You don’t get to select your enemies’ leaders. That’s just the way it is. I cannot recall any conflict in history when one side liked or approved of the leaders of their enemies. If we all had only good things to say about our enemy’s leader, there probably wouldn’t be a conflict. It is also quite common to blame our enemy’s leader for every aspect of the conflict. Yet even when we know that Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas has always advocated non-violence, was opposed to the second intifada, rebuilt the PA security forces and maintains constant coordination between his forces and the Israeli army and Shin Bet (Israeli Security Agency), he is still perceived as the ultimate evil enemy.
Israel’s defense minister refers to Abbas a “diplomatic terrorist,” blaming him for all the incitement in Palestinian social media and even worse. In a conflict it is important to have a clear, identifiable enemy – someone to blame and hold responsible. The Palestinians do the same with regard to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israeli leaders. It is natural and even understandable.
I completely understand the anger many Israelis feel when they open my Facebook page and immediately see a large picture of Abbas and myself embracing. I keep that picture on my Facebook page as a symbol of the urgent need for us to confront our enemies and do everything humanly possible to break down the walls of animosity and violence. As the saying goes, you make peace with your enemies, not with your friends.
There is no escaping the reality that the Jewish people and the Palestinian people will remain on this land, living side by side. Neither side is going to expel the other nor is either side going to pick up and leave. We are both here and together we will live or we will continue to die.
I prefer to live and prefer Israel to live and so I prefer for my Palestinian neighbors to live and to choose life as well. This is a fact that we all have to come to terms with, and sooner rather than later – the price has already been way too high. Too many people have died, too many children have been killed.
No one is going to save us from ourselves. We may wish to postpone the inevitable. We may wish to wait for US President Barack Obama in his final days in office, or for a French initiative, or the UN Security Council, but all the waiting in the world will not change reality if we, Israelis and Palestinians, decide not to cooperate and do it for ourselves.
We need support and we need friends. We can benefit from guidance and assistance, but at the end of the day we have to face each other across the negotiating table and reach agreements. It is not enough to call for the other side to come to the table, it is essential to take genuine steps to demonstrate real intentions to make real compromises. When we do reach that time and understand that reality, it will be to the advantage of all that the people sitting at the table have the highest degree of political legitimacy from their own communities. In the context of the conflict, there is a benefit to those sitting at the table being considered more extreme than moderate by their own sides.
Here’s something to consider: it would probably benefit Israel if in future negotiations the person sitting across the table from the Israeli leader was Marwan Barghouti. Yes, Marwan Barghouti, who led the second intifada and is serving five consecutive life sentences plus 40 years in an Israeli prison. Sure, it would be great if former Palestinian prime minister Salam Fayyad was the Palestinian president – it would be much easier to negotiate with him and he has to total support of the West – but he lacks the popular public support and backing that Barghouti has.
In the late 1990s I spent more than 200 hours in Israeli-Palestinian meetings that I organized and ran.
The Palestinians were all from Barghouti’s Fatah Tanzim and the Israelis were almost all from the Likud and Shas, and after Ehud Barak won the elections from the Labor Party as well. Those meetings were very productive and beneficial to both sides. Almost all of the Israelis who participated then believe Israel should consider releasing Barghouti when the Palestinians eventually have elections in the post-Abbas era.
It is important to know that Barghouti wasn’t actually convicted of killing anyone himself, with his own hands. Moreover, Barghouti never presented any defense because he did not recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli court. He said he was an elected Palestinian member of parliament, the secretary-general of the Fatah party and that Israel had no right to bring him to trial. Whether he was right or wrong, he was convicted and is sitting in an Israeli prison. And when the Palestinians conduct elections for a new president, there is a very likely chance that Barghouti will be elected. Palestinians and others around the world are already calling him the Palestinian Mandela. He is not Nelson Mandela and doesn’t have the moral fortitude that Mandela had. He is no angel, but he is a leader and he is in Israeli prison and his people want him to be their leader.
It would be more than wise for the Israeli prime minister to already be talking to Barghouti now – while he is in prison, just as Frederik Willem de Klerk sent his personal emissaries to negotiate with Mandela even while behind bars. If Abbas is not the partner for peace, as Israel claims, then Israel should be thinking and planning now to find the Palestinian partner for peace in the post-Abbas era.
The author is co-chairman of IPCRI, the Israel Palestine Creative Regional Initiatives, a columnist for The Jerusalem Post and the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel for the release of Gilad Schalit. His book Freeing Gilad: the Secret Back Channel has been published by Kinneret Zmora Bitan in Hebrew and as The Negotiator: Freeing Gilad Schalit from Hamas by The Toby Press.