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Their man in Washington
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Their man in Washington

It’s remarkable that this conversation is remarkable,” said Steven M. Cohen, in introducing a top Palestinian diplomat to a roomful of Jewish leaders and students. Cohen, who directs the Berman Jewish Policy Archive at NYU Wagner, had invited Maen Rashid Areikat, the chief PLO representative to the United States, to deliver a lunchtime talk March 2 at the school in lower Manhattan.

I know what he meant: It’s 20 years since the Madrid Conference, 20 years during which even right-wing governments in Israel have come to accept the PLO as their interlocutors, and it’s still unusual for American Jews to hear directly from their spokespeople (over a kosher lunch, yet).

The audience for Areikat’s talk, by my quick count, leaned Left. They listened politely, sometimes appreciatively and sometimes skeptically, as the American-educated Areikat scored Israel’s settlement policy and urged the Netanyahu government to make the sort of concessions that will give Palestinian leaders credibility with their own people.

“We need to empower those on the Palestinian side who believe in coexistence and the two-state solution,” said Areikat.

Naturally, his view of the conflict is one-sided, although he did acknowledge Palestinian as well as Israeli mistakes in implementing the Oslo Accords. He ticked off examples of the “extremism” that aborted the process: Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination, the “campaigns of violence and counter-violence,” and the suicide attacks carried out by “certain Palestinian factions.”

In the wake of Oslo’s failure and the bloody second Intifada, Areikat said, Palestinians have had to rethink their overall approach. Most of all — he emphasized this more than once — the Palestinian leadership has to deliver on its promises to its own people. Those include an end to occupation, and an independent Palestinian state.

And he put the onus on Israel for imposing “facts on the ground” and building “illegal settlements.” “Why are we so opposed to settlements?” he said. “Every day ordinary Palestinians drive on the roads and see houses being built on the same land that Israel is expected to turn over to Palestinians. It doesn’t take a genius” to understand his people’s impatience.

He was especially frustrated that Israel is not only expanding Jewish neighborhoods in the West Bank, but allowing Jews to move into Arab neighborhoods as well.

For Areikat, extending a settlement freeze — a “breather,” he called it — has an undeniable logic: “Why not create additional time to try to achieve something of significance to both peoples to end this conflict?”

As for the common complaint that “Israel has no partner for peace,” Areikat was dismissive, saying the PA has offered concrete proposals on security and borders, and has gotten no reply from the Israelis. “Nothing at all,” he said. “Zilch.”

Areikat’s remarks came as the death toll in Libya topped 2,000, and hundreds of protestors continued to rally in Yemen. If there is a link between the Arab upheaval and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he said, it is this: Palestinians “feel we have always been subjected to humiliation by Israelis and can never stand up to the Israelis’ intransigence and repression.”

Whether that was a a warning or a threat, Areikat deftly moved on. “We continue to be committed to the two-state solution,” he said. “I don’t know what is the alternative except to preserve the national identities of both peoples. Time is of the essence. The [regional turmoil] should be an incentive to move forward and not sit back and wait for things to settle down.”

If any of the Jews in the room disagreed on that last point, nobody said so. Close your eyes and you could well imagine Areikat as a member of Israel’s center-left — opposed to further settlement expansion, eager for a peace deal, looking for a way out of the occupation.

But you have to open your eyes, too. Areikat’s answers on the return of Arab refugees were vague, his explanation for rejecting a return to direct negotiations unpersuasive. Addressing concerns that a Palestinian state would join Gaza and southern Lebanon as just another launching pad for attacks on Israel, Areikat said, “Why would we? What reason do I have? We tried the military struggle and know it is counterproductive to our national interests.

“If we deal with all the issues, we will resolve all the reasons for continued conflict.”

Halevai, as they — it should only come to pass. But Areikat was asking his Jewish listeners to assume a level of trust that quite frankly the PLO — and especially Hamas — haven’t begun to earn.

I left thinking there should be more opportunities like this for American Jews to hear from Palestinian leadership — it’s harder to demonize someone when you can shake hands and discuss your disagreements face to face. If you’re committed to two states, you’ll probably find more to agree on than not.

But make no mistake — even as these sorts of conversations can lead you to imagine what it might take to end the conflict, you can never forget the extremism that crushes hope. Optimism is born in dialogue, and dies in action.

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