Damage to peace not irreversible, experts say in S.F.

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Despite the rapidly eroding peace process in Israel, three Middle East experts contend that there is still hope for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

"Nothing is irreversible," said Joseph Alpher of the American Jewish Committee Israel/Middle East Office, during a panel discussion before 85 Bay Area leaders last Friday.

However, violence has erupted in the West Bank since then, raising the question of whether the panelists' scenario of a tenuous peace has been completely dismantled.

The 85 leaders assembled at the Merchants Exchange building in San Francisco for a reunion of sorts. All had visited Israel in the last 10 years as part of a joint program by Project Interchange and regional chapters of the Jewish Community Relations Council that sends opinion-shapers on educational trips to Israel.

The reunion — which was funded by the Miriam and Peter Haas fund, the Milton Meyer Trust and others — was the first of its kind.

"People come back looking at the news from the Middle East in ways that they didn't before and retaining a tremendous interest," said Rabbi Doug Kahn, executive director of the JCRC. "We wanted to keep them in touch with the current issues."

At the reunion, Kahn joked, "We have said to each one of you, `You are going to Israel at a truly historic time.' And you know what? It's always true."

In addition to Alpher, the panel included Elias Botto, a Palestinian exile from Jerusalem and a participant in the local Jewish-Palestinian Living Dialogue Group, and William Brinner, chairman emeritus of U.C. Berkeley's Middle Eastern studies department.

The three panelists agreed that both the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority have engaged in bad-faith maneuvering since the Oslo Accords were signed.

Netanyahu, for example, has expanded Jewish settlements in the territories and stalled on peace negotiations. Arafat has been accused of ordering the murder of Palestinians who sold land to Jews and the abduction of at least one Palestinian journalist who had criticized him, Alpher said.

The maneuverings have alienated both societies from their respective leaders but in different directions, he said. Seventy-five percent of Israelis now support a land-for-peace settlement. Before Netanyahu's election, Israelis were split 50-50.

In the territories, however, recent polls indicate that Palestinians have become disillusioned about such a settlement. Having grown accustomed to Israeli democratic freedoms, they want a government modeled on the Jewish state. But Arafat's corrupt autocracy and the peace-process stalemate have dashed hopes for a better livelihood under autonomy, Alpher said.

He maintains that Netanyahu cannot both continue his obligations under the Oslo Accords and keep his government intact.

"Either the peace process will stop or the government will stop," Alpher speculated. "I would wager that the Israeli government will not last its full four years."

Botto said he still entertains the idea of welcoming Jewish friends at his Jerusalem home but, like other Palestinians, he is skeptical about the peace process.

"I would like to ask Mr. Netanyahu what kind of peace he is talking about — P-E-A-C-E or P-I-E-C-E? If it is shalom or salaam, then most Palestinians would agree."

The San Francisco activist said negotiations can continue only if Jewish settlement of the occupied territories stops, if negotiators find some positive things to talk about and if Israel helps Palestinians improve their economy.

Brinner rounded off the panel discussion by warning that other forces besides those that appear regularly in headlines are undermining the peace process.

Ultra-religious Israelis, he said, have become ardent nationalists since discovering that the political system "is a wonderful cow for milking." While they are a political minority, they have Netanyahu's ear when it comes to settling the occupied territories, he said.

Among Palestinians, he said, Islamic fundamentalists offer another minority viewpoint with a mighty roar. In most Arab populations, the anti-Zionist fundamentalists garner support from the mainstream by providing health care, education and other social services frequently overlooked by governments.

"Israel provides much less money for Arab education than Jewish education, and the Islamic radicals again fill in the gap," he said.

Brinner agreed with Botto that a lasting peace would require Israel to invest in the Palestinian state.

The professor concluded his report with the only solution offered all day. He recounted that Jordanian Crown Prince Hassan, on a visit to the United States, had claimed that Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon were too tiny to fight over.

The prince suggested that the countries unite to become a larger federation. Brinner recalled him joking, "And I would be willing to be king."

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.