IN OTHER WORDS...

By Oren Rawls

Published August 08, 2003, issue of August 08, 2003.
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With a Peel: Skip the sugar. Skip the ice. The opinions posted on Bitterlemons.org may be hard to swallow, but like its namesake fruit, the self-described “Palestinian-Israeli Crossfire” yields a healthy squeeze of unfiltered, juicy commentary.

The Web site — published in Hebrew, English and Arabic — is produced and edited by Yossi Alpher, a former senior Mossad official and special adviser to Prime Minister Ehud Barak, and Ghassan Khatib, labor minister in the Palestinian Authority. Each contributes one article to the online weekly and selects and edits a second piece by a fellow Israeli or Palestinian.

Bitterlemons was launched less than two months after the intifada broke out in September 2000. The August 4 edition pairs Alpher and Khatib with two media figures on the issue of incitement. In the Israeli corner is Yaakov Erez, until recently editor of the daily Ma’ariv and chair of the Israeli delegation to the now-defunct trilateral committee that set up under the Oslo accords to monitor incitement in the media. In the Palestinian corner is Nabil Amr, information minister in the P.A. and founder of the daily Al Hayat Al Jadida.

And they come out swinging, offering divergent views on, among other contentious issues, the subject of Palestinian textbooks.

“There are still plenty of maps that ignore the existence of the State of Israel, and plenty of texts that ignore or obfuscate the Jewish roots and history of the Land of Israel/Palestine,” Alpher argues. “But these are errors of omission rather than active incitement, and they have occasional parallels — that unfortunately are largely ignored — in Israeli textbooks and maps and in the Israeli media as well.”

To hear Alpher’s Palestinian counterpart tell it, though, the innocuous errors of omission are quite intentional.

“All too frequently one hears that the Palestinian curriculum contains no map of Israel or demarcation of Israel’s borders. That is correct,” Khatib retorts. “The most important of the reasons for this is that Israel has not yet recognized the Palestinian state and its borders in kind. Palestinians view their recognition of Israel as part and parcel of the recognition of two states. I think that Palestinians will be prepared to include a map of Israel in their official textbooks and their national consciousness at that time that Israel is willing to allow, and officially recognizes, a Palestinian state in its own Israeli national narrative.”

Beyond contentious views, Bitterlemons also offers an insider’s perspective on the process behind the Middle East peace process. In a piece titled “It worked better when we met in private,” former Ma’ariv editor Erez derides the Palestinian delegation to the committee monitoring incitement, which he co-chaired, arguing that Arafat loyalists effectively silenced his trustworthy counterpart, Marwan Kanafani.

“It quickly became apparent to me and my Israeli colleagues that Kanafani behaved completely differently in full committee meetings, when all members were present, than in the private meetings he held with me in the course of our many months of work,” Erez writes. “Hence my conclusion that Kanafani and I would achieve useful results for both sides as long as the committee remained a cover that enabled us to chart our own path, without interfering directly in our discussions.”

An inkling of the interference that Erez encountered can be inferred from Bitterlemons’s interview with Amr, the P.A. information minister who, amid much glad-handing with Israel’s Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom, resurrected on July 7 the Joint Israeli-Palestinian Committee on the Prevention of Incitement.

“Everybody can see the positive change in the language of the Palestinian media in favor of calm, which serves a political goal we are serious about,” Amr says — with a few choice words for his colleagues across the Green Line. “I don’t believe that Israel has taken any serious steps in this regard, because it has predicated the idea of stopping incitement on its belief that the world understands that only Palestinians are those perpetuating incitement. This is, however, no longer valid. Israel has an enormous quantity of incitement — in statements by ministers, officials and religious leaders, as well as publications, articles and writings published in the press, as well as incitement on private radio stations.”

Amr’s combative stance is emblematic of Bitterlemons’s approach to Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation. The Web site, born in the wake of the intifada, departs from the many Oslo-era coexistence projects in its straightforward presentation of mutually exclusive views. Judging by their articles in the August 4 edition, Bitterlemons’s editors believe that’s just about all that can be expected at the moment.

“There is no doubt that Palestinians can easily turn again to the language of reconciliation and cultural understanding — when there is a concrete prospect of peace,” Khatib declares. “No community in the world would promote reconciliation at a time of war or under belligerent military occupation; the result would be self-destructive.”

“For most Arabs, making peace with Israel is an admission of defeat, and certainly not a cause for celebration,” Alpher concludes. “Yet this will not stop most Palestinians from making peace with us and finding constructive ways to coexist. That is about the best this generation can do. The actual legitimization of our narrative by the other side (which still does not have to agree with it) will be a challenge for the second generation of Israelis and Palestinians who live at peace.”






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