On the Issues Episode 36: Hillel Schenker

I recently sat down with Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, to discuss recent events in Gaza.

Hillel Schenker is co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a Jerusalem-based independent English-language quarterly, initiated and maintained by a group of prominent Israeli and Palestinian academics and journalists. It aims to shed light on, and analyze freely and critically, the complex issues dividing Israelis and Palestinians. Schenker served for 13 years as editor of New Outlook, the Israeli peace monthly founded in the spirit of Martin Buber’s philosophy of dialogue, that served as a vehicle for understanding Israeli-Arab affairs and as a catalyst for dialogue and initiatives for peace. He has written for The Nation, Los Angeles Times, L.A. Weekly, Tikkun, Israel Horizons, In These Times, the Israeli-Hebrew-language press and many other print and electronic outlets. He was an activist and co-founder of the Peace Now movement and has served for many years as spokesperson for the Israeli branch of International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War. He is an International Advisory Board member of the Global Majority center for non-violent conflict resolution based at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.

Below is the full transcript of the episode, lightly edited for clarity.

Alon Ben-Meir: I am Alon Ben-Meir, and welcome to “On the Issues.” My guest today is Hillel Schenker, co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, a Jerusalem-based independent English-language quarterly. You can find his full bio on the page for this episode.

Anyway, so I thought—this is not question and answers, this is a conversation. We’re going to talk I think about Hamas, what do you think?

Hillel Schenker: We can talk about Hamas and about what is happening right now in Gaza. I think we cannot avoid talking about this.

ABM: It’s about exactly what’s happening in Gaza, you know. And I wrote a piece, I don’t know if you had a chance to see it, about the situation.

HS: Yeah, I saw it. This is the latest piece that you just wrote.

ABM: The latest piece, yeah. Well, you know more or less my position on it. So, you read my take on it, and my take is basically, I always call it facing the inevitable, or facing reality. That you can’t change short of catastrophic events. Gaza is Gaza, is by and large pretty independent, its own territory, basically its own governing authority. Notwithstanding the effort to unite with the PA, all of these efforts failed miserably in the past. The question that— So my focus is Israel versus Hamas. And here the situation in Gaza, what to do about it, given the reality on the ground.

HS: Yeah.

ABM: And so all of these disturbances and the demonstration near the fence in the border, it’s no surprise to anyone, given the miserable, horrifying conditions that exist in Gaza. Now, where do we go from here? You know this is really what boggles the mind from my perspective is that, be that Netanyahu or anyone, and Ismail Haniyeh and Sinwar himself. If they sit down for a moment and begin to think in terms of, OK, where do you go from here? Where do you go from here?

HS: Well first of all, what we do see is a terrible humanitarian crisis. There are almost 2 million people in abject poverty, with sometimes barely four hours of electricity a day and water which is polluted. There was just today, I was reading that there was a delegation from the Israeli Physicians for Human Rights in Gaza, which now—it was composed entirely of Palestinian Israeli citizens, because they wouldn’t let Jewish Israelis go in—and they are saying that the medical facilities, it is just catastrophic. They are living, and so therefore it is not surprising that there is this tremendous frustration and that there is this readiness to respond to some type of protest action, which is what we’re seeing now. Now Hamas bears a large part of the responsibility obviously, because they are the government.

ABM: Absolutely.

HS: But they are not the only ones, you know. On the one hand, they won the last Palestinian elections back in what—

ABM: 2006.

HS: 2006, primarily because Fatah was perceived as being corrupt, and they were presumably clean and honest, et cetera. They are as corrupt as Fatah. They make money out of the tunnels, they make money out of everything. They don’t do what is necessary for the people of Gaza. So we know today for example that in the latest public opinion polls – you know Professor Khalil Shikaki at the Palestinian Center for Policy Research in Ramallah, who is the most admired and respected independent researcher, says that both the Hamas and the Fatah leadership have lost the confidence of the people in Gaza and in the West Bank. Now. But going back to Gaza, it’s not only, Israel left but still has a siege, it still controls the borders, land, sea.

ABM: Well there’s a blockade, I mean, yeah.

HS: But Egypt has responsibility as well, because Egypt has also created a blockade on its side of the border because they are afraid of extremist Islamists going into northern Sinai and meeting up with the ISIS people.

ABM: But you see Hillel, this is the reality. You articulated as best as anyone can be. The question is not withstanding all of this, what do we do? That is, this isn’t enough. This is going to explode. This time it’s exploding in the form of demonstrations and is going to continue probably, I think this is the last Friday?

HS: No, no, it’s going to continue until May 14. It’s going to be six weeks of demonstrations.

ABM: Yes.

HS: With the peak being every Friday, because that’s the Muslim holy day and so therefore that’s when there’s the particular motivation. May 14th in the general calendar. That’s the day of Israeli independence seventy years ago, but for them it’s the Nakba, the disaster. So that will be the peak.

ABM: Yeah.

HS: Yeah.

ABM: That will be the peak. My thinking, you know, had the Israelis and the Palestinians been smart enough, maybe to use the occasion and say wait a minute, let’s look back for a moment and see where we were, where we are, and where would you go from here. Just give it some thought. Again, given what you can change or what you cannot change.

HS: First of all, I want to make a comment about the nature of the protests. They call the protest the March of Return, which I think is a mistake.

ABM: Terrible mistake, terrible mistake.

HS: The Palestinians claim this is to remind everybody that there is a refugee problem. But it does two things which are totally counterproductive. One is it creates an illusion among the Gazans—the poor, suffering two million Gazan people—that maybe the answer is to return to their former villages in Israel. That is totally delusional. It is not possible. And so using that title actually creates a false illusion on their part, as if this is an answer. Now also with the Israeli public, if they had called this the protest for freedom, the protest for independence from the current tragic situation, it might have a possibility of resonating with the Israeli public. But March of Return is very problematic.

ABM: It was the worst thing they could have done. And I know if you read the article, I said exactly the point, what right of return? I mean, there is a question of technicalities. Well the second mistake they also made, how could you demand the lifting of the blockade, and at the same time call for Israel’s destruction? What government in Israel, even the extreme left, Meretz or even left of Meretz—

HS: No, no nobody accepts that, but—

ABM: No one is going to accept the fact that you lift the blockade and hope for the best.

HS: No, but we should still also give them some credit, even though they haven’t really done very good public relations for it. When Sinwar became the leader instead of Haniyeh, what happened is that he I think does understand that you have to come to terms with reality, and that was the reason for—they tried to change the charter, they tried to signal the idea that they would accept a Palestinian state within the ’67 lines.

ABM: This is true, but Hillel, you know, I’ve read it. I’m sure you read the new charter. And the new charter still calls for Israel’s destruction. I mean, they tried to sort of color it slightly, but it’s still there. What I’m saying to them when I have this opportunity to talk to any of them, I’m saying look. Can you see, can you imagine possibly Israel, destroying Israel in any shape or form, at any time in the future? That’s not going to happen.

HS: Of course not. And they understand that, I assume.

ABM: I tell the Israelis, and they know, and they said no. And I said to the Israelis, do you think you’re going to wipe out Hamas? You going to wipe out the Palestinians? That’s not going to happen either. So when I speak about reality, this is what I’m talking about. So then, you have to begin by changing the public narrative at least. It is exactly your right. When they come up with the March of Return, well, what return? And there’s another technical point that I tried to point out to them. I asked them the following, Hillel. Do you consider Gaza to be part of Palestine? They said yeah, absolutely. Do you consider the West Bank to be part of Palestine? They said absolutely. OK. Then the Palestinians who you call refugees in Gaza or in the West Bank, are they refugees or are they internally displaced? Who can call them a refugee when they are still in their home country? Right? So you are internally displaced, you are not a refugee. Now you are talking about two and a half million so-called refugees who actually live, as a matter of fact, two thirds of the Palestinians in Gaza consider themselves refugees. Or a million and a half. And nearly a million and a half in the West Bank as well. They consider themselves refugees when in fact they are internally displaced.

I said, if you begin to make this kind of distinction, what’s going to happen? I am like many like myself, when I go to Europe and they ask me, what do we do? I said well, why don’t you begin to think in terms of establishing funds for resettlement and/or compensation of the Palestinian refugees, and make it clear to the Palestinians, here we have five billion dollars or ten billion dollars waiting to be used. If you begin to start to think in realistic terms of resettlement and/or compensation, because— And then accept the reality that you are already in your homeland. You are not outside your homeland. That’s one point. And the second point I said, if you really want a significant change, and I think Israel, even Lieberman said, please correct me Hillel if I’m wrong. Lieberman said he wants them surrendering their arms. Well, that’s not going to happen. Surrendering the arms, I mean giving up their arms for them is a surrender. It’s almost unconditional surrender. They’re not going to go for it. Call for renouncing violence. That’s it. Don’t ask for recognition of Israel now, don’t ask for anything else. Just renounce violence and show us that you are renouncing violence by stopping building tunnels and procuring and/or manufacturing weapons. So that’s what I’ve been trying to explain to them, this is what needs to be done.

HS: Let me tell you. I just came from three days at the J Street conference.

ABM: Yeah.

HS: And two observations from different sessions that took place there. One was there was a session about the future Palestinian leadership run by young Palestinians who were out there. And you know, none of them agree with Hamas’ ideology. But they all say Hamas is a part of, what can we do. They are half of the people. A future Palestinian state has to include Gaza, the West Bank, and East Jerusalem. But there are certain conditions that have to be met. The fact is they are not members of the PLO and they want to become part of the PLO, the Palestinian Liberation Organization. And what these Palestinians were saying, if they want to become part of the PLO, then they have to accept the basic resolutions that the PLO came to, which include number one recognition of the existence of the state of Israel. Number two, the decision to support only nonviolent resistance and not violent resistance. If you want to become a part of the PLO, which they want to do, so they are saying this is what we are demanding of them. Now, the second very interesting comments were in Bernie Sanders’ presentation. Bernie Sanders made a very powerful presentation, which I would recommend everyone look at, I’m sure it will be uploaded onto the Internet, in which he criticized Hamas very strongly for exactly the things that you are saying. He also held Israel responsible for maintaining the siege and not helping to rebuild Gaza. We all believe that there should be something like a Marshall Plan, which is what helped to rebuild Europe after World War Two. But then he made a particular point of the responsibility of the wealthy Arab states, the Gulf states. And he was pointing out the fact that MBS, the Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, just bought, he contributed 50 million dollars to the reconstruction of Gaza but he spent 500 million dollars on a new yacht. And the comment was all of the region has to participate, has to help take responsibility for rebuilding Gaza. And the Hamas people, they have a responsibility to declare what you are saying.

ABM: Yeah, I mean this is exactly the point. You know that is, if you and I were to sit down and fashion a solution, what are we going to do? We’re going to look at the reality and say OK, resettlement, compensation require money; where is this money going to come from? Certainly the Gulf states, the EU, the United States, even China will contribute. I mean it’s little stretch, but many, many countries will come, I mean to gather, to put together 10, 15 billion dollars, it’s not much if it’s coming from all over all of these countries and some. So you have that. I think what we need to do here is, at least what I think, four different things, and please correct me. Number one is, we need to put some kind of influence on Hamas, change your narrative. Don’t keep calling for Israel’s destruction. Don’t have to do anything, just don’t use, keep using that. Don’t keep calling.

HS: In order to do that, we have to offer them something too.

ABM: Ok, I’m coming to that. You do that, and Israel is going to come and say OK, we’re going to make this concession and this concession and this concession. We will allow so much more goods to go, so much more cement and steel will go there. Then we make an easing of the blockade again. So what we’re talking about is incremental easing of the blockade and linking it to the behavior of Hamas. Hamas will understand. If I renounce, if I’m not going to call for Israel’s destruction, I’m going to get something. I’m going to renounce violence, I’m going to get something. It has got to be quid pro quo. If you have that quid pro quo, you’re going to create an atmosphere where the cooperation is going to create a new atmosphere that is conducive to further progress. And that’s what you want to do. You have to create an atmosphere conducive to further progress. And it won’t take much sacrifice from either side.

HS: And the average Israeli, and even the right-wing government. If there is quiet and construction in Gaza, the average Israeli will be very happy to know that there is no more friction, no more possibility of rockets against the southern towns of Sderot and other towns, and the right-wing government, which may not want to accept Hamas, would have to.

ABM: Yes.

HS: There’s no question about it.

ABM: Exactly. And here the next point, I tell you, I’d like you to comment on it please. You know, Netanyahu and his other government always took the position, well, if Hamas join with Fatah, we will not negotiate with Fatah because we will never negotiate with the—

HS: Which is a mistake.

ABM: Which is a terrible mistake.

HS: It’s a mistake. Because the whole basis of the Oslo Accords was mutual recognition.

ABM: Exactly.

HS: And if Hamas joins this mutual recognition, then they are also legitimate partners for negotiations.

ABM: Then you ask yourself the question, why is Netanyahu doing this? He’s doing this in my view, and I’m convinced of it, precisely because he wants to maintain the disunity between the two sides.

HS: Yes. Yes, the truth is—

ABM: Now I want to take it a step further and say to them, listen to the following. Gaza is there like where we started, Hillel, and Hamas is there. Wouldn’t it be to your benefit – they are not connected, neither territorially nor ideologically, the two sides. They’re not connected. Wouldn’t it be better for you to start working with Gaza as if it were a separate entity? Think in those terms, as it if it were a separate entity. What advantage that would give Israel.

HS: But the thing is that the Palestinians, and I think rightfully so, say we want you to look at the totality of the Palestinian people, which includes the West Bank and Gaza and East Jerusalem.

ABM: This is true, but I’m talking about treating Gaza as if it were separate. In a sense that, meaning—

HS: It is a separate problem, but it is part of a larger entity.

ABM: Yes, but this is how—the point is, if you can’t solve the big problem together, you break it down. That’s where I come in terms from conflict resolution.

HS: No, but let us go back to Netanyahu. The problem with Netanyahu is that he gives lip service to the idea of the two-state solution, but is not ready to do anything to advance it.

ABM: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s exactly what we’re saying, that’s why this is going to happen under Netanyahu. This scenario can be effective only if there is new leadership in Israel.

HS: This is what we need. Hopefully Netanyahu will fall due to these investigations and—something very interesting. The Palestine-Israel Journal, I’m co-editor of the Palestine-Israel Journal, we had a fascinating meeting with a veteran South African anti-apartheid activist who was very close to Nelson Mandela. And we asked her what led to the downfall of apartheid. And she says it wasn’t first and foremost sanctions. It was two factors. One factor which we do not have in the Middle East, and that is that 10 percent of the Afrikaners could not continue. It was unsustainable to continue to control 90 percent of the population. But the second factor she said, was corruption. The Afrikaner government was extremely corrupt, and even the businessmen, the English and the Afrikaner businessmen, said this cannot continue to work, and we have to have a different regime. If we want to have an effective economy, yeah. Now this is what we have in Israel, we have corruption. Hopefully that will bring Netanyahu down. And then we have a possible chance of an alternative center-left government. And we need that, and we also need new leadership on the Palestinian side.

ABM: This is absolutely true, but I just want to go back for a moment to the situation in Gaza. All of the scenarios we’re talking about now in my view is, there’s got to be a change of leadership in Israel, that just has to be a given. So what I am saying, if we were to treat Gaza as a separate entity in a sense that, here’s the quid pro quo that I am talking to you about. You do this we do this, we do this, we do this. Now you’re going to create a new atmosphere, a collaborative effort, made by both sides. This is going to also give Israel leverage over the Palestinian Authority. If the Palestinian Authority realizes that Israel is making progress with Hamas, the Palestinian Authority itself will become more amenable to listening more carefully to Israel. Because that’s what it’s terrified of. You know what they’re terrified of? That actually they can be separated. They don’t want to be separated.

HS: What’s called the three-state solution, yeah, yeah.

ABM: That will be the three-state solution. And they don’t want that.

HS: They don’t want that.

ABM: So what Israel could make it, double gains on two fronts simultaneously by working with Hamas. If Hamas is smart enough to realize this is what they can do, and then Israel will have leverage on the PLO afterwards. But Hamas too come the election, would have a greater advantage.

HS: But let us also add that it is quite clear again from public opinion polls that the overwhelming majority of the Palestinians do not want to live under a regime which is guided by Sharia law, religious law. And so they do not want the Hamas ideology to be the guiding factor in the future of the Palestinian people.

ABM: I agree with you, and I also suggest the following, that the Palestinians in Gaza are not living under Sharia law, and you know that. There’s no such thing. It’s only, in the air. The Sharia law is in the air. It’s not on the ground. That’s number one. But Hamas uses religion just like ISIS does. Why is that? Because to use religion to that extent, in the extreme form, you prevent questioning what you’re doing. Because you’re doing it in the name of God. Who are you to question God? I am not, I am only a servant. I am not doing anything.

HS: Unfortunately we have echoes of that on the Israeli side.

ABM: There’s echoes of that on the Israeli side as well.

HS: The extremist settlers who say God promised this to us and therefore there’s no place for compromise.

ABM: But if we go back to the Palestinians—

HS: Which goes totally against the founding fathers of Zionism, who rebelled against the religion and said we take our fate into our own hands.

ABM: That’s right, that’s right. So when you say about Hamas being totally committed to Sharia law and all of that, honestly, it’s not.

HS: What I say is that the Palestinian people do not want to live under Sharia law.

ABM: They don’t, and Hamas is not enforcing that in the least. Not even in Gaza. And that’s the situation. I’m just thinking in those terms, and your take on this is very important. You know, when I look, and you know, I keep saying this time and again, when I see crisis, every crisis, I see also opportunities. To me, when there is a breakdown, there is a breakthrough. So look for the breakthrough. There is a breakdown today between Israel and Hamas. We’ve got to look for break.

HS: So the question here is, here we need third parties to enter into, talk to Hamas, to talk to Israel, to enable a possibility of a breakthrough because it’s highly unlikely that the current Israeli government will be ready to speak directly to Hamas. Yeah.

ABM: You know, I wish, if we could arrange we could arrange something like this in Israel, or Hamas, or in a neutral territory. In Cyprus, it’s very easily accessible.

HS: Cyprus, Brussels, Turkey, there are all sorts of—

ABM: I will be more than happy to do something like this in Brussels. And I can tell you that the EU may very well, I did already actually with the EU last November, a mock negotiation between Palestinians from the Authority, 5-6 members from the top rank of the PLO. And else from the Israelis and the deputy—

HS: The PLO but not Hamas?

ABM: No, they were not Hamas. And then from the Israeli side also members of the Knesset and all of that, came to Brussels and I conducted a mock negotiation.

HS: So the question is, is it possible to do the same thing track two, track one and a half, government, civil society. However—

ABM: I think we can do that.

HS: Between Hamas and Israel. That would be very constructive to do. Now I just feel we cannot have this conversation about Gaza without also making these comments about what has happened since the March of Return began. And the fact that that first Friday, the Friday of the seder for us, the Jews, and for the Palestinians it was a marking of Land Day, which began in 1976 in Sakhnin. The fact is that 17 Palestinians were killed by Israeli sharpshooters that weekend. The following Friday, again I don’t remember exactly. It’s altogether about 30, and there is no question that the Israeli government made a decision to use an exaggerated amount of force. There was no need to shoot. It’s not as if there was a serious danger to the soldiers or a breakthrough of the border, anything like that, and this has to be said because soft, what’s called soft force. There are so many other means of crowd dispersal that could have been used.

ABM: I could not agree with you more. You’re absolutely right. And that was—

HS: And this is really unfortunate.

ABM: It’s a tragic mistake on the part of Israel. There was no need to use this kind of excessive force. What’s wrong with using rubber bullets all the time, why use real bullets?

HS: And smoke, and there’s all sorts of you know—

ABM: Water cannons, whatever you want.

HS: There are all sorts of means that— If it were the Haredim, ultra-orthodox blocking the roads in Jerusalem, which have – you know, I spend every half a week in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And when they decide to protest because they don’t want to serve in the army, they block all the roads and the police use crowd dispersal. But they will never fire at them.

ABM: No, yeah, I agree with you. So anyway, what I’m thinking, I don’t know if, what you, what’s your thought on it, on this but perhaps maybe you want to give it some thought when you get back home, and see if there is any possibilities from your end there. I can work on this side, to have some kind of—but they’ve got to be from the top Hamas tier, not fourth, fifth tier; second tier would be good enough. Because you cannot get the first two, three people. Second tier of individuals, like this person of, what’s his name, I talked to him, my mind is shot with names, I’m terrible with names. Abu—, what’s his name?

HS: Mazak?

ABM: Marzook? Marzook it is? Marzook. You know, people like that, we can get them. I can get them to come to the EU. They’re not coming with a sign, Hamas.

HS: I think at this stage it cannot be at the political level. There are no members of Knesset who will be ready to do it, but civil society, like I was saying, what I was describing to you before, the fact that we have a policy working group of—

ABM: Civil society, yeah.

HS: Of former ambassadors and senior academics and civil society directors.

ABM: Civil society, those two, three who come from Hamas, they’ll go back with a message.

HS: Now, if the Hamas people are ready, this is I think the challenge. If they are ready, I think on the Israeli side partners will easily be found to have such an encounter.

ABM: That’s what I’m saying, asking you if you could reach out, I don’t know if you have it, through Palestinians, not directly to Hamas but through other Palestinians, and tell them look, there is an opportunity to develop a new narrative, a new posit, exactly based on what you’re saying. The tenure of Abbas is limited, we know that. How long is it? And Netanyahu, whether he is indicted or not, I don’t think he’s going to run. Even if he runs, I don’t think he’s going to make it this time around. I really doubt it.

HS: At this stage, I doubt whether one can find partners in the Palestinian Authority ready to do this.

ABM: Forget the Authority for now.

HS: But let’s leave them aside. There are people, there are Palestinians and there are also Israelis, there are some Israeli journalists. There are also activists like Gershon Baskin, who was very involved in the release of Gilad Shalit who are— People don’t realize this, but there are Israeli journalists in the daily papers, in Ha’aretz, even in the Jerusalem Post and Yedioth, Maariv, who speak to Hamas people.

ABM: Yeah, yeah.

HS: And it’s not as if there is no communication. And so it is possible to explore and hopefully build the foundation to be able to do something like that.

ABM: I really think there are possibilities. And if you want to, I don’t know, to start to put out some feelers with these individuals.

HS: Yeah, yeah. This is definitely something possible, desirable, and very timely.

ABM: And timely more than anything else, before it’s too late. You know if you have a new government, a new leader with the Palestinian Authority, you don’t know what’s going to be. But if you prepare the ground for Hamas to look at the conflict with Israel a little different, and they do. You see, the problem is that, the point is, they know between them and themselves, they know Israel is a fact of life. We have to deal with Israel, we have to coexist with Israel. They know that.

HS: They know that.

ABM: They know that. And they know there is no way out. They know that. What we want to do now is create a narrative so that they can say it, and Israel will be prepared to make the kind of quid pro quo involved, to build the kind of trust necessary.

HS: Such, what we are seeing possibly is a similar evolution to what Fatah and the PLO underwent in the 70s and 80s, reaching the point which eventually led to the Oslo Accords. The mutual recognition.

ABM: This is true.

HS: And we can possibly see a similar coming to terms with reality on the part of Hamas. But you need the groundwork of these track two encounters. And I think it’s possible if they are ready for it.

ABM: But again, given the fact, that’s why I keep saying the same thing – given the fact that they know that there is no other way but to deal with Israel, they know that. Then they’re going to have to think about differently, if you show them a new map, a new direction. I just want to tell you, notwithstanding the fact that Hamas, PLO I should say, changed their mind, changed their charter and all of that. I had a conference in Brussels – this is, the EU invited Israelis and Palestinians to come together, and I was asked to come to the meeting. It was a huge meeting. And at the time I wrote two open letters, one to Abbas, and one to Netanyahu. And the chairman of the meeting, he started the conference by saying, Alon Ben-Meir just wrote these two letters. Because you know my position, I’m unbiased. I go where I think who’s right and who’s wrong. I don’t care, have absolutely no, I don’t lean to either side. To me, peace and solution is the only thing that matters. So that’s why the two letters were very balanced in terms of blaming Abbas for the wrong thing he’s doing, and blaming Israelis for their wrong things.

And then when I started my speech, I appealed to the Palestinian delegation, which was a huge delegation. I said, I want you to understand, first thing I want to say, I am for 1000 percent for a two-state solution, much of the West Bank, 95, 94 whatever percent, and land swap, same thing with Gaza. Are we clear on this? That’s fine. I said, but your approach for the last 30, 20, 15 years is completely misguided. And I suggested a few approaches, and you know what they started? They started going back to 1948, repeating the same thing as if nothing has changed. And when I got up to speak again, I said to them, as long as you live in the past, you live 70 years ago, you are not going to—what you talking about the right of—think in terms of, what do we do in order to solve the question of the right of return, rather than demanding the right of return. I said, even if you use it as a slogan, you are alienating every single Israeli because that’s not going to happen. So even with the PLO today, they’re still demanding the right of return. They haven’t changed their slogan.

HS: They are demanding a recognition of the principle of the right of return.

ABM: The principle, yes.

HS: But the Arab Peace Initiative, which has been supported by 22 Arab nations and all 57 Muslim nations including Iran, says an agreed-upon solution to the refugee problem, which means—

ABM: Exactly, a just solution.

HS: With the Israeli government. What the Israeli government will agree to and allow to, in principle. And I would add also when we talk about history in South Africa again to go back to South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which was a very important component, was a post agreement dynamic. You cannot do that before you write, reach an agreement. when you get to the agreement, Then you can talk about what everyone felt about the past, the suffering, who, the responsibilities, et cetera. But we have to look forward, get to an agreement by stages or directly everybody would like to see– the problem of the Oslo Accords was that uh it was a stage but it was supposed to be completed in five years and It wasn’t.

ABM: No, because Netanyahu came in 1996 and started to torpedo elements of the Oslo Accord. You know that. But your point is well taken. I said in Camp David would there been negotiation between Barak and—

HS: In 2000.

ABM: In 2000, yes. And Arafat at the time, and they almost reached an agreement, and the sticking point was the right of return. And actually Arafat would not sign on the dotted line unless—I spoke to Peres. Peres himself told me this. He said, Alon. I said, why, why, why? He said, he insisted that the right of return, he agreed there’d be no right of return, the Palestinians, but he would not say this, he said for the next generation to decide. But I want this, that the Palestinians reserve the right of return in the document. And Barak jumped.

HS: Whenever discussing the right of return, I always go back to a public opinion poll which again professor Khalil Shikaki in Ramallah did. He went to the refugees in Gaza, in the West Bank, in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon, and asked them what are their views. And before he published it he went to Arafat, who was still alive at the time, and said these are my findings. And Arafat said to him, what are you doing? You’re undermining my negotiating position. And Shikaki said, I’m a scientist. These are my findings and I’m going to publish them. And he did. And the findings were that 95 percent of the refugees know that they will not return. And so it can be worked out.

ABM: And his office was ransacked as a result of that, right after he published it.

HS: And today too, the PA is not happy with the fact that he is an independent researcher there. It’s hard for us to believe, but there are independent researchers in the West Bank and even in Gaza. There is Omar Sha’aban, he has, he calls it Pal Think if I remember correctly. There is independent analysis there as well. And if we do anything track two, they should be involved as well.

ABM: Absolutely. I mean, I just thought I’d throw this, give it some thought.

HS: Definitely. And I may add by the way, it’s hard to believe that at the Palestine-Israel Journal we have about 30 Israeli and Palestinian members on the editorial board. One of them is from Gaza. Ali Abu Shahla is an independent Gazan businessman who everybody agrees—Hamas, Israel, Fatah—can periodically get a permit to come to the West Bank to do business. He’s not a politician. He is a trustee for one of the universities. And there are people to talk with in Gaza. And we should do it.

ABM: I mean you know for this, for what’s his name, Lieberman to say, what did he say lately which was the most insulting thing you can possibly imagine about the Palestinians in Gaza. What was it that he said he had to take it back, to swallow it back, that the Palestinians, do you remember? He said you know, they are all terrorists or something like that.

HS: No, that’s absurd. They’re, most of them are simply suffering human beings. You know, 40 percent unemployment, 60 percent of the youth are unemployed. They want to live a normal life. Yeah.

ABM: Yeah. You know what he said, no innocent people in Gaza. No innocent people in Gaza.

HS: That’s absurd.

ABM: Yeah, no innocent people, everybody is guilty of something.

HS: Yeah, some people say that about Israel – everybody is a soldier, therefore everybody is responsible for the occupation. But so many Israelis are against the occupation. So you can’t say that about Gaza either. No question about it.

ABM: Anyway, it was wonderful having a conversation with you.

HS: My pleasure, and hopefully also we can move ahead with some initiatives.

ABM: I am, honestly, I am ready willing and able to do whatever it takes. Hillel, that’s what I am doing now, I really am doing nothing else. And I’m not looking for compensation, I’m not looking for money. In fact, if it’s offered, I refuse it, I’m not interested.

HS: I’m going to bring these ideas back to the Palestine-Israel Journal, we have an editorial board meeting soon, and to the policy working group. And hopefully we can come forward with initiatives.

ABM: If you want me to come, I’m happy to come to Israel, have initial meetings, whatever it takes.

HS: Definitely. Definitely.

ABM: I am absolutely, listen, I’m committed to this.

HS: The main thing is people ask me why am I not in despair as so many other people are. And I say the main reason is because I’m being proactive.

ABM: Yeah.

HS: I’m on the front lines of seeking answers. And that’s what we all have to do.

ABM: Exactly. All the power to you. And I know that. I mean that’s why, I never suggested anything like this with anyone because I thought, what’s the point. What’s the point? But you can take it, and then you can rely on me to do whatever it takes. Here, in the EU, whatever.

HS: Very good. OK.