Mideast watchers debate peace tactics, nuclear policy

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Three experts on the Middle East said Tuesday night that Prime Minister Ehud Barak's peace process is fraught with risk and bound by the lessons of history.

In a discussion held at the Jewish Community Federation offices in San Francisco, all three panelists cited the past as an accurate barometer of the future.

Joseph Alpher, the director of the American Jewish Committee's office in Israel, said that only by examining the shared narratives of their past can Arabs and Jews achieve reconciliation.

The other two panelists also spoke about history, but with slightly different takes.

The consul general of Egypt, Hagar El Islambouly, was disturbed that Egypt's contributions to the peace process have been historically overlooked.

And the consul of Israel, Eran Etzion, speculated that Syrian President Hafez Assad is reluctant to come to the bargaining table because he fears being assassinated like Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat.

The lively discussion, titled "The Arab-Israeli Peace Process — the Barak Era," was sponsored by Open Circle, the AJCommittee's Young Leadership Forum.

Much as the peace process itself, the discussion ventured all over the map.

On the topic of nuclear proliferation, Alpher said that the Middle East was being threatened by the emerging nuclear partnership of Iran and Iraq.

"This may produce a crippling effect on the peace process," Alpher said. "Radical countries can use their nuclear arsenals as blackmail, forcing the inclusion of groups like Hamas into the peace process."

Islambouly wondered why the discussion of nuclear proliferation always seem to start and stop with Islamic countries.

"The talks concerning nuclear weapons in the Middle East are usually fruitless because it is assumed that Israel must be excluded from limitations," she said.

Even more contentious were the discussions involving the final status of Jerusalem.

Islambouly said Jerusalem is perhaps the most integral part of the peace process.

Alpher and Etzion, however, seemed to think otherwise.

"The state of Israel has never had any intention of monopolizing religious holy land," Alpher said. "Look at Bethlehem, for example. This is the holiest of Christian sites, which was ceded to [Yasser] Arafat's control with no strings attached. I think something similar can be worked out with parts of Jerusalem."

Etzion offered an equation as his answer to the Jerusalem question. "If nine-tenths of the peace process is completed, it will be much easier to discuss the last one-tenth," he said.

All three of the panelists agreed, either outright or tacitly, that the peace process is being better served with Barak in charge.

Islambouly said that the process has begun to "restore the trust that faded away during the [Benjamin] Netanyahu era."

Alpher concurred, but said the peace talks were lent a lot of credence when the most "right-wing president in Israel's history was forced to negotiate."

Alpher rattled off some statistics that demonstrated the willingness of the general Israeli population to embrace peace.

"Eighty percent of Israelis acknowledge the inevitability of a Palestinian state," Alpher said. "And 50 percent of Israelis strongly advocate it."

Etzion wasn't sold on those exact numbers, but he did agree with the general theory.

"Ehud Barak and the people of Israel are willing and eager to move forward," Etzion said. "What we must remember is that none of the principal leaders in Middle East is getting any younger. And with the information age upon us, and with the acceleration of the nuclear arms race, the time to act is now."

Etzion said the pressure is on.

"The countries of the Middle East do not want to be left behind as the rest of the world makes progress," he said.

When asked at the end of the discussion what will finally signal the arrival of a comprehensive and lasting peace, the panelists were momentarily stumped.

After several moments of silence, Alpher drew much applause when he said everyone will know peace has finally arrived "when [political consultant] James Carville boards another plane to hammer out the details."