Hillel Schenker

Athens and Jerusalem

Friday has arrived, just a little more than a week after all hell broke loose in Israel and Gaza. A cease-fire has been achieved, and to paraphrase James Joyce, the rains are falling in Israel and Gaza, “falling upon all the living and the dead.”  Will the cleansing of the rains bring new beginnings?

While Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu and Defense Minister Ehud Barak were sitting in Jerusalem and launching the recent round of hostilities with the target killing of Hamas military head Ahmad Jabari, another group of five Israelis were starting a two day “Athens Dialogue” in Greece, to discuss the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. Altogether we were 37 participants, from Israel, Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, Greece and other relevant internationals.   The participants were mainly from civil society but also included a number of current diplomats.   The catalyst for the dialogue was the resolution at the close of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation) Review Conference in May, 2010, to hold an international conference in the course of 2012 devoted to the promotion of a Nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Middle East.  Helsinki has been designated as the host city, and though the conference may still be held in December, no official date has yet been set, and it may be postponed till 2013.

Engaging the Iranians

Most interesting to the Israelis were the four Iranian participants – Amb. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a nuclear physicist who is the ambassador to the international organizations in Vienna, including the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), and three other academics.  He told the participants that he could be quoted because he is a diplomat in an official position. He proudly declared that the Iranians have agreed to participate in the Helsinki conference, while the Israelis have not (at least not yet). He also insisted that the Iranians couldn’t be seeking nuclear weapons because it is forbidden by the Koran, an idea which did not necessarily convince all of the other participants about Iran’s intentions. Unfortunately, the official Israeli government representative who had agreed to participate dropped out at the last moment.

Of course the Israelis and Palestinians were split between focusing on the proceedings and maintaining contact with the people back home in Israel and Gaza.   The Palestinian diplomat sitting next to me – we were seated in alphabetical order around the table – constantly asked me how my family was doing in Tel Aviv.  When I asked him where his family is, he said Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip, across the way from Sderot.  “But we’re used to this sort of thing” he said.

The Iranian diplomat never asked the Israelis anything personal, though the other three Iranians were much more friendly and personable.

The short or long-term approach

The latest round of hostilities, both from the Israeli and the Hamas perspective, is a short-term clash, jockeying for position on the field of Middle Eastern power politics.

The “Athens Dialogue” represented the long-term approach, the quest for a new security regime in the Middle East, which will contain a verifiable nuclear and mass destruction weapons free zone.  It was understood by a virtually all of the participants that, to be viable, this has to be accompanied by comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.

The main obstacle, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

When the question of what are the main obstacles to an agreement was posed, most agreed that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essential to move forward.  As an Egyptian woman said – “if that is resolved, everything else will fall into place”. The fact that President Mohamed Morsi of Egypt played a major role in facilitating the cease-fire suggests that she is not alone. The other major obstacles were the lack of trust and of good will to resolve the problems.

There is a perception that Netanyahu and  Barak only think in terms of short term gains, and are not seeking a long-term resolution of the conflict.  As one of the Iranian academics said to me – “Netanyahu acts like a battalion commander and not a statesman with a long-term vision”.  The Iranian academics, in private conversations, also had some critical words about the rhetoric and behavior of some of the Iranian leaders as well.

Athena or Poseidon?

The day before the conference began four of us – a Palestinian, Egyptian, Turkish MP and an Israeli – went to see the Temple of Poseidon, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea.  One of the young female organizers said that it’s a wonderful romantic sight at sundown that you have to see. She was right. And on the final day, before our trip back to Tel Aviv, we went to see the Acropolis, one of the wonders of the ancient world overlooking the city of Athens, which is dedicated to and named after the Goddess Athena.

According to legend, when the city was founded there was a competition between the Greek Gods Poseidon and Athena over who would be the patron God of the city.  Poseidon, the God of the Sea, stood for glory, pride and military prowess, while Athena stood for civilization, wisdom and culture.   The citizens of the city, the first democracy in the world, chose the Goddess Athena, thus the city is named Athens and not Poseidon.  The Athenians continued to value the role of Poseidon, but Athena became their primary Goddess.

We here in Israel have to decide – do we want to follow the route of Athena or Poseidon?

Will Jerusalem continue to rely primarily on the might of the IDF, a necessary counterpoint to the helplessness that Jews felt during the Holocaust, or will it also have the Athenian wisdom and foresight to actively seek a long-term resolution of the conflict?

About the Author
Hillel Schenker is Co-Editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, and lives in Tel Aviv