A special meeting took place, at short notice, in London, on May 29, 2002. The ultra-liberal Guardian newspaper hosted a debate entitled ISRAEL/PALESTINE: THE WAY FORWARD. Speakers were Yasser Abed Rabbo, Palestinian Minister of Culture and Information, and Yossi Beilin, Former Israeli Justice Minister and leading peace campaigner. The chairman was the Jewish broadcaster Jonathan Freedland. This was billed as the first time Britain had hosted such a high level meeting between Israeli and Palestinian politicians since the breakdown of the peace process. The venue was significant, Church House, the London Headquarters of the Church of England. Security was rather tight, though neither suicide bombers nor hecklers were present; Zionists were noticeable by their absence.
The event was scheduled for 2pm but not unnaturally it was a little late; the auditorium was close to full and included people of all faiths from as far afield as France, the United States, Malaysia, and of course the Middle East. There were a number of American Jews present and not a few Diaspora Palestinians, including one man who claimed to be a British-Palestinian QC.
The meeting was opened by Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger, who pointed out this was one in a series of debates hosted by the paper, which included genetically modified food. In this field though it is opinions that have been modified greatly over the years, as those of us old enough to recall the hysterical days of the 70s will testify. Now, Chairman Arafat is denounced simply as corrupt rather than as a terrorist and the Middle East’s equivalent of Adolf Hitler.
After chairman Freedland had set the agenda - where are we now and where are we going? - Yasser Rabbo was first to speak. We have, he said, reached a growing crisis and an impasse. For the first time ever the United States has acknowledged that there must be a political solution to the Palestinian problem, and there can be neither peace nor security for Israel without it. This is now recognised universally, except by Ariel Sharon, of course. The Sharon government has ghetto-ised Palestine and seeks to carve it up into small boxes totally under Zionist control.
When it was his turn to speak, Yossi Beilin made the point that the current conflict is about the suffering of two peoples who both see themselves as victims, and that both sides find it difficult to understand the mentality of the other. On the one hand, innocent Israelis cannot fathom how Palestinian mothers can gladly sacrifice their sons, and daughters, in the current suicide bombing campaign, and the Palestinians cannot understand the Zionist mentality of occupation and collective punishment. As collective guilt is the fallacy lying at the heart of classical anti-Semitism, this is indeed ironic. Both Rabbo and Beilin stressed the need to break the vicious circle of hatred and violence, though at the end of the afternoon good will was in greater abundance than good ideas.
Following the debate, Freedland took questions from the floor, which were by and large intelligent and unemotional. The aforementioned Palestinian QC raised an interesting point about the Zionist occupiers having a colonial mentality, and drew a comparison with Apartheid. Beilin was quick to reject this and reiterated that ordinary Israelis were paying a very high price for the occupation. Rabbo reiterated the claim that Sharon was isolating the Palestinian cities: isolation like occupation is as much a state of mind as a state of oppression.
Asked finally by Jonathan Freedland how do we progress, both men were sadly at a loss save to say that they were working on a detailed plan to put to the public on both sides, and later to the wider world. Rabbo’s closing remark was that the conflict and the enemy was the occupation; this was not Arab against Jew. This sentiment was roundly applauded, unfortunately the Butcher of Beirut is unlikely to share it.
[I covered this meeting for my Party - Alexander Baron.]
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