framework must make a permanent-status agreement possible, and not create a path filled with land mines. If we do not meet the Palestinians’ interests halfway, the basis will not hold, and will lead nowhere. Kerry has shown much understanding for our interests, mainly in relation to security and our identity as a Jewish nation-state. Mahmoud Abbas is the best we can hope for in the Palestinian leadership, in terms of opposing violence and being realistic on the right of return. Europe has offered us an unprecedented package to upgrade Israel to the highest non-EU status.
It’s time to acknowledge who our friends are in America and Europe and work with them accordingly. It is even more important to make new partners in the region, starting with Palestine and Jordan, and gradually with other Arab countries.
No country is autarchic, certainly not Israel. We must stop branding everybody who is not a staunch supporter of the settler movement as an enemy.
We must work with friends to forge new relations in the region. We must not turn our loneliness in the region into isolation. We are strong enough to afford such diplomacy. The question is, are we confident and wise enough? The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.
Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.