‘Peacemaking not a zero-sum game’

Gideon Meir: “Everything that is good for the Palestinians is not bad for us.”
Gideon Meir: “Everything that is good for the Palestinians is not bad for us.”
Photo by David Holzel

The Israel-Palestinian peace talks may still have some life left in them as you read this. Or they may not. Retired Israeli diplomat Gideon Meir said both sides made some crucial mistakes that sent negotiations onto life support.

For one thing, Israel should not have demanded that the Palestinians declare Israel a Jewish state, Meir, a former director general for public diplomacy in Israel’s foreign ministry, said during a visit to Washington last week. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas compounded the error by not agreeing to Israel’s demand.

“History has proven that we Israelis like to be hugged and loved. Look at [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat. Look at King Hussein [of Jordan],” said Meir. Both Arab leaders became wildly popular in Israel when they visited after decades of hostility. “Abu Mazen [Abbas’ nom de guerre] is doing the opposite.”

Israel’s other major mistake is “building more and more settlements,” said Meir. A visit from a foreign leader is often accompanied by the government announcing new settlement construction.


Israel responded to the 2012 U.N. General Assembly vote granting Palestine nonmember observer status by announcing plans to build in an area outside Jerusalem considered necessary to assure a contiguous Palestinian state in the West Bank.

“If you want to build to punish the Palestinians, it’s the worst thing,” he said.

Meir, who also spoke to the Jewish Community Relations Council of Greater Washington, was blunt in an interview when asked if the Palestinians wanted peace.

“No,” he said, then clarified. “The people want peace. If it had depended on the will of the people, we would have had a two-state solution.”

He likened Abbas to Naftali Bennett, head of the hardline Jewish Home party. Bennett has called for annexation of major Jewish settlement blocks in the West Bank and has threatened to pull out of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition if Israel agrees to release Palestinian prisoners in an attempt to restart talks.

Bennett and the right wing want all or nothing, as does the Palestinian leadership, said Meir. “Both sides want a one-state solution. Bennett doesn’t know it, but if there is a one-state solution there will be an Arab majority or there will be an apartheid state.”

He said that contrary to what extremists believe, peacemaking is not a zero-sum game.

“Everything that is good for us is not bad for the Palestinians and everything that is good for the Palestinians is not bad for us. Reality is not that way.”

Meir weighed into the ongoing argument about whether American Jews should criticize Israel.

He said criticism of Israel is “legitimate. Israel is a joint venture of the Jews of the world.” But critics should “do it in Israel. Do it within the family. Go to Israel and tell the Israeli government that we are misbehaving.”

As the former head of Israel’s public diplomacy campaign, Meir is a student of both the American press and international media, which are considered less sympathetic — even hostile — to Israel. “For someone who is right wing [the international press is] anti-Semitic. But if I describe a journalist as an anti-Semite, I lose my argument.”

Despite the 1,000 journalists in Israel at any time, the world has a limited picture of the country, he said.

“Ask someone in Europe what they know about Israel and they’ll say ‘conflict’ and maybe Iran. The American press is writing a bit more about Israel. Why? Because there are 5 million Jews in America.”

So along with the regular coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, there will be the occasional feature about life in Israel or its high-tech industry, giving readers a more rounded view of the country.

He noticed something strange about journalists assigned to Israel.

“When they first come, they’re balanced. When they leave, they’re pro-Palestinian.”

This is despite the fact that most of the press is based in Israel rather than in the territories and has constant contact with Israelis and Israel’s Western, democratic society.

“Maybe it’s because the Palestinians are the underdog,” said Meir. “Maybe because the Palestinians know better than us how to treat journalists.” n

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