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Reaching across the divide

Dear Salameh, Your last letter reached me a short while before I started an interview with the new Minister Ghaleb Majadele. I was pleased to read him the warm words you wrote about his appointment as the first Arab minister in an Israeli government. Like many in the Israeli peace camp, I also hope that …

Dear Salameh,

Your last letter reached me a short while before I started an interview with the new Minister Ghaleb Majadele. I was pleased to read him the warm words you wrote about his appointment as the first Arab minister in an Israeli government. Like many in the Israeli peace camp, I also hope that this event portends not just a change in the status of the Arab citizens of Israel, but will also lead to a substantial improvement in our relations with our Palestinian neighbors.

Similarly, in order to achieve a profound and real co-existence with the non-Jewish population that lives within the Green Line, we need to reach a just and mutually agreed settlement with the Palestinian people who live in the occupied territories. As an individual who identifies with all peoples under the yoke of a foreign occupation, I can sympathize with the major conflict experienced by the Arab citizens of Israel. How can one expect them to identify with their State, as long as it occupies their people?

As members of the Jewish people that were educated to stand in solidarity with persecuted Jews who have fallen victim to prejudice because of their origins, we must respect the solidarity that the Israeli Arabs demonstrate toward their brothers and sisters who are imprisoned in a tunnel with no exit and who cannot see the light.

My problem, and, according to your last letter, dear Salameh, this seems to bother you too, is the lack of solidarity of the Arab leadership with the Palestinian people. Hafez Assad s conversation with the Arab official that you mentioned reflects, more than anything else, this brutal steadfastness towards people that he and other Arab leaders describe in their speeches as our brothers .

You know that I am not amongst those who claim that the State of Israel behaves fairly towards its Palestinian neighbors. I repeatedly condemn my government on its missing the opportunity concerning the Arab Peace Initiative of March 2002. However, the Israeli public will choose a leadership that will advance such initiatives, especially on the Palestinian track, only once it is convinced that the Arab partners will make similar efforts. Primarily we, the Israelis, need to be convinced that there is a solution to the refugee problem.

Nothing is more likely to deter Israelis than the expression right of return . In their eyes, these words are a synonym for the destruction of the Jewish state. Politicians on both sides know that it is inconceivable to strip a sovereign state, such as Israel, from its authority to decide whom to accept as its citizens. New cities have been built on the villages in which the refugees lived.

Children and grandchildren of Jewish refugees from Europe were born in houses that remained standing. Anyone in their right mind knows that the solution to the Palestinian refugee problem is not to create a Jewish refugee problem. The solution can be found in a peace process that is based on two states and the absorption of most of the Palestinian refugees in their new state.

Dear Salameh, I also have a story about a conversation with an Arab leader about the interests of the Palestinian people. More than six years ago, a short while after the collapse of the Camp David summit between Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat, I visited the Muqataa in Ramallah in order to interview the Chairman. I asked him why hundreds of thousands of Palestinian children need to spend their lives in wretched refugee camps until he is satisfied that the right of return has been included in a peace agreement – a right that even he knows these refugees will not be able to realize.

I asked what these wretches had to do with the argument about the exact route of the border between Israel and Palestine. I asked why he does not call on the rich Arab states and on Israel to declare without delay a Marshall Plan to rehabilitate the refugees. Arafat muttered in his usual way Why not? Why not? As you know, nothing happened.

The main and sometimes only, contribution of Arab regimes to the 1948 refugees and those displaced from their homes in 1967, who are crowded into wretched camps, ends up as lip service. Instead of dealing with this terrible humanitarian problem, they prefer to perpetuate it so that they can accuse Israel.

The restrictions that the Lebanese government has placed on the refugees it has hosted for almost 60 years, including the prohibition of employment in countless professions, is reminiscent of race laws from another millennium in another continent. Israel cannot turn its back on the problem that arose as a direct or indirect result of the conflict between the Zionist movement and the national Palestinian movement. Just as we, the Jewish people, recognized our responsibility to the Jewish refugees from Russia and Ethiopia, we need to demonstrate generosity to our Palestinian refugee neighbors.

Dear Salameh, here is my answer to your question about whether I prefer to advance the Palestinian track or the peripheral one. I suggest that first we find a solution to the refugee problem. That will pave the way for all the tracks. What do you think?

Akiva Eldar is senior columnist for Ha aretz in Tel Avi (eldar@haaretz.co.il). This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at www.commongroundnews.org. Copyright permission is granted for publication

Topics: Wael Ghonim

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