Oct 2014

Vertigo Again

I was brought up in Haifa, Israel, a symbol city of Jewish-Arab co-existence. During all my adolescent life I used to meet with Palestinians, either on personal occasions or within my military capacity.

In late September 1996, I was leading the Israeli team of the Regional Security Committee (RSC) in the West Bank. After almost a year of mutual efforts to implement the security annex of the Peace accord, a series of violent events suddenly erupted in the occupied territories and I felt that despite our efforts peace would slip away.

“Why did you open fire?,” I dared to ask Ribkhi Arafat, my Palestinian counterpart, a Fatah-PLO officer, who I assume was not less shocked by the vicious events than me. “Orders came right from Yasser Arafat’s office,” he admitted, “I really have nothing to say…sorry…no one could stop this,” he added while his eyes fell down. 18 dead bodies on our side and 80 on theirs completely changed the calm atmosphere that we had worked so hard and long to create. 

From day one both sides, Israelis and Palestinians alike, felt that this time we would succeed and both did everything possible to bridge the ideological and territorial gaps. But now, with the dead bodies in front of us, the volume of hatred, suspicion and hostility between the two parties was bigger than ever before. Now we looked down an abyss and we felt that we had vertigo. 

Even so, that 1996 conversation with my counterpart was not my crucible moment, the one that changed my standpoint on the peace process. At that point I still believed that peace was achievable. The meeting with Ribkhi was the easy one. 

Unexpectedly, the following meeting was the smash in my face. Everything I knew about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not prepare me for this incident. My counterpart’s superior, a Palestinian Brigadier General who worked in Arafat’s office and was very close personally to the Ra’is (“head”), was very nervous on that day. He lit one cigarette with another and started an unstoppable monolog: “Palestine belongs to us,” he said, “and as such, nobody, neither Arafat nor any other leader, will ever be able to compromise on this land.” I felt helpless. “Why?” I asked, since the Oslo Accord was exactly about this compromise. “Look,” he said and began smoking another cigarette, “in the 1920’s the superpowers (Great Britain and France) kept their promise and helped the Arab countries of Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Iraq to exercise their independence. In the 40’s, another three Arab states became independent: Transjordan, Syria and Lebanon. He paused and waved his two hands and said very loudly, “Hey, what about us, the Palestinians? Has anybody asked any of those Arab leaders to share their land with the Jews?” “Do you mean,” I said, “that this is the end of the peace process?” He thought for a moment and then responded: “No, I won’t say that this is the end of the process, but there will never be a real, historic and signed compromise on Palestine. The Palestinian land is sacred and will never be shared with others.” Again for the second time, I felt helpless.

I retired from The Israel Defense Forces at the beginning of 1998 and started a new career in Israeli academia. This high-ranking Palestinian officer passed away. A new generation of Palestinian-Israeli security cooperation and coordination has been born and works together very closely even as more violent flare-ups, more deaths, more wars, continue to spiral…Land compromise has not been achieved yet. I hope it will be done in the next round, after the recovery from vertigo.

Dr. Moshe Elad, a Wexner Israel Fellowship alum (Class 6), has taught at the departments of Political Sciences and History of the Middle East at Western Galilee College in Akko since 2005, and has also served simultaneously as Researcher and Projects Director at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research at the Technion, Haifa. Moshe is a retired Colonel from the IDF. Most recently, he was the Head of the Regional Coordination Office to the Palestinian Authority. He had also served as Governor of the Bethlehem District and prior to that as Governor of Jenin District, both in the West Bank. Moshe is also a frequent commentator on the Israeli-Palestinian relationship for Israeli media in Hebrew, Arabic, and English and can be reached at eladmbs@netvision.net.il.