Debate over Oslo Accords heats up during annual Israel Education Day

In a Sunday debate over the credibility of the Oslo Accords, Jonathan Kessler presumably represented the left.

But Kessler, who runs a Washington-based consulting firm on Mideast diplomacy, started off by acknowledging his anxieties over the Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement.

"We have the right to remain skeptical and ambivalent," he said.

Morton Klein, president of the right-leaning Zionist Organization of America and a forceful critic of Oslo, likewise began with the unexpected by asserting his desire for the accords to succeed.

"I hope and pray with all my heart that Oslo will bring about a lasting peace between Arabs and Israelis," he said.

Despite these caveats, Kessler and Klein quickly got into the fray of debate.

Kessler attacked his opponent's position on the accords as mired in past rhetoric. Quoting a Klein foe, Kessler compared the ZOA chief to "the last Japanese soldier" — passionate but irrelevant.

Klein didn't resort to personal snipes against Kessler, reserving his attacks for the integrity of Arabs. He compared Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat to a child who behaves before Chanukah, then acts "abominably" once the presents are opened. Though Klein said he wasn't drawing any comparison, he also referred to Arafat and Adolf Hitler in one remark.

So went "Oslo: Hope or Hoax: Can a Real Peace Come to the Middle East?" The hourlong debate, before an audience of 250 on U.C. Berkeley's campus, kicked off the 15th annual Israel Education Day.

KQED radio host Michael Krasny served as moderator, and Israel's regional consul, Eran Etzion, offered opening remarks. The Israel Center of the Jewish Federation of the Greater East Bay sponsored the daylong event, which also included workshops, information tables and a rock concert.

During their debate, Kessler and Klein diverged on a range of topics, such as a future without the Oslo Accords and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's embracing of the agreements.

For Klein, the ultimate question is whether Israel should believe that Arabs who once called for the destruction of Israel have changed in their hearts. His answer: a resounding no.

Klein offered a series of examples of what he considers Arab duplicity since the Oslo Accords were signed on the White House lawn in September 1993. Among Klein's examples:

*Arafat has repeatedly told Arab audiences the Oslo Accords are temporary and part of his plan to destroy Israel. He has compared the accords to a truce that Islam's founder Mohammed made with an enemy tribe and broke soon after. All current Palestinian Authority maps present Palestine as including all of Israel.

*Whenever Arafat condemns terrorism, he offers only general statements. He doesn't specifically mention Hamas or Islamic Jihad attacks against Jews because he distinguishes those as acts as by "freedom fighters."

*In a recent speech in Bethlehem, Arafat called for "jihad," Arabic for Islamic holy war. He has named a square in Jericho for Yehiya Ayash, a terrorist and master bombmaker known as "The Engineer" who was assassinated last year.

*The Palestinian Authority repeatedly has violated the Oslo Accords. It has refused to comply with any of Israel's 27 requests to hand over suspected criminals, including terrorists. It has not collected thousands of illegal weapons as promised. It has not rewritten the Palestinian covenant calling for the destruction of Israel.

The pressure on Israel to give up more land is only making Israel smaller and more vulnerable to war and terrorism, said Klein. If Israel gives up the entire West Bank, the country will be nine miles wide at one point.

"I continue to be worried," he said.

Kessler questioned the accuracy of Klein's many references to Arab statements. Klein defended his sources as "responsible" newspapers or taped speeches.

Yet Kessler didn't specifically refute Klein's references to Arab statements. He instead noted the positive impact of the accords and also cited acts by Israelis that ran contrary to the Oslo spirit. Among his examples:

*Both Labor and Likud, Israel's largest political parties, have accepted the Oslo Accords. Netanyahu, whose brother was killed by terrorists, will now embrace Arafat and call him "partner and friend."

*Arabs aren't the only ones who praise acts of violence. Streets in Jerusalem still bear the names of Jews who blew up Arab buses in pre-state Israel. Though not government sanctioned, supporters of Baruch Goldstein have set up a monument at his gravesite. Goldstein murdered 29 Muslim worshippers in a Hebron's Tomb of the Patriarchs in 1994.

*Former Prime Minister Yitzhak Shamir recently attended a reunion of pre-state underground freedom fighters. Though not a government group, the official stationary used for the Irgun event contained its original map of an Israel that spread from the Mediterranean Sea through Jordan.

*Before Oslo, Israel suffered bloody wars and thousands of terror attacks. Kessler wondered what alternative Klein envisions to the Oslo Accords.

"Is he really suggesting we go back to the old days?" Kessler said.

Klein replied that the status quo may be better than giving land to "hostile Arabs."

"Some problems are not solvable."