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Palestinians and Israelis must be able to meet to talk peace - Benjamin Pogrund
Added by David Hirsh on June 27, 2006 12:00:10 PM.
Benjamin Pogrund in the Lebanese Daily Star
Nearly 200 people went to the Notre Dame Center in Jerusalem one afternoon last week to hear two political leaders speak about the pitfalls and problems of Israeli-Palestinian dialogue and cooperation. The leaders are well known: Yossi Beilin, head of the Meretz party, and Yasser Abed Rabbo, a member of the Palestine Liberation Organization's executive committee. They occupy a special place in relations across the lines, because they were the driving forces for the Geneva Initiative for peace launched in 2003.

The highly publicized meeting was set for 2 p.m. The time came and passed. The audience waited expectantly. Then the organizers announced that Abed Rabbo had been unable to obtain a permit from the Israeli military to enter the country from the West Bank. They were hoping he would still arrive. He apparently had applied for a permit about 10 days earlier. Beilin, a former minister of justice presumably able to exercise influence, was trying to get a permit for him. (Beilin, meanwhile, did not arrive because he was caught up in Knesset business.)

Organizers finally had to say that Abed Rabbo would not be coming. As it turned out, he actually received a permit from the military: It was issued about two hours and 15 minutes after the meeting had begun. By then, the meeting had ended and everyone had left. Was this bureaucratic bungling? Or was it a joke played by military officials? Or was it a game to ensure that Abed Rabbo would not be able to speak, while Israel could not be accused of refusing to let him speak?

Another Palestinian leader also did not get to the meeting: Ziad Abu-Zayyad, a former member of the Palestinian Cabinet, who was co-host of the meeting in his capacity as co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal.

The journal is a quarterly magazine, unique because it is a cooperative Israeli-Palestinian venture. Abu-Zayyad shares the editorship with Hillel Schenker, a veteran Israeli journalist and commentator on Israeli-Arab affairs. The editorial board (of which I happen to be a member) consists of Israelis and Palestinians. The board meets to discuss each issue, and all decisions and work are shared. The journal seeks to provide insights into the issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians, as seen by prominent writers, political figures, journalists and artists.

The journal recently received a European Union grant to fund eight issues. The current issue is devoted to "People-to-People: What went wrong and how to fix it?" That was also the theme of last week's meeting, with Abed Rabbo and Beilin having been the natural speakers to explain grassroots contacts that followed the Oslo Accords a decade ago, and to examine why peace was not achieved and what must now be done.

So why were two key Palestinians barred from attending the meeting? Schenker told the meeting there was "no logical, rational reason" for Abu-Zayyad's absence. He noted that Abu-Zayyad's home on the West Bank was just a 12-minute drive away. Elias Zananiri, a Palestinian peace activist who spoke in place of Abu-Zayyad, angrily condemned the "unholy alliance" between Israel's government and extremists on the Palestinian side to prevent Palestinians talking to Israelis and Israelis talking to Palestinians.

That Abed Rabbo and Abu-Zayyad were kept away from the meeting was not unusual. That same experience is familiar to many people who work on bringing Israelis and Palestinians together. Palestinians who live in Jerusalem can get to meetings without difficulty. But anyone on the West Bank needs a permit from the Israeli military. The usual procedure is to apply to the civil administration, which is also the military, which controls the West Bank; if permission is given, then a permit must be obtained from the military itself. Presumably, the Shin Bet is involved somewhere along the way. (Gaza does not even figure. It's like another planet, and it is rare for anyone from there to attend dialogue meetings.)

A cat-and-mouse game can follow. The civil administration officials, army officers, are usually pleasant and helpful. "Phone this afternoon," or "phone tomorrow morning," they say. That goes on and on. Finally, the answer is "no," without explanation, or the explanation is that there is a closure on the territories and only "humanitarian cases" are being considered, or a permit is issued impossibly late, as was the case with Abed Rabbo.

Conversely, Israelis are not allowed to cross checkpoints to attend meetings in West Bank towns. The reason is security, and, of course, this is understandable because some Jews who crossed the border have been murdered. Whether this justifies a wholesale policy of keeping out Jewish Israelis is another matter.

Put together, the totality of refusals and obstacles has devastating effects on dialogue. The experiences of refusal gives rise to the most basic, and worrying, question of all: Does it emanate from deliberate Israeli government policy to do everything possible to block Israelis meeting with Palestinians so as to support its repeated claim that there is no Palestinian "partner for peace"?

The fact is that there are plenty of Palestinians of repute on the West Bank who want to talk and work with Israelis in pursuit of peace, bravely refusing to bow to pressures from some on their side against "normalization." Is the Israeli government set on denying the existence of these Palestinians by making it impossible for them to meet with Israelis?

That would be the worst case of cynicism and manipulation. It surely cannot be true. Rather, the government of Ehud Olmert needs to urgently review what is happening on the ground, and open the floodgates so that Israelis and Palestinians can meet easily and freely. What possible hope for peace can there be if people cannot even meet to share ideas and argue their opposing viewpoints?

Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of The Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and is founder-director of Yakar's Center for Social Concern, Jerusalem. THE DAILY STAR publishes this commentary in collaboration with the Common Ground News Service.

Benjamin Pogrund in the Lebanese Daily Star