Israeli, Palestinian sharpen their tongues in S.F. forum

At a forum in San Francisco, Hassan Abdel Rahman drew his imaginary sword early and shouted almost at the top of his lungs that the Palestinians will never settle for an agreement in which they do not share sovereignty over Jerusalem.

Daniel Shek, the consul general of Israel in San Francisco, later lambasted those who speak in "the language of violence and incitement and hatred."

He didn't mention Abdel Rahman by name, but the 85 people attending the World Affairs Council forum in San Francisco knew at whom his sharp words were pointed.

The two men served up numerous barbs at the April 6 forum, which was titled "Actions Toward a More Comprehensive Peace in the Middle East?"

The question mark proved to be essential, because after the one-hour session, the prospect of Mideast peace seemed as uncertain as ever.

"It was a very good exchange," said Jane Wales, the president of the World Affairs Council of Northern California, diplomatically describing the event a day later. "I would have loved for it to have gone longer."

Not that anything would have been settled, especially the thorny question of Jerusalem.

Abdel Rahman, who has represented the Palestinian Liberation Organization and the Palestinian Authority in the United States since 1994, insisted that Jerusalem must be an open city as well as the shared capital of both the Jewish and Palestinian states.

"There can be no borders in Jerusalem, no boundaries in Jerusalem," said the frequent guest on TV news programs and speaker at various conferences.

Shek seemed to prefer avoiding specific issues, instead focusing on the peace process and the staggering negotiations.

"It cannot be that every time that the Palestinians do not obtain full satisfaction from Israel, a major, cosmic crisis will be declared and talks will be cut off," Shek said. "In my book, when you negotiate and you encounter trouble, you meet twice as often as before…You don't walk out."

Asked directly about Jerusalem by an audience member, Shek said it "should remain the capital of the state of Israel. It has never been a capital for any other people."

Shek was a deputy director under Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres from 1986 to 1988 and was part of the Israeli delegation to the United Nations General Assembly in 1989.

Abdel Rahman was the deputy representative of the PLO to the United Nations from 1974 to 1982.

During his prepared talk, Shek stated that Palestinian leaders must understand that they are not only negotiating with Prime Minister Ehud Barak, but also with 6 million Israelis.

That left the door open for Abdel Rahman to shoot back during the question-and-answer period: "I have to also say that Mr. Barak is negotiating with 7 million Palestinians on one hand and 15 million Syrians on the other. The mistake committed by the Israelis is that they think they are the only ones with public opinions."

Shek, who has served in San Francisco since 1997, received a lot of heat from Abdel Rahman for the limits Israel puts on the movement of Palestinians and for the country's refusal to stop building settlements.

At one point, Shek was talking about Israel's willingness to "remove all the symbols of occupation" when Abdel Rahman interrupted him and loudly grumbled, "Like building settlements?"

Bristling, Shek said the settlements issue needs to be negotiated. "You cannot claim the characteristics of peace at a time when we are still in the middle of negotiations."

Abdel Rahman said angrily that Israel's "confiscation of land and the building of settlements…is a prescription for sabotaging the peace process."

He also talked extensively about the Palestinians' willingness to accept "23 percent of the historic land of Palestine" while letting Israel keep 77 percent.

"This is a compromise that is unprecedented in the annals of history" he said, "where a people who live under occupation, living as refugees, will concede 77 percent of…their national homeland."

Shek was nonplused. "My dear colleague, the 77 percent that you claim to give up is not rightfully yours," he said. "Most of it was given to Israel in the partition plan, which you rejected" 52 years ago.

Abdel Rahman said he wants Israel to acknowledge the basic human and political rights of the Palestinian refugees in the Holy Land. He also wants Israel to grant other Palestinians, who fled to many Arab countries in the late 1940s, the right to return to Israel and the West Bank.

"It is the right that every human being should enjoy," he said. "If Israel is capable of bringing in 600,000 or 700,000 Russians — who happen to be some of them Jews and some of them not — and there's a place for them, then I believe there should be a place for the people who were born there."

The panel also featured Rajendra Abyankar, the former Indian ambassador to Syria. The forum was taped for broadcast May 8 on KQED radio, 88.5 FM.

Andy Altman-Ohr

Andy Altman-Ohr was J.’s managing editor and Hardly Strictly Bagels columnist until he retired in 2016 to travel and live abroad. He and his wife have a home base in Mexico, where he continues his dalliance with Jewish journalism.