Make Dialogue not War

While Benyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak were sitting in Jerusalem and launching a war in Gaza with the target killing of Hamas military head Ahmad Jabari, another group of five Israelis were beginning a two day “Athens Dialogue” in Greece, to discuss the establishment of a Weapons of Mass Destruction Free Zone in the Middle East. Altogether we were 37 participants, from Israel, Iran, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Jordan, Bahrain, Yemen, Turkey, Greece and other relevant internationals. The organizers were the Centre for Dialogue at La Trobe University (Australia) and the Athens-based European Public Law Organization (EPLO), and the participants were mainly from civil society but also included current diplomats. The catalyst for the dialogue was the resolution at the close of the NPT (Nuclear Non-Proliferation) Review Conference in May, 2010, to hold an international conference in the course of 2012, devoted to the promotion of a Nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, with Helsinki having been designated as the host city.

Engaging the Iranians

Most interesting to the Israelis were the four Iranian participants – Amb. Ali Asghar Soltanieh, a nuclear physicist who is the ambassador to the international organizations in Vienna, and three other academics. He told the participants that he could be quoted because he is a diplomat in an official position. He proudly declared that the Iranians have agreed to participate in the Helsinki conference, while the Israelis have not (at least not yet). He also insisted that the Iranians couldn’t be seeking nuclear weapons because it is forbidden by the Koran, an idea which did not necessarily convince all of the other participants about Iran’s intentions.

Of course the Israelis and Palestinians were split between focusing on the proceedings and maintaining contact with the people back home in Israel and Gaza. The Palestinian diplomat sitting next to me – we were seated in alphabetical order around the table - constantly asked me how my family was doing in Tel Aviv. When I asked him where his family is, he said Beit Hanun in the Gaza Strip, across the way from Sderot. “But we’re used to this sort of thing” he said.

The Iranian diplomat never asked the Israelis anything personal, though the other three Iranians were much more friendly and personable.

The short of long-term approach

The recent round of hostilities, both from the Israeli and the Hamas perspective, was a short-term clash, jockeying for position on the field of Middle Eastern power politics.

The “Athens Dialogue” represented the long-term approach, the quest for a new security regime in the Middle East, which will contain a verifiable nuclear and mass destruction weapons free zone. It was understood by virtually all of the participants that, to be viable, this has to be accompanied by comprehensive Israeli-Arab peace.

The main obstacle, resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict

When the question of what are the main obstacles to an agreement was posed, most agreed that a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was essential to move forward. As an Egyptian woman said - “if that is resolved, everything else will fall into place”. The fact that President Morsi and his associates played a major role in facilitating the cease-fire suggests that she is not alone. The other major obstacles were the lack of trust and of good will to resolve the problems.

There is a perception that Prime Minister Netanyahu and Defense Minister Barak only think in terms of short term gains, and are not seeking a long-term resolution of the conflict. As one of the Iranian academics said to me – “Netanyahu acts like a battalion commander and not a statesman with a long-term vision”. The Iranian academics also had some critical words about the rhetoric and behavior of some of the Iranian leaders as well.

The conference should be convened in 2013 at the earliest opportunity

Despite the fact that the Iranian diplomat insisted that the conference must take place in December 2012, in accordance with the original decision in 2012, we now know in the wake of recent announcements by U.S. and UK officials that the Helsinki conference will be postponed till 2013.

The American statement said that the conference could not be convened now because of “present conditions in the Middle East and the fact that states in the region have not reached agreement on acceptable conditions for a conference.”

The four parties responsible for convening the conference are the U.S., UK and Russian governments together with the UN Secretary General. Therefore, the statement issued by Ban Ki-moon is of particularly importance: “I reaffirm my firm resolve and commitment together with the Russian Federation, the United Kingdom and the United States, in consultation with the States of the region, to convene a conference, to be attended by all States of the Middle East, on the establishment of a Middle East zone free of nuclear weapons and all other weapons of mass destruction, on the basis of arrangements freely arrived at by the States of the region.” And he added “I fully support the proposal by the (Finnish) facilitator to conduct multilateral consultations in the shortest possible time which will allow the conference to be convened at the earliest opportunity in 2013.”

Athena or Poseidon?

The day before the Athens Dialogue began four of us – a Palestinian, Egyptian, Turkish MP and an Israeli – went to see the Temple of Poseidon, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. One of the young female organizers said that it’s a wonderful romantic sight at sundown that you have to see. And she was right. On the final day, before our trip back to Tel Aviv, we went to see the Acropolis, one of the wonders of the ancient world, overlooking the city of Athens which is dedicated to and named after the Goddess Athena.

According to legend, when the city was about to be established there was a competition between the Greek Gods Poseidon and Athena over who would be the patron God of the city. Poseidon, the God of the Sea, stood for glory, pride and military prowess, while Athena stood for civilization, wisdom and culture. The citizens of the city, the first democracy in the world, chose the Goddess Athena, thus the city is named Athens and not Poseidon.

We here in Israel have to decide – do we want to follow the route of Athena or Poseidon?

Will Jerusalem only rely on the necessary might of the IDF, a necessary counterpoint to the helplessness that Jews felt during the Holocaust, or will it also have the Athenian wisdom and foresight to actively seek a long-term resolution of the conflict?

Support the Palestinian application to the UN and participate in Helsinki

One way to do this would be to support the Palestinian application to the UN General Assembly for non-member state status, based upon the 1967 borders, alongside the state of Israel.

Another way will be to participate in the Helsinki Conference on a Nuclear and WMD Free Zone in the Middle East, to help lay the foundations for a two track process leading towards a new regional security regime and the achievement of Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Arab comprehensive peace.

An earlier version of this piece was published in The Times of Israel under the title Athens and Jerusalem. Athens and Jerusalem | Hillel Schenker | Ops & Blogs | The Times of ...