13 March 2007 - Yossi Beilin interview (2001)
I’ve just reached the end of an exhausting but exciting day here at Harvard. Rather than write something new, I thought I’d post an interview I did with current Meretz-Yachad leader Yossi Beilin in September 2001, just several days before September 11th. I had just come back to Cape Town from covering the Durban racism conference, and my nerves were shattered. It was a tense and difficult time, and it would get worse.
Beilin was a guest of the South African left-wing Zionist youth movement Habonim-Dror, which was celebrating its 70th anniversary. He has made some questionable political calls since then—including supporting former President Jimmy Carter’s book—but his presence in South Africa at that time, and his refutation of the Israel-apartheid analogy, was a real source of reassurance in those tough, combative days.
Below I reprint the article, “The Long Walk to Peace,” which was published in the November edition of The Big Issue, a magazine sold on the streets by South Africa’s homeless but mostly written by professionals. I got my start in freelance writing by contributing pieces to the magazine and earning R0.50 a word. The money didn’t go far, but perhaps the article—which isn’t online anywhere else—will be of interest.
The Long Walk to Peace – The Big Issue (SA) – November 2001
Can South Africa bring peace to the Middle East? Yossi Beilin, architect of the Oslo peace process, thinks so.
by Joel Pollak
Beilin spoke to The Big Issue in early September during a brief visit to South Africa in which he approached President Thabo Mbeki about South Africa’s possible role in the Middle East peace process.
Beilin: I said to the president that I believe that South Africa is in a unique position. The fact that the ANC and the current government are trusted by the Palestinian side is something from which we can benefit. Because it might make South Africa one of the most important thirds parties alongside the Americans, Europeans, [and] the UN, as a party which is trusted by the Palestinians, and which at least is not untrusted by us.
I’m not pushing the [South African] government to solve the problem. It is very difficult. What I’m saying is that there is much room to be involved here. You don’t need, necessarily, to be the biggest superpower in the world in order to help. Sometimes it is enough to be a human being who is appreciated by both sides, and suggest something.
Q: There’s been an impression that has emerged that Israel can be compared to apartheid South Africa. How would you approach such a comparison?
Beilin: Well, it’s really crazy. Only ignorant people, or people with malice, can say something like that. The ignorance is either about what apartheid was all about, or about Israel.
Q: Looking back on the Oslo process, why do you think that it has fallen apart in the way it seems to have done?
Beilin: I would say that you don’t have too many saints in our story, on both sides. And there were violations on both sides. But what wa, I believe, very, very problematic, was the fact that [Benjamin] Netanyahu was the [Israeli] prime minister in the period when we had to implement the agreement. He actually came to power in order to prevent the implementation of Oslo. But what happened on the Palestinian side is that they did not fulfill all the parts of the agreement, including a very important issue which is also the main issue in Ireland—what they call “decommissioning” [of arms].
But there was frustration on their side, because in these five years [since 1994] there was no development whatsoever towards any kind of a permanent solution. And the [Palestinian] GNP per capita went down, between ’94 and ’99, by 20 percent. So the frustration grew, and there was a feeling, on the Palestinian side, that we deceived them, that we were not serious enough about the permanent solution. Which doesn’t justify, of course, what they did—I mean the violation, by using force against us, was such a gross breach of the agreement...
Q: There were some critics who suggested that perhaps the agreement was designed to keep Palestinians in a subordinate role in the first place...
Beilin: Yeah. [Palestinian author and intellectual] Edward Said did say it; this was his accusation from day one. [Just] as on the Israeli side, the accusation was that the Palestinians were ready to accept such an agreement only because what they want is to have a state on part of the country, and then to use it in order to fight against us and push us to the sea. So, on both sides, you have criticisms which say that the other side has probably deceived you, and that you are naive in accepting such an agreement. In reality, I believe that that was not the case, and that it was done in good faith, and that it was done by people who trusted each other.
Q: You’ve spoken of South Africa’s possible involvement at a diplomatic level. Are there lessons to be learned in the Middle East from South Africa’s transition?
Beilin: Well, they are very different stories. But since we are speaking about human situations, there is much resemblance. You have fear, and fear is the illegitimate father of hatred, and hatred is conducive to revenge. And this is a universal phenomenon. Now, if you are aware of it, you can try and stop it somewhere between fear and hatred, between hatred and revenge, hoping that eventually you will be able to prevent fear, too, and then you can prevent the whole sequence.
When I met with Archbishop Tutu, we talked about the ability to build something like the TRC [Truth and Reconciliation Commission] between Israelis and Palestinians—without the “T”. I mean, I don’t need “lies,” but the truth is not the important thing, because you have many truths.
You can really listen to a Palestinian and an Israeli telling the same story in such a different way that you are not sure whether they are talking about the same thing. We [Israelis] don’t understand enough the world which they [Palestinians] see, and vice versa. When they see malice, we see an accident. And what has to happen is, first of all, to listen to them, to understand at least how they see the developments. And they should listen to us.
Q: What is your analysis of the current US policy toward the Middle East—the Bush administration’s policy?
Beilin: I don’t think that they have a policy towards the Middle East. And [their] ideology—if I may call it ideology—of “hands-off,” is actually the ideology of “let them bleed.” And this is something which, in my view, the only superpower in the world cannot afford. Neither morally, nor practically. Because when, God forbid, the fire is bigger, and the Americans decide to get involved, it might be too late, or too difficult for them. So I believe that they are totally mistaken in their attitude toward the Middle East. And we are paying the price, the Palestinians are paying the price, and the world might pay the price.
The most important thing we have to do in the Middle East is to get back to the negotiating table and to immediately continue the talks on the interim solution and the permanent solution. We were very, very close to an agreement—we know the agreement already. It’s a very unique situation—whereby the question is not what the agreement is going to be, because we know it by heart, but only how to get there.
Q: In the current situation, there seem to be a lot of people who appear to have a mood of despair. What is your mood about the prospects for the future?
Beilin: Well, I am far from this mood. I believe that we were very close; we will get back there. The question is when, and what is the death toll which will have to be paid until we are there. But I’m sure that we will go there, because it’s like here [in South Africa]: people knew that this strange, artificial policy [of apartheid] will not go on forever. The question was only when. I’m saying the current situation cannot go on forever. It doesn’t serve anybody in the region. Everybody is paying a price.
It is so difficult to understand why both sides were ready to give up so easily on it, and I’m sure that [the violence] won’t go on forever.