Six former ambassadors, both American and Israeli, offered their recommendations on pursuing Arab-Israeli peace, at a symposium Wednesday organized by the US-Israel Educational Foundation at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.
At the forum, entitled "American Mediation in the Israeli-Arab Conflict," and moderated by Channel 1's Ya'acov Ahimeir, some of the ambassadors and other speakers seemed bent on commenting on or giving advice to new Mideast envoy George Mitchell, who arrived in Israel from Cairo on Wednesday.
"The Arabs all think we're biased," said former US ambassador to Israel Samuel Lewis, who served in that capacity from 1977 to 1985.
Stressing Israel and America's shared societal values and strategic interests, he conceded that "we are biased, but we can be even-handed, and I know that's not a good word around here, but we can be fair.
"I think Mitchell needs to pay attention to the politics on both sides very carefully, and timing is very important," Lewis continued. "Don't wait until the end of the administration to make the big push, and I'm pleased to see that [US President Barack] Obama has taken that to heart."
Lewis also advised Mitchell to temper his demands on the issue of settlements.
"Everybody says that settlements are crucial to getting the Palestinians to believe in the process again. But we know how difficult this is here politically, especially with coalition governments, and I don't think he'll get it. I wouldn't spend as much time on settlements as others possibly would," Lewis said.
Former Israeli ambassador to the US Moshe Arens, who served during the Begin and Reagan administrations, reminded the audience of a previous time of uncertainty regarding American policy towards Israel.
"I know that many people are worried about the new administration in Washington, but as I like to say, Israelis are perennial worriers," Arens said.
"I remember when [Secretary of State Alexander] Haig was replaced by George Schulz, people in Israel were terrified, because it came out that Schulz had ties to Bechtel, the large Saudi construction firm. Nonetheless, we saw within a week that there was nothing to worry about," he continued.
"Now you know, Bush has made a name for himself as a great friend of Israel, and along comes Barack Hussein Obama. In the same way, I think people are worried, but they will see that there's nothing to be worried about."
Former US ambassador to Israel William Brown echoed others' statements about the US-Israel strategic alliance.
"There's a new generation of congressional leadership coming up," Brown cautioned. "And you can never take [the strategic alliance] for granted. I think the Obama administration needs to be robust and aggressive, and work hard on both sides and keep at it."
Former Israeli ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval said that given the special relationship between the United States and Israel, "there may be clashes and conflicts, but [the strategic alliance] makes it easier to iron them out."
He added that he knew Mitchell well from his days in the Senate, and called him "a good negotiator."
"I think he was a good choice, but Ireland is not Israel/Palestine," Shoval said. "The Irish were not under threat of annihilation from the British, and in Israel, we have people on the other side who do wish that on us."
Former Israeli ambassador to the US Danny Ayalon urged the Obama administration to remember that the conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is more than a fight over land.
"This is a clash of civilizations," Ayalon said. "And we're in the trenches right here," alluding to the area that the Hebrew University's Mount Scopus campus straddles.
"I see Israel as the representative of the entire free world, and Americans have told me themselves, 'You're fighting the fight for us, and if your safety is compromised, then ours will be, too.
"But I'll give a little story as well," Ayalon said. "On the 27th of March 2002, the night before Pessah, we said yes to the [US General Anthony] Zinni plan. It was very fair, and [former Prime Minister Ariel] Sharon accepted it.
"We were trying to send it to [Palestinian Authority chairman Yasser] Arafat, and he never accepted it, he never got back to us, and that night, the Park Hotel Massacre happened [completely derailing the peace initiatives]. So, sometimes, reality is stronger than anything else."
Offering a Palestinian perspective, Dr. Khalil Shikaki, of the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research, said his center had conducted numerous public opinion polls recently in an effort to gauge the mood regarding the Obama administration's peace push.
"Mitchell doesn't impress the Palestinian public," Shikaki told the audience.
"Palestinians want a mediator with a stronger stature, for example, they would have been outraged if Obama had appointed my friend, Dennis Ross, but they would have been thrilled if he had appointed James Baker, or even Bill Clinton.
"Palestinians believe that the choice of a mediator sends signals, and while it was important that Obama told Al-Arabiya that he was expecting Mitchell to report back to him, the main way that the United States can show that it's serious about negotiations is by showing that they are willing to use leverage - against both sides."
Shikaki said if Mitchell wants to gain any traction in the Palestinian street, he must do more than simply convey messages between the two sides, but actively try to integrate original American ideas.
Though they might have preferred a more high-profile envoy, Mitchell does enjoy a window of opportunity with the Palestinians, Shikaki said.
"There's an atmosphere of a fresh start there, and if Obama says that Mitchell is here to listen, that's fine - if it's the first time. But after that, [Mitchell] will begin to lose the momentum and support of the Palestinian public, because at [that] point, he has to start bringing results to the table."
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