Petra, Jordan — Some of Israel’s strongest supporters chastised the country’s leadership this week for failing to take up opportunities to solve the long-standing conflict with neighboring Arab countries.
The criticisms were aired Tuesday at the third annual Petra Conference in Jordan, a meeting of Nobel laureates and distinguished figures who brainstorm together to improve the world.
In an onstage interview before some 200 well-heeled participants and the world media, co-host Elie Wiesel grilled Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert over his country’s conditions for making peace with the Palestinians. “What does it mean?” asked Wiesel, one of Israel’s most prominent supporters, after Olmert said that terrorism must stop before negotiations can begin on the terms of peace negotiations. “You are negotiating to negotiate further?” asked the famed Holocaust survivor and Nobel Peace Prize winner, drawing laughter from the audience.
Later, in a luncheon speech, Yasser Abed Rabbo, one of the earliest and most outspoken supporters of recognizing Israel within the Palestinian leadership, expressed doubt over Israel’s sincerity in making efforts to achieve peace. Speaking to the Forward afterward, Abed Rabbo was straightforward about his concerns. “I don’t think [the Israelis] have taken after Rabin the historical decision to put an end to the occupation, to share Jerusalem,” he said.
Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres, representing Israel, responded to critics by laying blame for continued conflict squarely at the feet of the Palestinians. “We are waiting for them to unite, Hamas and Fatah. They are fighting each other,” Peres told the Forward when asked what Israel ultimately required in order to withdraw from the Palestinian territories.
Another 11 Palestinians had died that day in internecine fighting. Peres was unapologetic. “We can’t return to what there was in Gaza,” he said. “We want them to prove they can control the territories.”
Criticism of Israel was not limited to the Nobel laureates’ gathering in Petra. Back in Israel, the visiting national director of the Anti-Defamation League, Abraham Foxman, publicly expressed concern over Israel’s failure to present a convincing case for its desire to make progress on the peace track.
“Your seriousness about yourself, your seriousness about your values, your strengths, your leadership — that’s very important,” Foxman reportedly said in a panel discussion at Bar-Ilan University, at which he shared the podium with the prime minister’s spokeswoman, Miri Eisin. “Because if your friends and allies begin to question how serious this endeavor is, how serious you are in your quest for peace and security, it will undermine that natural asset which has through very difficult times been so important,” Foxman said, according to The Jerusalem Post.
The complaints from Israel’s friends come on the heels of a furious debate within Israel over renewing peace negotiations with Syria. Three of Israel’s four main intelligence agencies — Military Intelligence, the Shin Bet security service and the Foreign Ministry intelligence service — say that Syria’s calls for renewing the peace process are sincere and that Israel should respond.
“Syria’s call for dialogue with Israel is authentic,” Ilan Mizrahi, chairman of Israel’s National Security Council and former deputy chief of Mossad, told the Knesset Foreign Affairs & Defense Committee last week.
Only the Mossad, the overseas intelligence service, maintains that talks with Syria would do more harm than good. So far, however, Israel has dismissed repeated Syrian appeals for new talks.
All the main intelligence agencies possess roughly the same information, but their conclusions are based on different interpretations. In what appeared to be a challenge to Olmert, Defense Minister Amir Peretz told Channel 10 News this past Sunday, “If I were the prime minister of Israel, and the Syrian president said, ‘Come, let’s meet tomorrow and start to talk,’ I would not be afraid to meet the Syrian president and listen to him.”
The Syrian army has been building up its forces along the northern border. Israeli intelligence agencies agree that the Syrian buildup appears to be a defensive action that results from tensions following last year’s war in Lebanon; it’s not preparation for an offensive attack.
Syrian President Bashar al-Assad warned the opening session of his parliament last week that “weak governments in Israel are capable of launching aggression.” Syria, he said, “should be cautious.”
Employing the same logic used by Israel in its resistance to negotating with the Palestinians, Assad said the Israeli government’s weakness prevents it from implementing a peace agreement.
Certainly, the two conveners of the “Petra III: Building a Better World” conference, King Abdullah II and Wiesel, hoped that peace, economic and science initiatives could emerge from human contact of the sort they were fostering. In an impassioned opening speech, the king called on participants to turn ideas into action, so that “conflict can be a chapter in the history books.”
He also called for the establishment for a science foundation. Wiesel then added that this foundation’s goal was to try to “humanize destiny” by removing it from the hands of the extremists.
Kofi Annan, one of the guest speakers, told the participants that extremists are everywhere. “We have extremists in the region, we have extremists in Washington, we have extremists in Africa,” he said, causing surprise gasps among the audience.
Despite the friendly atmosphere, tension ran high at the final session Wednesday, when two participants verbally attacked Wiesel for not mentioning the word “occupation” once throughout the conference. Wiesel replied that it was already addressed at the luncheon by Abed Rabbo and Peres, and that he agreed with Peres’s views. When another participant asked why Nobel Laureates such as Wiesel would ignore human suffering, a visibly perturbed Wiesel said that the king had asked him to avoid politics at the conference.
Even without mentioning the occupation by name, it appeared Tuesday that Wiesel was prodding the Israeli prime minister to take action to end it. With his wild gray hair and crooked tie, Wiesel spoke with forthrightness, drawing attention to apparent contradictions in Olmert’s statements. He contrasted Olmert’s insistence that all the Palestinian factions agree to make peace with Israel with the fact that not all Israeli political parties agree to establish a two-state solution leading to Palestinian statehood.
When the dapperly dressed Olmert stated that Israel is democratic and the Palestinian state is not, Wiesel pointed to the democratic elections. Olmert answered that many evil governments in history have come to power through democratic means.
Only when Wiesel, who said he had gathered his questions from his colleagues, asked Olmert what the major obstacles to peace were did the prime minister, departing from Peres’s canned speech, acknowledge that not all the blame could be put on the Palestinians. The refugees, Jerusalem and final borders, he stated, were the most challenging issues.
Despite his seemingly contradictory statements, Olmert did come armed with a positive announcement: his readiness to discuss the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative with Arab leaders.
“We heard about the Arab Peace Initiative, and we say, ‘Come and present it to us,’” Olmert told the audience. “You want to talk to us about it; we are ready to sit down and talk about it carefully.”
Peres, addressing the forum during a luncheon, cited Palestinian-Israeli negotiations, joint economic endeavors and the Arab Peace Initiative as three ways of achieving peace. He called the Arab Peace Initiative — commonly referred to as the Saudi Initiative — “music we didn’t hear for 100 years.”
During lunch, Abed Rabbo was quick to point out that the Arab countries would not replace the Palestinians in negotiating a solution to the conflict, “and anyone who thinks otherwise is dreaming.”
The Palestinian leader reminded the world that today was the Palestinians’ “Naqba” or “catastrophe” — and yet “despite all the suffering,” he wished for two states for two peoples, side by side in peace.