Former Shamir aide in S.F. debunks peace prospects

While the peace process plods on wearily, a longtime foreign policy analyst in Israel has stuck to his guns about what lies at the end of that road.

The only hope for a diplomatic breakthrough lies with "the Moshiach," Yosef Ben-Aharon said, somewhat in jest, during an interview in San Francisco.

Certainly, if Ben-Aharon's dismal forecast is any indication, then even the doves in Israel would resign themselves to militancy.

The former adviser to Yitzhak Shamir visited the Bay Area this week as part of a nationwide speaking tour on the peace process. Though he is a political conservative, Ben-Aharon does not wear a kippah or adopt any group's ideology as his own.

He is now retired from civil service, but said he continues to bend Benjamin Netanyahu's ear whenever he can.

Ben-Aharon began this tradition with Golda Meir and, after a tenure as director general of the prime minister's office under Shamir, lent his expertise on Syria and Arab-Israeli relations to Yitzhak Rabin.

During his visit here, he debunked the land-for-peace concept as unrealistic.

"You cannot fit two elements that have very little in common into an equation with the impression that they are exchangeable — You give me territory and I give you peace," he said. "One is concrete and the other is a frame of mind conditioned by whims.

"We are a little bit living in an illusion. We want peace for something that will not make peace within itself. [We are dealing with] a society that doesn't know the meaning of peace because every Arab state has a conflict with one another."

He said the concept of swapping a chunk of dusty desert for friendlier relations with Palestinians and neighboring Arab nations first appeared in the 1960s as a suggestion by the U.S. administration.

It was a bad idea from the start, he said.

The basis of Ben-Aharon's pessimism lies with his experience of Arab culture, he said. Fluent in Arabic, he has engaged in secret water negotiations with Syria and Jordan and attended other closed-door meetings with Mideast leaders as well as Israeli Arabs.

Even Israel's lukewarm peace with Jordan and Egypt has been tainted by more militant Arab groups, he said.

"We have found to our growing consternation that Egyptian intelligentsia doesn't want a thing to do with Israel. They boycott and slander Israeli businesses and are as hostile to Israel as they were before the [1978-79] peace treaty."

Ben-Aharon said he finds many Arabs to be enigmatic, making promises and showing moderation in international circles, then returning home to dismiss those promises and incite hatred against Jews.

Even Arafat, who has agreed to discourage terrorism in Israel, still sings the praises of suicide bombers and reneges on promises to keep apprehended terrorists in jail, he said.

"He visits schools and they sing the Palestinian anthem. On their special holidays, they burn the Israeli flag."

If Israel hands over "a sliver of land," it won't change such attitudes toward Israel, Ben-Aharon said.

Nevertheless, the Israeli conceded that a Palestinian state is inevitable, the only practical solution to living up to the promise of Oslo, a process he calls "making the best of a bad deal."

On a brighter note, Ben-Aharon admitted that working toward peace is not completely futile. "There is an element of peace there all the time. It is evasive and you have to pump it up and give it substance every once in a while," he said while pumping an imaginary tire in the air.

Ben-Aharon said little is left of Shamir's Likud Party ideology. He considers the current generation of Likudniks to be practical politicians who no longer beat the drums of dogma.

In a coalition, where "any issue can threaten to topple the government with a two-thirds vote of the Knesset," holding fast to an ideology is impractical.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.