The headline is upbeat: "Palestinian Leader Has 60 Israelis to Lunch." The picture features Mahmoud Abbas alongside Amram Mitzna, a former head of the Labor Party. Both seem pleased. The article mentions individuals concerned with the Geneva Initiative, "a group of Israeli and Palestinian figures who negotiated an unofficial blueprint for a permanent peace accord in 2003." It also notes that individuals from the centrist Kadima Party attended, along with a member of "the conservative-leaning Likud Party; a former member of Parliament from Shas, the ultra-Orthodox Sephardic party; and some representatives of ultra-Orthodox news media."
"Abbas said that his leadership had ruled out violence and was committed to resolving the conflict through peace talks . . .We believe, ladies and gentlemen, in peace through negotiations only. . . He added that he has eight grandchildren, and that he wants a peaceful life for them. On the bus back to Jerusalem, Mr. Mitzna said the meeting proved to anyone who wants to know if there is a partner on the other side that there is one."
Good sign, or not good enough?
One should not doubt the good intentions of the Palestinian leader or the Israelis who accepted his invitation. However, it is fair to suggest that Abbas was not aiming at the targets appropriate to his intentions.
Amram Mitzna is a retired general who came to public attention for criticizing the management of the 1982 war in Lebanon, entered politics, had a term as mayor of Haifa, came on as a savior of the Labor Party but quit after losing a national election and in the process annoyed the party establishment, remained in the political desert for several years, and returned to a media-successful period as head of Yeruham. Yeruham is one of the poster places for down at the heels poor Jewish communities in the Negev. Those of you not familiar with Israel's social geography might think of Chelm or Fall River.
Now Mitna is considering offers from individuals in Labor, Meretz, and those who want him to create a new party. Meretz is at its low point of three Knesset Members, and those in the left wing of the Labor Party who may be interested in Mitzna account for perhaps six of the party's 13 member Knesset delegation. The geniuses who are asking Mitzna to create a new party would be seeking votes from the few left-wing Israelis still in the Meretz or Labor camps.
Participants in the Geneva Initiative come from the same sector of Israeli politics. Former Foreign Minister Yosi Beilin is the leading figure, and former head of the IDF general staff Amnon Lipkin-Shahak is also prominent (testifying the moderation that may prevail at the top of the IDF). The Initiative's web site features pictures of Palestinians who have signed on. The point is that Israel has partners, although some of the Palestinians have denied accepting concessions that Israeli participants claimed to achieve in their non-official discussions.
Those wanting more information on the Geneva Initiative, or inclined to join the European Union and NGO's in supporting its activities can click on http://www.geneva-accord.org/
No doubt there are Israeli Jews clustered around the Geneva Initiative or even further to the left. Amira Hass and Gideon Levy frequently make their mark in the daily Ha'aretz, and some of my academic colleagues add their voices. But political weight? They are nowhere near the capacity of the 74 member government coalition, even if we discount that number for the Labor MK's who are always talking about leaving.
The appeal of this segment of Israeli politics for Mahmoud Abbas is that he can invite prominent figures to lunch in Ramallah, speak about his peaceful intentions, and skip over the subject of Palestinian compromises on the sensitive subjects of refugees, borders, the Old City of Jerusalem, and the nagging issues of Gaza and Hamas. The New York Times may applaud his efforts and the willingness of Israelis to join the ceremony, but that is not the way to make peace with Israel.
The newspaper's internet edition appended a short story to the tail end of the article about the meeting. It reported that two Americans had been attacked and one killed by Arabs near the village of Mata. That is near the Valley of Elah, where David made an impression on history and the forehead of Goliath. Varda and I used to walk in the area with our now overaged and defunct hiking group. One of our group raised llamas in the village of Mata, and told us of having to be on guard against thieves from nearby Arab villages. The area has a bloody history as the site of the lamed hey massacre. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Convoy_of_35 We never felt threatened during our hikes, but we always went with a group that ranged from 15 to about 30, and some were armed.
One should neither exaggerate nor underestimate the significance of the recent killing. Something like that is not unusual. It may be no more important than similar tragedies of innocent outsiders who wander into the wrong neighborhoods of American or European cities. On the other hand, such incidents get attention from the Israeli media, add to the distrust of Arabs, and suspicion about the reliability of peace-speakers who claim to be their leaders.
The secret of peace lies somewhere in the Israeli government. Currently it is a bit to the right of center, but not beyond the reach of Palestinians willing to ratchet down from their uncompromising demands. The secret does not lie with Amram Mitzna, the Geneva Initiative, the American White House, the United Nations, or the European Union.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem