Sunday, December 6th, 2009
Some 15 years ago, while there were still high hopes for the Oslo peace process, I interviewed John Wallach, founder of Seeds for Peace.
His program bringing Arab and Jewish kids together for leadership training retreats and conflict resolution studies, a worthy and laudable undertaking, was a few years old at the time and Wallach was thrilled that a group of his alumni got to sit on the dais as Yitzchak Rabin and Yasir Arafat signed papers and shook hands, raising what would shortly turn out to be false hopes around the world.
Wallach was a well-intentioned philanthropist who will never get to see the fruits of his labor because he died of cancer about a decade after Oslo. It was because of his evident decency that I wondered how he could put his faith in Arafat, the godfather of modern terrorism, as a peace partner.
Looking at a photo of his smiling, innocent kids posing with the PLO founder in his military uniform, I asked how he could put aside the knowledge that this was a man who masterminded the murder of Jewish men, women and not a few children.
His precise answer escapes me, but it had to do with “both sides” putting the past behind them and looking ahead. My follow-up question about Israel never deliberately targeting civilians, while the PLO did nothing else, didn’t change his answer. He believed a killer could could become a statesman, because he believed there was decency in every soul.
I never had a chance to ask Wallach to look back with the benefit of hindsight about the man who proved himself to be a doubletalker, and a blatant one at that, who couldn’t swallow a real peace treaty and clearly dreamed of biding his time until the tables could be turned on his Jewish enemies.
But I did once ask Hillary Clinton, as she was about to launch her Senate bid in 1999, if she thought her husband’s administration had made a mistake by investing so much political capital and time in Arafat.
“No,” she said, “because that was the process the Israelis wanted at the time.”
History often repeats itself, and now Israel faces yet another conundrum over making peace with killers. Even as he rots in an Israeli jail, Marwan Bhargouti is one of the most popular Palestinian political figures, either irrespective of or because of the fact that he’s been linked to deadly acts of terror against Israelis and sentenced to life behind bars.
Barghouti’s release may be part of a deal to free the long-suffering captive soldier Gilad Shalit. Once he hits the streets Barghouti is the odds-on favorite to succeed the empty suit Mahmoud Abbas as Palestinian president.
Ironically, Barghouti is not without his political ties to Israeli leaders, and he may be the only one who can succeed where Arafat (likely deliberately) failed.
If it turns out that even after being burned once by a murderer who couldn’t authentically lay down his arms, Israel is willing to take a second chance, it will highlight to the world how a Jewish state surrounded by enemies is presented with perilous dilemmas faced by no other nation on earth.
And how, typically, it makes the unlikeliest choice.