I’ve always been a firm believer in the power of dialogue, so around this time last year when I was invited by the Carleton University International Relations Society to attend an intimate meeting with Nabil Marouf, the Ambassador of the Palestinian General Delegation to Canada, I jumped at the opportunity.
Having attended Jewish elementary school and high school my entire life prior to studying Public Affairs at Carleton, I had never spoken to a Palestinian before, much less an official representative of the Palestinian Authority (PA). Looking back on the extremely right wing Israel education that I received at Yitzhak Rabin High School (ironic, I know), I can’t help but wonder just how deliberate the removal of the Palestinian narrative really was.
Thankfully, my natural curiosity and fascination of the conflict counterbalanced my formal education, where I found myself reading the Jerusalem Post and Ha’aretz daily as well as more books on Zionism and the Israel-Palestine conflict than I could count, propelling me to the left of the Israeli political spectrum. The most recent book I had read at the time was “Scars of War Wounds of Peace” by former Israeli Foreign Minister and Peace Negotiator Shlomo Ben-Ami and all I could think about was the quest for a lasting peace between the two sides. I became obsessed with the idea of achieving a Two State Solution and I was eagerly looking forward to candidly discussing the prospects of peace with Ambassador Marouf. On top of this quest to achieve peace, I was curious to hear the official PA justification as to why Mahmoud Abbas had walked away from Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s historic 2008 peace offer. Surely, I had to be missing a piece of the puzzle (spoiler alert: I was not).
In my naive mind, I was going to host a miniature Camp David Accords, where I would simultaneously play the roles of both Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak in an attempt to try and broker some sort of agreement. I figured that since I wasn’t an Israeli diplomat, I had the liberty to make some ideological concessions regarding past and present Israeli mistakes in the hopes that such candor would lead to greater concessions on the Palestinian side as well. I was in for a rude awakening.
I remember walking into the beautifully decorated embassy with my colleagues and being formally greeted by Mr. Marouf’s chief of staff before being led upstairs to his office. Upon our arrival, we were seated on large couches and were handed a cup of what had to be the most bitter coffee I’d ever drank. Despite being in Canada for over six months, they had clearly never heard of the Tim Horton’s Double-Double.
Mr. Marouf was sitting behind his desk, with the infamous government-issued portraits of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas hanging above him. He very kindly introduced himself to each of us and shook our hands, taking the time to individually ask us where we were from and what we were studying before finally taking a seat across from us.
We listened attentively as he spoke about the difficulties of representing a non-sovereign state entity in Canada and how he worked with our country’s parliamentarians to initiate trade and travel opportunities in the Palestinian Territories.
Throughout our time together, Mr. Marouf spoke about the hurdles of living under occupation as well as the small-yet-growing recognition that Palestine was receiving around the world. He also spoke about the immensely complicated and at times contradictory relationship that the PA had with Israel, on the one hand working with the Israeli Government to coordinate security efforts against Palestinian violence while on the other, trying to represent the will of the Palestinian people, which tended to be at odds with that of the Israeli Government. He spoke about the complications that settlements have brought to everyday life in the West Bank and how the allocation of resources has always favoured the Israeli settlers, noting that in Area B, there are Palestinian farmers with inadequate access to water who look over the nearby hill into Area C (where the settlers live) to see luscious fields. He also spoke about the sadness that so many Palestinians feel knowing that they aren’t allowed to visit their relatives in Israel or pray at their holy sites without permits, which are notoriously difficult to acquire.
Everything was going smoothly thus far. While Mr. Marouf certainly wasn’t going to purchase an “I Heart Tel Aviv” t-shirt anytime soon, he certainly didn’t seem to hold a vicious hatred against Israel.
Mr. Marouf would go on to talk about his belief that Israel had the right to exist (despite chiding them for existing within borders that they refuse to define) and acknowledged that a complete right of return for Palestinian refugees was unrealistic. As Mr. Marouf spoke about the Palestinian people’s ultimate dream to simply be free, where the occupation comes to an end and they live under their own auspices, I couldn’t help but feel confident that I would solve the Israel-Palestine conflict right then and there. After all, we agreed on so many things and he seemed like such a moderate man, someone who was willing to make the necessary, painful compromises to achieve his nation’s ambitions. If I was willing to give a bit, surely he would do the same and we could meet in the middle, right?
It became instantly clear that while Mr. Marouf held more moderate opinions than the anti-Israel student groups on campus, he was still very much a representative of Mahmoud Abbas and unfortunately subscribed to many of the same counterproductive and bizarre ethos.
Mr. Marouf went off on a borderline anti-Semitic tangent about the strength of the Israel lobby and the organizational power of Jewish groups in Canada before launching into a conspiracy theory about how he believed that the Israeli government killed Yasser Arafat. Apparently the Israeli government was particularly adept at murdering Middle Eastern leaders as he believed that they had assassinated Yitzhak Rabin as well.
“Rabin was one of the most decorated soldiers in Israeli history and you’re telling me that a random person was able to shoot him from so close? Impossible!” He bellowed confidently.
When I countered that Egypt’s Anwar Sadat had an impressive military career as well and was just as easily assassinated, he brushed it off. He went on to say that the Israeli Government had Rabin killed because he was close to making peace with the Palestinians and the Israeli establishment didn’t want that to happen. Mr. Marouf even went as far as to say that he thought that Rabin was the ONLY Israeli leader who ever genuinely wanted peace.
“What about Shimon Peres? Or Ehud Barak? Or Ehud Olmert? Surely you believe that they truly wanted peace as well?” I asked.
Mr. Marouf shook his head.
“Only Rabin,” he repeated.
Apparently, in Ambassador Marouf’s mind, in order to be considered “a man of peace,” you have to literally die for your cause.
At that moment I realized that we were on the subject of missed opportunities for peace and I knew that if I didn’t ask him right then and there about the 2008 Olmert proposal, I’d regret it for the rest of my life. I was still mourning its dismal failure and I needed some form of closure.
To recap, we could’ve been celebrating the near 10th anniversary of an independent Palestinian State had Abbas taken then Prime Minister Ehud Olmert’s historic peace deal that was offered to him on Olmert’s last day in office. Olmert signed the deal and handed the pen to Abbas, stating that after so many decades of bloodshed, it was time to end the conflict and that while it wasn’t easy for him to make so many concessions, he knew it was the right thing to do. Abbas faltered. Olmert begged him to sign, telling him that he wouldn’t get a deal this good for another 50 years. Abbas conceded he wasn’t good with maps and said that the next day he’d bring his map experts and if everything checked out, he’d sign. Olmert reluctantly accepted. He got a call the next day informing him that Abbas had a meeting in Jordan that day and would be unable to visit him as planned; that was the last time Olmert ever saw Abbas and he resigned shortly thereafter due to corruption charges, triggering the election that would bring Netanyahu into power and the rest is history.
I looked Mr. Marouf in the eye and boldly asked him: “If Abbas truly wanted peace as much as you say he did, why didn’t he accept Olmert’s deal the next day? Surely he could’ve postponed his meeting with King Abdullah to reach a historic peace deal. Surely you must agree that peace should’ve been the priority. What was the Olmert deal lacking?”
What followed was among the most infuriating games of verbal Twister I had played in my life.
“Abu Mazen would’ve accepted but we didn’t want Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley; we wanted international ones,” he said.
I was ready for that.
“But Mr. Ambassador, that’s exactly what Olmert offered in 2008,” I rebutted.
“No, no, no. He wanted Israeli forces.”
“With respect, Mr. Ambassador, I think you’re confusing the deal that Prime Minister Barak offered in 2000 and the deal Prime Minister Olmert offered in 2008. The deal proposed in 2000 under Barak was 36 months of Israeli forces in the Jordan Valley followed by a transition to international forces, while the 2008 offer was international forces in the Jordan Valley from the beginning, with three Israeli warning station in the West Bank and-”
“Well, it didn’t matter because Olmert wasn’t prime minister after that day.”
“Yes, but he WAS prime minister when he handed Abbas the pen to sign the agreement and make the deal.”
“But why wasn’t he offering that deal before?”
“Because he wasn’t willing to make that many concessions before. But on his last day before he resigned, he was willing to make numerous concessions in order to finally end the conflict because he knew the government replacing him wouldn’t.”
“But WHY was it his last day?”
“Um, because he had to resign because he was being indicted for corruption…”
“But WHY was he being indicted THAT SPECIFIC DAY?”
“Um, because he broke the law and therefore couldn’t perform his duties as prime minister while he was under police investigation…?”
“Yes! But also because the Israeli establishment KNEW that he was close to making a deal so they wanted him out!”
“…A deal that President Abbas didn’t sign…”
The ambassador glared at me but didn’t say anything. There was an uncomfortable silence in the room. I quickly remembered that I was his guest and that maybe I had gone too far.
I asked him: “If the Israeli government decided to offer the PA the same deal today, would you accept it?” He conceded that he likely wouldn’t have a problem taking the deal that I had described. Hindsight really is 20/20.
He paused for a moment and then admitted that there was a small problem: Hamas. At the time, Hamas and the PA weren’t exactly on speaking terms and with the former in control of the Gaza Strip, the prospects of peace weren’t looking so hot until a unity government could be formed. It was no secret that the PA and Hamas didn’t exactly get along and that a unity government wasn’t in the cards at the time. Indeed, the last time members of Mr. Marouf’s political party were in Gaza, they were thrown off of rooftops.
But of course, staying true to form, Mr. Marouf found a way to blame Israel for the current predicament. He gave a solid five minute monologue about how Israel and Hamas are actually allies because Israel had the chance to stop them from taking over Gaza by helping the PA during the coup but did nothing about it.
For a man who had spent the entire first half of my visit rebuking Israel for every single soldier that they had stationed beyond the Green Line as a “violation of Palestinian sovereignty,” he seemed to have done a complete 180. First Israel was at fault for their military presence in internal Palestinian affairs and were now somehow at fault for their lack of military presence in internal Palestinian affairs. It’s as if no matter what the outcome was, he’d find a way to blame Israel.
I could see that he was becoming visibly frustrated with me so in an attempt to keep things calmer and more neutral, I asked him what he believed both the Israelis and the Palestinians needed to do to in order to achieve a viable peace in our lifetime. Rather than point out a flaw that each side had, he went on a rant about the myriad things Israel does that infuriates him. Like a rabid auctioneer foaming at the mouth, he began listing off talking points that Netanyahu would use in international forums before cutting through each, getting noticeably louder with each issue. Like the maestro of a surreal, politically-charged concerto, he started off adagio by innocently attacking the silliness of the “no preconditions” talking point and then moved on allegro, raising his voice and using strange hand motions to critique the concept of “a Jewish State” in general before reaching the climax, thunderously hitting the verbal gong fortissimo that would reverberate throughout the room: “Netanyahu says that he won’t negotiate with us because we pay terrorists. Of course we pay our martyrs! They’re not terrorists, the Israeli Occupation Forces are terrorists! We’ll stop paying ours when they stop paying theirs!!!”
My heart sank. In the mind of Mr. Marouf, there was a moral equivalence between Israel’s armed forces and Palestinian terrorists who blow up buses, restaurants and hotels full of children, stab innocent worshippers in synagogues and run though crowds of civilians with cars.
I had skipped class and made the trek to the Palestinian General Delegation to talk with the “moderate” Palestinian political faction; our great “partners for peace” to regain a sense of hope and yet, somehow, things had never felt so hopeless.
There I was, a Liberal Zionist who abhorred the settlement enterprise and wanted nothing more than to see a safe and secure Jewish and democratic Israel next to a demilitarized, free and independent Palestinian State but it didn’t matter. In the mind of Mr. Marouf, much like Ehud Barak and Ehud Olmert before me, I was a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Everything Israel did was wrong, every effort they made towards peace was disingenuous and every problem plaguing Palestinian society was all their fault. As far as he was concerned, the Palestinians had never made any historical errors and they weren’t even slightly responsible for their predicament. Everything was Israel’s fault and the rest was just commentary.
After taking a group picture in the lobby between the Canadian and Palestinian flags, it was time to return home. I shook Mr. Marouf’s hand and thanked him for taking the time to speak with me. While there was undoubtedly great distance between us politically, I was still immensely grateful for the time we spent together and it’s a day that I’ll never forget.
I left the embassy that day feeling dejected and scared for the future. If I — a Canadian Jew who’s never lost a friend or relative from war or terrorism in Israel and who’s able to admit past and present Israeli faults with political impunity — couldn’t reach a consensus, what hope was there for an Israeli government delegation? There was so much bad blood, tragedy and cognitive dissonance…how could it all be temporarily swept under the rug for the greater good?
My heart sank even deeper when I arrived home and logged into Facebook to see the hateful comments that members of the Jewish Community had posted on the picture of me at the Palestinian Embassy. The blind hatred, venom and vitriol that I was subjected to for merely meeting with an ambassador of the Palestinian Territories was enough to make whatever tiny fragment of hope I had left quickly shrivel up and die. The attacks were personal and below the belt. The insults that invoked the name of close family members and that questioned my Jewish identity cut the deepest. My reasons for attending the meeting were largely ignored. It didn’t matter that I loved Israel; as far as they were concerned, I was guilty by mere association. The comments were becoming so nasty and numerous that the photo had to be taken down by the original poster. It would seem that the road to hell is paved with good intentions.
There’s a famous Golda Meir quote that goes: “peace will come when the Arabs will love their children more than they hate us.” But that’s not the full truth.
Peace will come when both sides pursue love and mutual understanding with the same burning intensity that they use to vilify each other.