I was in Amman this week, nursing a broken arm caused by a car accident. If I had been in Jerusalem, I might have found myself in the difficult position of having to decide whether I should participate in a meeting that a number of journalists had with President Moshe Katsav.
I have no problems with the idea of a journalist, any journalist, meeting an official, any official. I have no problems with Palestinian journalists meeting Israeli officials. It was a scoop for me in the summer 1993 to have been the first Palestinian journalist to interview an Israeli prime minister (Yitzhak Rabin) for the leading Palestinian daily Al Quds.
Much has happened since then. The Oslo process brought a honeymoon in which Palestinian journalists were officially invited as a group to meet with Israeli officials, and Israeli journalists were guest of Palestinian officials. In fact, Israeli journalists like Uri Avnery and Amnon Kapiluk have interviewed Palestinian Authority Chairman Yasser Arafat and other leading Palestinian officials, even at time of high tension.
Palestinian-Israeli political meetings date back long before the invasion of Lebanon. In the ’70s, the PLO sanctioned meetings with
what were called then “democratic Israeli forces,” which meant Israeli Communists. The category of Israelis who were okay to talk to expanded to include all those who supported the Palestinian right to self-determination and to Palestinian statehood.
The PLO leader who was delegated to run these dialogues was no other than the No. 2 man in the PLO, Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen), who would later sign the Oslo Accords on the White House lawn.
With the Oslo process, many Palestinians started talking out loud about the importance of talking to members of the Israeli Right in order to include all Israelis in the dialogue. Arafat sanctioned his military chief Yousef Naser to meet with Shas’s spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef. And Arafat himself met with a host of Israelis, including a rabbi from the settlement of Tekoa.
But as the peace process started faltering, these meetings (not just the media ones) began to be seen as a replacement for a real peace
process on the ground.
Many Palestinians started to question such meetings at a time when settlement activity was continuing at an even faster pace than before. Many Palestinians felt that they had been duped by giving legitimacy to a peace process which was being used as a bridge for Israelis to normalize their relationship with the Arab world without paying the minimum political price of withdrawal from Palestinian territory.
Egyptian and Jordanian intellectuals began a process of delegitimizing any form of dialogue with Israelis.
In Jordan, the professional unions actually printed what it called a list of shame which included anyone who has visited Israel or dialogued with Israelis.
In Palestine, this feeling of having been used by Israel to make peace with the Arabs produced radical results which often seemed self-destructive. Even before the latest intifada, radical Palestinians forced Israeli peace activists who were invited to attend a human-rights film festival to leave Ramallah because such Israeli-Palestinian activities equaled giving legitimization to the status quo.
The current intifada’s main message has been the rejection of the status quo of occupation and settlements. As a result, we seem to be back to the days of the Seventies, with one major difference: Palestinians will talk only with Israelis who, by their actions, and not just their words, show that they are opposed to the 34-year-long policy of occupation.
Palestinians and Israelis have no choice but to find common ground in order to live side by side. The presence of the anti-peace Prime Minister Ariel Sharon in power has made life next to impossible for Palestinian and Israeli peace activists. People of goodwill should not allow themselves to be drawn into the negative self-destructive policy towards the other. A way must be found to support such initiatives as we saw last week, led by Yossi Beilin, Hanan Ashrawi and Yasser Abed-Rabbo. At the same time, we need to encourage Israelis who come to Palestine to protest their government’s policy of settlement expansion and house demolition.
Too much talk about peace has occurred with few tangible results. Addressing the Palestinians’ yearning for peace with independence and dignity and Israelis’ desire for tranquillity must be the goal of all peace activities.
Daoud Kuttab is a journalist who covered both intifadas and Director of the Institute of Modern Media at Al Quds University in Jerusalem.