Civil Fights: Dear Akiva, Dear Salameh

Does a 'dialogue' between people completely unrepresentative of their own publics advance peace?

akiva eldar 224.88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
akiva eldar 224.88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Now that the pomp of Annapolis is past, it is worth sparing some attention for a quieter folly that has dogged the peace process since its inception: the idea that peace can be advanced by "dialogue" between Palestinians and Israelis who are completely unrepresentative of their own publics. A good example was the 10-letter exchange between journalists Akiva Eldar of Haaretz and Salameh Nematt of Al-Hayat, sponsored by Search for Common Ground, for which they won the organization's Eliav-Sartawi award this month. Eldar represents the far-Left fringe of Israel's Jewish public: Last Wednesday, for instance, he wrote a column lambasting the demand that Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state, which most Israelis support. Unsurprisingly, therefore, Eldar's positions throughout the exchange bore no resemblance to those of mainstream Israelis. Take, for instance, his response to Nematt's opening salvo, which essentially restated the Arab position that the conflict is Israel's fault. "You know how much influence Israel, the superpower of the Middle East, can exercise over America, the world's superpower," Nematt wrote. "And you know that Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands has been a key factor in igniting and perpetuating a regional conflict that has spread beyond the region and is now drawing us to a clash of civilizations. You know very well that Israel, in defiance of international law, has deliberately and consistently worked to undermine and abort every local, regional or international peace plan that has ever been tabled. The aborting of these plans was also achieved with the help of Palestinian and Arab militants, but isn't it Israel's policies that have undermined Palestinian and Arab moderates?" Most Israelis would retort that the lack of an agreement stems primarily from two factors. First is the fact that every Israeli peace initiative has produced only increased terrorism: Palestinian terror has killed more Israelis in the 14 years since Oslo than in the entire preceding 45 years of Israel's existence. Second is Yasser Arafat's rejection of Israel's 2000-2001 offer of a Palestinian state on some 97 percent of the territories, including parts of east Jerusalem and the Temple Mount. Eldar, however, cited neither. Incredibly, his sole reference to Palestinian terror was the following: "Our politicians cynically use the terror attacks and the propaganda led by Arab fanatics as a black smokescreen." In other words, terror attacks themselves are not a problem; the problem is our politicians' "cynical use" of them. Nor did he mention Israel's 2000-2001 offers and Arafat's rejection of them. Instead, he agreed that "Israeli governments have been indifferent, or even hostile, to peace programs based on UN resolutions, the Clinton parameters, the 'road map,' or the Arab League's Beirut resolution." ONLY ONCE did he hint that Palestinians, too, bore some responsibility, but even then, he assigned Israel the greater guilt: "Unfortunately, the light which shone over Oslo is dwindling, in great part because of our leaders, who missed countless opportunities , but also because of indolent Palestinian leaders" (emphasis added). Eldar similarly acquiesced in Nematt's later assertion that UN Resolution 242 mandates withdrawal to the 1967 lines. Eldar surely knows that what Nematt dismissively termed Israel's "unique interpretation" - that 242 stipulates a withdrawal from "territories," not "all the territories" - is in fact correct. Israel fought to get the words "all the" removed from the original draft, and the resolution's sponsors later confirmed that the change authorized Israel to retain some of the territories. Lord Caradon, the British UN ambassador who drafted 242, explained: "It would have been wrong to demand that Israel return to its positions of June 4, 1967, because those positions were undesirable and artificial." America's UN ambassador at the time, Arthur Goldberg, similarly said the omissions "were not accidental .... The resolution speaks of withdrawal from occupied territories without defining the extent of withdrawal." Most Israelis still want to retain parts of the West Bank (primarily, the settlement blocs), to ensure defensible borders. But since Eldar favors withdrawing to the 1967 lines, he saw no need to challenge Nematt's error. Only once in five letters did Eldar articulate a mainstream Israeli position, when he lambasted Arab handling of the Palestinian refugees: "Instead of dealing with this terrible humanitarian problem, they prefer to perpetuate it so that they can accuse Israel," he wrote. Then, responding to Nematt's question about whether Israel should first make peace with the Palestinians or "peripheral Arab states," he added: "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?" Indeed, to most Israelis, Palestinian insistence on the refugees' "right of return" is a deal-breaker. Yet Nematt simply ignored Eldar's question - and Eldar, rather than explaining the issue's importance and pressing him, never mentioned the refugees again. Clearly, such exchanges do not help Palestinians understand mainstream Israelis, whose support is crucial for any agreement. But far from merely being pointless, they do active harm - because they lead Palestinians to believe that fringe views such as Eldar's are those of the majority, and therefore, they have no need to modify their own views. This exchange, for instance, received wide exposure; it was reprinted in the popular Palestinian daily Al-Quds. And few Palestinian readers would realize that "a senior columnist for Haaretz" does not represent mainstream Israel. They would therefore receive the following false impressions:
  • Israelis agree that the failure of the peace process is mainly their fault, so no changes in our own behavior are necessary.
  • Palestinian terror is not a problem, so we need not condemn and uproot it.
  • The refugees are not really a big issue for Israelis, so we can continue insisting on the "right of return."
  • Israelis accept 1967 as the legally mandated border, so no flexibility on this issue is necessary. In reality, however, peace will never be attained without Palestinian movement on issues such as terror and the refugees. Thus by leading Palestinians to believe that no modification of their own positions is necessary, dialogues such as the Eldar-Nematt exchange, far from fostering peace, actually help perpetuate the conflict.