A few days before the Passover holiday began in Israel, I attended a frustrating and depressing panel discussion on the “The Challenges of the Current Peace Talks”. According to what I heard expressed by the panel members—and what I continue to read and hear on the news every day– the challenges are much great than the possibilities of peace at the present moment. Both sides appear to be deeply entrenched in their current ideological positions, so that no meaningful compromise seems to be possible at this time.
The panel discussion, which was entitled “Between a Jewish State and a Palestinian State—The Challenges of the Current Peace Talks”, was co-sponsored by the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, the Geneva Initiative and the Netanya Academic College’s Strategic Dialogue Center, and took place at the Konrad Adenauer Conference Center in Mishkenot Sha’ananim in Jerusalem, in front of a full audience. It featured former Member of Knesset and minister in many governments in Israel over many decades, Mr. Dan Meridor, and a former Palestinian government minister by the name of Ashraf El Agermi, who was Minister for Prisoners of the Palestinian Authority and served 15 years in Israeli prisons, where he learned Hebrew very well (he spoke to the mostly Jewish audience in perfect Hebrew!).
Both speakers presented well known positions in an erudite manner, but unfortunately each tended to put most of the blame for the failure of progress in the current peace talks on the other side!
Ashraf El Agermi began the discussion. He represents the Palestinian Authority on a formal committee which meets with Israelis all the time, to explain the official Palestinian point of view. He told the audience that the announcement of the Israel government that it would cut all connections with the Palestinian Authority and that it would stop transferring tax money to the PA, was a very dangerous move! These “punishment” steps of the government of Israel could lead the PA to stop security cooperation, which will be very dangerous for both sides! “This could lead to balagan and anarchy”, he said. “There will be no security for Israelis or for Palestinians.”
Mr. El Agermi tried to be positive but he did not succeed. “It is not in the interest of both sides to get to violence,” he said. “We need real negotiations now on the real issues…. We need to reach an historical reconciliation….” So far so good. But, of course, he did not stop there. “The Palestinians have given all they can give,” he argued. “No more comprises are possible.”
Essentially, there is not much point to talking, from the official Palestinian position, if there are no more possible compromises. In other words, the current Palestinian position is totally ideological and appears to have lost any pragmatic or realistic orientation.
This is very unfortunate, since everyone understands that in order to move forward from where we are now, “painful compromises” will have to be made on both sides. Any side that declares that it is interested in genuine negotiations has to be at least somewhat flexible.
On the other hand, Mr. Dan Meridor presented his own personal views, which do not reflect the positions of the current government. His positions offered some hope for the future, but unfortunately his relatively liberal views are not prevalent in the current government coalition of Israel.
He began by saying that the government of Israel is not the only one to blame for the breakdown in the current peace talks. “There are problems too with the other side,” he said.
Abu Mazen was offered almost everything he requested by the Olmert government ( of which Meridor was a part), but he refused, according to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice , who at one point actually thought that there was going to be an agreement, according to Meridor.
Why did he refuse? Meridor’s answer : Abu Mazen could not give up “the right of return” to Israel, which is a non-starter for any Israel government.
Where is the problem today, according to Meridor?
“The majority in Israel wants a peace agreement and will accept a reasonable solution,” he said. “But the leaders on both sides must make difficult decisions!”
I couldn’t agree more. Both leaders will have to make real compromises for peace. Everyone knows this. Just posturing by repeating worn-out slogans will get us nowhere. Actually, this perpetual posturing on both sides is the main obstacle which prevents any real progress in the peace talks.
So what is to be done now?
First of all, Meridor said that we must observe agreements. If the state of Israel agreed to release a 4th round of prisoners, then it should abide by the agreements.
Secondly, we need to think about some creative alternatives. For example, there could be a Palestinian state in interim borders. This would be beneficial to Israel since it would end the occupation; and it would be beneficial to the Palestinians since they would have a state.
If this doesn’t work then, then we need to realize that the status quo is still not good. There has to be a correlation between peace talks and what we do in the West Bank. We should not settle everywhere. This has to stop. “We should focus on what is possible and not settle in all the territories,” Meridor said.
So, is there any hope for the future?
My answer is Yes! There is always hope, especially when people are in dialogue and can come up with new and creative ideas that leave inflexible ideologies behind and become pragmatic for the benefit of both peoples, the Jewish people and the Palestinian people.
Also, I find hope in people-to-people peacebuilding programs, such as the ones we do all the time through our interreligious dialogue and action programs of the Interreligious Coordinating Council for Israel , which is also the Israel chapter of Religions for Peace. Over and over again, I discover that people on both sides–especially young people–want this conflict to end so that we can all get on with normal life.