TOPICS > Politics

Ongoing Conflict

May 31, 2001 at 12:00 AM EDT
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RAY SUAREZ: Now to the Mideast perspectives of four authors. Milton Viorst is author of “In the Shadow of the Prophet: The Struggle for the Soul of Islam.” He’s now finishing his fifth book on the Middle East. Fouzi El-Asmar has written 13 books, the latest “To be an Arab in Israel.” Born in Haifa in what was then Palestine, he now holds both U.S. and Israeli citizenship; he’s also a syndicated columnist in the Middle East. Amy Wilentz wrote her first novel, “The Martyr’s Crossing,” after serving as The New Yorker magazine’s correspondent in Jerusalem; and Michael Bar-Zohar has written 30 fiction and nonfiction books; the latest is “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp.” He’s a former Labor Party member of the Israeli Knesset.

Well, guests, the calls for an immediate end to the violence and the violence have both continued virtually until the beginning of this program. When you look at today’s situation in the region, what do you see? Fouzi El-Asmar?

FOUZI EL-ASMAR, Author, “To be an Arab in Israel”: Well, I see still occupation. I mean, if there is an occupation, violence is going to continue. That’s legitimate resistance. We saw that all over the world. We saw that in France, French against the German; we saw Nigerian against French. We saw Tibet, what — fighting for their liberation. It is something that has to start with the occupation itself. So if you want to stop violence, you have to end the occupation.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Bar-Zohar?

MICHAEL BAR-ZOHAR, Author, “Beyond Hitler’s Grasp:” Well, first of all, I don’t accept the fact that this is resistance, when you carry out terrorist actions against civilians, women, children, old people; today they tried to bomb a high school; I don’t see that as a resistance. This is just killing for the sake of killing, not for anything else. The second point — and I accept what Mr. Fouzi said before — that occupation calls for resistance; exactly, that’s what we wanted and we’re trying until today to end.

Israel offered the Palestinians eight months ago 96 percent of the West Bank and Gaza, and the Palestinian state, and the part of Jerusalem; the reaction to this offer was not let’s make peace, but was a renewing of the Intifada, which the Palestinians are carrying out today against Jews for the sake of killing Jews. I don’t understand how this can bring them to any peace or any coexistence between two nations.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Wilentz?

AMY WILENTZ, Author, “The Martyr’s Crossing:” Well, if you think about it, you can remember that this Intifada began when Ariel Sharon was permitted by Ehud Barak’s government to march on the Dome of the Rock with about 1,000 Israeli troops, and that was the sort of igniter of this Intifada. I think when you look at what’s happening, you have to see Israeli aggression and Palestinian humiliation as the main emotions fueling this, and you have to remember that these are two groups of human beings fighting with each other, and they have to remember that too, and try to begin looking at each other instead of as the enemy as human beings with whom they must negotiate the way they used to before this Intifada.

RAY SUAREZ: Milton Viorst?

MILTON VIORST, Author, “In the Shadow of the Prophet.” I think we sometimes forget that we have two highly unequal parties in what we have called negotiations. The Israelis are extremely powerful; Palestinians over the course of the entire history of this conflict have been extremely unpowerful. And whether we like it or not, waging this kind of violence, and we can give it all kinds of names, and it’s not very attractive, but the fact is that what the Palestinians are able to do in this situation is to impose a certain amount of pain on Israel, which the Palestinians hope will cause them to genuinely negotiate.

If the two parties are equal, all we get is what the Israelis choose to bestow upon the Palestinians, and so far I think the Palestinians have indicated that it’s not enough; maybe not quite enough, maybe more than they ever received before in the last phase of the Barak government. But it wasn’t quite enough, and this, they hope, will equal the negotiating terms.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Bar-Zohar, why don’t you take up that point, that even though Israel is very strong, its strength has made it — paralyzed it at some points in this.

MICHAEL BAR-ZOHAR: For the simple reason that Israel does not want to use all its strength, it’s very easy to destroy a nation of people who are mostly unable to resist. That’s why we are trying our best to stop the violence and to start talking, and that’s why we are trying to explain to our Palestinian neighbors that we are stuck together here. I read a poem by a Palestinian poet, which is very funny, saying, one day we wake and there are no Jews, there is no Israel; and I saw a film on television about one day Israel is waking up, there are no Arabs, no Palestinians; this is not going to happen.

We are stuck with each other, so instead of fighting, let’s talk. And I was very surprised to hear before all kinds of reasons why this Intifada started. I heard before that it was because of Arik Sharon’s visit on the Temple Mount — first of all the George Mitchell commission definitely declared that that was not the reason; second, Israel is a democracy, and no government can prevent anybody, Jew, or Arab, or Christian, or Muslim to go on to the Temple Mount. But the question is not now what caused this or what caused that. The question is very simple: We are very strong, and all that we ask is don’t take our strength. We were the ones who initiated the peace process. We called the Palestinians at Oslo; we spoke, we proposed to make peace. We spoke; we gave them a large part of the West Bank. We proposed to give almost all of the rest of the West Bank, just let’s talk.

Violence is not going to bring us anywhere. Israel is very strong, and with all the pain for the 80 victims of the Intifada we have had, Israel will survive 80 victims. We are not going to be destroyed by that. So let’s stop the rhetoric and try to speak very simply in what direction can we find a settlement which would prevent as much as possible this kind of violence between two sides.

RAY SUAREZ: Fouzi El-Asmar, two people stuck with each other: How do they stop killing each other?

FOUZI EL-ASMAR: First of all, I disagree that Palestinians are killing for the sake of killing, killing Jews, because I don’t want to start with this kind of accusation. Otherwise, I will say why the five policemen were killed? That’s because they are Palestinians. The other thing, we can talk about anything they say, but look what happened since Madrid. And the Arab nations, not just the Palestinians, extend their hands. The Palestinians recognize Israel in 1988.

Until today, Israel did not accept or did not recognize the right for the Palestinians or for the self determination for the Palestinians. You have to start with the A, B. That’s the A, B. Now you are negotiating on what? There are resolutions in the United Nations, there are resolutions… there are agreements to withdraw. Now Mr. Barak himself said that he is ready to give 96 percent. But in “New York Times,” in his article, I think it was on the 14th of May, he said, no, I was thinking about 85 percent or something like that. What is this kind of percentage if you want peace? Just give 100 percent. If you want really to live, and Israel has to recognize that they are living in the Middle East.

They have no choice except to live with the Arabs and accept to make peace with the Arabs and with the Palestinians to start with. All this strength to destroy or not destroy, this is a myth. You can destroy. The Jews know that this will not work. They tried to destroy them; they did not. They did not succeed. So to talk about this with a respectable historical like Bar-Zohar, I really was very, very disappointed to hear that.

RAY SUAREZ: Amy Wilentz, how has the violence changed the texture of daily life in Israel and in the territories? What’s changed about the place now that this has been going on?

AMY WILENTZ: I think this is one thing that the Palestinians understand. When Mr. Bar-Zohar talks about how the Palestinians can go on with their acts of violence and it won’t matter to Israel, what we have to remember is the first Intifada did bring Israel basically to the negotiations table. But, of course, it’s changed the tenor of life in Israel. Israel tends to think of itself as a normal country where you can go to the grocery store and you can take your kids to school and it’s all normal, and where there might be some places that are threatened but mostly you can feel pretty confident walking around.

And now you can’t. In neighborhoods that I used to live in where I felt very secure there have been bombs going off. Places where we used to sit with our children, there have been bombs going off. But equally they have bombed, the Israelis have bombed Ramallah with fighter jets. It’s unthinkable for me, it’s hard for me to imagine how the fighter jet gets up and over there and has time to deliver a bomb. It’s so close to Jerusalem, Ramallah. And these are the neighbors of the people in Jerusalem. It’s just unthinkable that the Palestinians could be walking around Ramallah and have a fighter jet come and bomb them. Even if it’s well-targeted, clearly it can’t be that well- targeted.

RAY SUAREZ: Is this the result, Milton Viorst, of miscalculation on both sides? Did people misjudge their opponent in this confrontation?

MILTON VIORST: No, unfortunately, I don’t think there is miscalculation. I think Israel is driven by a highly ideological concept, having to do with holding on to the occupied territories, the territories that were taken in 1967. Not only is there a great deal of energy that’s applied to this, but there’s also politics — politics of every government is profoundly influenced by this issue.

The Palestinians, on the other hand, waited for a very long time in my judgment, after the Oslo agreement, after Madrid first and then the Oslo agreement, thinking that they had made a deal with the Israelis to form a Palestinian state in all of the territory. I mean, depending upon how you read it, but there is a strong implication in the United Nations Resolution 242 that Israel is obligated to give back the territory. That’s certainly the way the Palestinians understand it.

And now they have calculated, and this is not a miscalculation, they have calculated that they are going to have to suffer; they are going to have to go into a war and in this war they’re going to have to bear casualties and I think an awful lot of Palestinian mothers are prepared as mothers must be in any war to lose their sons. And they are losing their sons. And so I think that this is something that both sides understand very well. They’re not blundering into this at all.

RAY SUAREZ: Do you agree, Fouzi El-Asmar, that both sides fully understand what they were getting into at the beginning?

FOUZI EL-ASMAR: I think so. I think so. I think that the Palestinians, as Milton said, that they waited for a long time. They waited for the Israelis to move. They gave a lot of concession. They did implement the agreements. And what they got, they got nothing — neither from the Labor Party or from the Likud Party when they are in power. They got to a point that Israel is not serious for peace. Israel wants more settlement, and until now just two days ago, they… want to build more houses.

So the Palestinians, they found that this is a way to draw attention. And I agree that now the person in the street and Israel is worried. And maybe this worry will influence his government. But you know, if you want peace, if you want to talk, talk about peace and not talk about how many pieces of land I have to take from you, you want to live with me. You want to also make me satisfied to live, to live in peace, to make peace. But to come to a Zionist ideology, they wanted more land; they wanted more settlements; they wanted more power. And that’s not going to work.

RAY SUAREZ: Michael Bar-Zohar, think of a way that this ends; how do the two parties come to a place where at least the fighting stops?

MICHAEL BAR-ZOHAR: Well, the fighting will stop when both sides — and I speak mostly of the Palestinian side — will understand that by violence they are not going to get anything. I want to make one point clear, which is completely masked by what I heard until now. There is not violence on this side and violence on that side. In every case, the Israeli attacks have been as a reaction to the violence. And Israel for eight months is asking and pleading and stating that we want to stop just as the Palestinians, to stop fighting and go to negotiating table.

And here I’m being told by everybody, why we shouldn’t go to the negotiating table. What is all this about? It’s not violence against violence. It’s one side which says, let’s stop the violence and talk, and the other side attacks. And when the Israeli side reacts, we are attacked and we are criticized that our reactions are too strong. We don’t want to react. We don’t want to kill our neighbors, because as I said before, we are stuck with them. We are going to live with them for many centuries. You know, the Arabs, our neighbors, unfortunately, hate us cordially, and we are not crazy about them either. But we have no choice.

RAY SUAREZ: I’m going to have to stop it right there. It’s not a very optimistic note. But Michael Bar-Zohar, guests, thank you very much.