It started with an email from an Israeli friend who wanted to know my
thoughts about Ariel Sharon's plan to unilaterally withdraw from Gaza. I
paid little attention to the question –
apparently a big deal for Israelis.
On further thought, I emailed back that it might be interesting if real,
and suggested a face-to-face meeting. We met for breakfast at a cafe in west
Jerusalem. After some pleasantries we quickly got into the subject. My
Israeli friend seemed anxious. He wanted to know why Palestinians were
leaving Sharon the freedom to do what he wants.
"Our opinion is not so important," I answered to my friend's surprise.
"The Israelis are used to negotiating between themselves. They are either
negotiating between Labour and Likud, or between Likud and the settlers, or
with the Americans. We are not even part of their negotiations."
My Israeli friend didn't disagree, but was saved from having to respond
by the arrival of our waitress. We both ordered the mushroom omelette and I
continued my argument.
"You Israelis have a choice to stay or to leave, but we have no choice.
We have no real power to force a change, and we are living on our land
waiting for the Israelis to make the move."
"You do have a choice," my Israeli friend replied. "You can choose
between Sharon's unilateral plan and the road map."
Again I disagree. Who stopped the road map? The Israelis, I insist. "No
way. You don't think that the road map failed because of those few
outposts," he insisted.
"It wasn't just the outposts, it was the failure to immediately end all
settlement activities including expanding settlements, and of course the
most crazy act of building the wall."
I also remind my Israeli friend that Sharon listed 14 reservations about
the road map, while the Palestinians accepted it without any.
But my friend insisted that Palestinians do have a choice. If they had
acted against terror they would have put Sharon in a position much different
than the one he is in now.
I say: "First, no Palestinian leader can begin a civil war over a promise
that is hardly reliable. Secondly, Israelis are the ones who are refusing to
negotiate. Thirdly, Israel continues to refuse a cease-fire agreement.
How can we stop the bloodshed while Israel refuses to be party to a
cease-fire agreement which has to be bilateral, guaranteed by an outside
neutral force and be followed by a serious negotiating effort?"
I continue with my argument: "You say that Palestinians have a choice,
namely to implement the road map rather than allow the unilateral Gaza plan
to go forward. Let us say we implement the road map, can you guarantee that
Palestinians will have an independent state on the '67 borders?" Plainly,
the Israeli track record has not been very encouraging.
My astute friend responds that Palestinians have consistently rejected
offers they later wished they could have obtained.
I had to agree, but we work on a different time-cycle and political
framework than Israelis: "For us, our strength is our presence on our land
and our unity. Our unity will not be compromised over a dubious promise from
an Israeli with a terrible record toward Palestinians and their rights," I
The omelettes arrive. We begin eating quietly, but quickly move into a
new disagreement. My Israeli friend refuses any attempt to compare the
killing of Israelis with settlement activity.
"You are always thinking," I reply "of personal rights, and therefore you
give priority to any violation of individual rights. On the other hand, we
give priority to community or collective rights." I try to explain that for
Palestinians the building of settlements is a violation of our national
rights and killing our future as a people and a nation.
My friend discovers a piece of glass in his omelette and returns the dish
to the waitress.
As he discusses this discovery with restaurant staff, I wonder what I
really think about the Israeli prime minister's idea of unilateral
withdrawal from Gaza. In principle, I like the idea because it means that we
will finally begin the process of Israeli military withdrawals without
having to pay a political price over an unknown future agreement.
On the other hand, I know quite well that with this gain of settler-free
Gaza territory we will pay a high price as Israelis dig in their heels even
deeper on the West Bank.
Once my friend sorts out the glass-in-the omelette ordeal, I explain that
for Palestinians the greatest danger has always been the building of
settlements on our land. It is settlement building which has been the
biggest blow to any hope for an independent Palestinian state.
I told him that if the Jewish settlement drive has ebbed, as may be
deduced from the decision regarding Gaza, Palestinians will have the time
and patience to wait Israelis out until they understand that to achieve an
agreement Israel must come to terms with our aspirations.
"We might not have the military or political power to get what we want,
but we have the negative power to oppose any deal that doesn't meet our
minimum demands," I tell him.
We left the restaurant without having resolved all our political
disagreements. It was not clear whether my friend would return to this
particular restaurant, but I was certain that we could continue our
discussions in the future.