Leaders of the American Zionist Movement held their first meeting with an official of the Palestine Liberation Organization here this week.
The meeting was part of a conference entitled “From Conflict to Conflict Resolution.”
It was an indication of just how much has changed for Israel and Zionism that the meetings were held in a conference room here, in the extraterritorial portion of Manhattan in which, for 16 years, Zionism was officially declared a form of racism.
But that old battle was not at the forefront of the discussions.
Much higher on the agenda was the threat that Muslim fundamentalists pose to the Middle East and the peace process.
The point was taken up by both Ahmed Snoussi, Ambassador of the Kingdom of Morocco to the United States, and Gad Yaacobi, Permanent Representative of Israel to the United Nations.
The issue was broadened by Dr. Nasser al-Kidwa, the permanent observer of Palestine to the United Nations and a prominent member of the PLO.
“I am sure whenever one says fundamentalism, what you at least have in mind is Islamic fundamentalism,” said Kidwa.
“I do not disagree with that. But I would draw your attention to another kind of fundamentalism,” he said, “which is Jewish fundamentalism.
“The future in my opinion will depend largely, not only on our fight as reasonable open-minded political forces, but also in the fight of Israeli open- minded progressives, the fight against Jewish fundamentalism. And frankly, the stake is very high.”
In particular, he criticized the Jewish settlers in the territories as the fundamentalists he meant.
Taking a page from Marxist though – specifically, Groucho Marx’s comment that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would have him – Kidwa said that he did not object in principle to Jewish settlers staying in the territories – only to the kind of settlers who would want to stay.
“The problem with the settlers is that those who are not ideologues will not be willing to stay. Personally, I don’t have any problem with those staying. The problem is those who won’t leave.
“The problem is those who are less open-minded, shall you say. The others, the open-minded, probably will be leaving without us asking them to do so. It probably will be their choice. Some have already expressed their wish to be compensated now,” Kidwa said.
“I have a problem with those extremely religious guys, who happen to be also armed.”
Kidwa was asked about a report in the Wall Street Journal about a survey of Arabs on the eve of the September signing of the declaration of principles by Israel and the PLO. The poll showed that support for the peace accord was based more on the idea of a limited truce than on a vision of a real peace.
Kidwa was not familiar with the survey, which was conducted by Hilal Khashan, associate professor of political science at the American University of Beirut.
He reiterated some earlier remarks that, with the implementation of the self- rule accord still being negotiated, “people do not believe that this is happening, that this is real.”
Another important factor, he argued, was that Arabic statements, such as those made to a social scientist, need to be understood within their cultural context.
“We Arabs talk differently in Arabic. It does not necessarily reflect what the political scientists understand. Even me, I sometimes may express myself differently in Arabic than I do in English. This language, Arabic, is a language of exaggeration, of dreams, of past and future. It’s not English, to put it mildly.
“So sometimes when you task somebody in the street, `Do you believe this peace process will lead to a change?’ that person would answer in English,`I would have hoped so but frankly it doesn’t look that way, which would lead me to question the process.’
“In Arabic he would say,`To hell with the whole thing!'”
Addressing the more general decline in support for the Israeli-PLO accord, Kidwa said that “it is simply that the people on both sides do not believe any more that this thing is for real. The Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank not believe any more this thing will happen, that the Israeli army is really leaving, that the self-governing authority will be coming. It’s very simple: They don’t believe it.
“The moment this will happen on the ground, the whole picture will be different.”
Kidwa, a member of the Palestine National Council and the central committee of the PLO, said the PLO was not hiding that its goal was “to have a Palestinian state, with special relations with neighboring countries, obviously Jordan. It obviously will have strong economic relations with Israel, well.
“We believe that most Israeli leaders accept that, even if they don’t say it. And more and more, the Israeli public is accepting this notion and becomes even more vocal in support of such a notion.”
Kidwa predicted that “we find out later on that lot of things we disagreed upon, vociferously, probably do not make contentious realities.”
Kidwa was asked about the Palestinian position on Jerusalem.
“Look, we have a big disagreement here. We shouldn’t hide that. That’s basically why we postponed negotiations on it to a later stage,” he said.
“We should all think deeply in trying to find innovative solutions. It is very difficult for Palestinians and Arabs and maybe Christians in the whole world to swallow, for Jerusalem to remain as it is, Israeli and only Israeli. Maybe Israelis have big difficulties in the way we see it at this stage, that it should be Arab and Palestinian, nothing but Arab and Palestinian and the capital of our state.
“I’m almost certain new innovative ideas will arise that will satisfy everybody. It will not be easy, but it also reflects the importance of this issue and its complexity,” he said.
For the AZM, this meeting was a necessary, if not necessarily easy, visit to the brave new world of the Middle East.
“We still may have difficulties swallowing what is coming about,” said AZM President Seymour Reich, “but it is for the Israelis to make the decisions.”