Israeli, Palestinian tour US to make case for Mideast peace
Washington — THE grim news from Israel this past month has been of a hijacked bus, a thwarted bomb plot, and the seemingly inexorable tightening of Israel's West Bank occupation.
None of the headlines point toward peace.
But a retired Israeli Army officer and a Palestinian professor have toured the United States, trying calmly to show that Israelis and Palestinians can talk - and perhaps someday make peace.
The two do not agree with the thesis, so forcefully argued by the former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, that the Israeli occupation of the West Bank is irreversible. They believe that Israel can still trade occupied territory for peace. They see the main element in the Arab-Israeli conflict as a need to overcome - on both sides - deeply held fears, suspicions, and misperceptions.
Aside from a few incidents of heckling, the Israeli and his Palestinian counterpart were well received by many Jewish congregations and other groups during their six-week tour. At the end of one appearance, in Seattle, an old man came up and hugged the Israeli, Mordechai Baron, and told him that at last he could see a ''spark'' of hope for peace. A pessimistic Jewish leader agreed that joint appearances by a prominent Israeli and Palestinian at least helped to keep a vision of peace alive.
In Cleveland, former Prime Minister Menachem Begin's youth movement, Betar, did some picketing. The protesters carried a sign calling Colonel Baron a traitor.
''There was opposition,'' said Baron, looking back on the recently ended tour. ''There was heckling. There were some Arabs who were obviously displeased that a Palestinian would appear with me.''
''In a Los Angeles synagogue, there were some Jewish Defense League hecklers, '' he continued. ''They were hustled out.''
But the Israeli said that the reaction of most audiences was positive.
''There was a sense of surprise and disbelief in the beginning, and then all of a sudden, people saw that while there were differences between the two of us, there was also a great amicability and common ground,'' he said.
Baron dismissed as ridiculous the charge that he is a ''traitor.'' He fought for Israel, and was wounded, in the 1948 war. He was an assistant to the late Gen. Moshe Dayan and served with the rank of colonel as chief education officer in the Israel Defense Forces. He is a former member of the Central Council of the Israeli Labor Party and is an activist in the Peace Now movement.
In an interview, the genial, slightly disheveled Baron said that for 20 years - between 1947 and 1967 - he felt that a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict was impossible, ''(a), because the Arabs did not yet see that they could not win a war, and (b), because we didn't have anything to give them.''
In mid-1967, after the Israelis had won the six-day Arab-Israeli war, Baron wrote a speech for Yitzhak Rabin, then military chief of staff, on the ''sadness of victory.'' He became more involved in what he described as ''dovish activities'' and advocated compromise.
In 1977, after Egypt's President Anwar Sadat flew to Israel to make peace, an even greater change occurred.
''Many of us started to say, 'Well, peace is possible and, therefore, let's pursue it in a vigorous way,' '' said Baron.
On March 18 of this year, Baron began his tour of the United States with Mohammed Milhem, the Palestinian mayor of the West Bank town of Halhul, who was expelled by the Israeli authorities in 1980. Mr. Milhem had to return to the Middle East suddenly on personal business. He was replaced by Nafez Nazzal, a soft-spoken, neatly dressed Palestinian professor of history at Bir Zeit University on the West Bank, who is currently a fellow and visiting professor at the University of Pennsylvania. The tour was sponsored by the American Friends Service Committee and the New Jewish Agenda.
The kind of peace that Baron and Professor Nazzal describe would be based on an Israeli withdrawal (with some possible adjustments) to the borders that existed before the 1967 war. It would allow for the creation of a Palestinian state on the West Bank.
But Professor Nazzal said that his father, who is from Jaffa, has complained to him that such a solution would not allow him to return to his original home in Jaffa. Nazzal said that he, in turn, asks his father at times why the Palestinians of his father's generation had rejected the 1947 partition plan which would have created both a Palestinian state and a Jewish state.
''At times I say to my father, 'I wish you had accepted the partition plan,' '' said Nazzal in an interview. ''I say that 'at least we would have a state.' ''
''I don't want my children 20 years from now to confront me with the same question which I raise with my father: 'Why didn't you accept even autonomy for the West Bank in order to enable us to stay in Palestine?' '' Nazzal continued. ''I don't want my children to say the same thing that I'm saying now to my father.''
Nazzal said that his father and mother once took him back to see Jaffa and the stone house where they once lived. He said that his parents preferred to stay in their car, but that he wanted to see the house firsthand. Living there was a Jewish woman said to be from Russia.
''She thought I was crazy,'' said Nazzal, who was unable to get a look inside the house.
Baron and Nazzal are in certain ways unusual. Nazzal is an American citizen whose family roots and cultural loyalties lie with the Palestinians on the West Bank. Baron's daughter is married to a Palestinian. The colonel is not only a military man but also a scholar, serving as a faculty member in the Department of International Affairs at Hebrew University in Jerusalem. Baron is more explicit than many members of the Peace Now movement when it comes to advocating a two-state solution, and he did not speak for Peace Now during his tour of the United States with Nazzal.
At a meeting here, Daniel Thursz, executive vice-president of B'nai B'rith International, the Jewish service organization, asked the two what gave them a sense of hope. ''Why should we look at you as anything but quixotic aberrations?'' he asked.
Baron responded that there was a good chance that the Labor Party would win the July elections in Israel and decide to freeze Jewish settlement activity, at least in the West Bank heartland. Israel's contacts with Egypt and the trauma resulting from the Lebanon invasion might encourage the Labor Party to move toward an accommodation with the Palestinians, he said.
Nazzal responded that more and more Israelis were carrying on a dialogue with Palestinian representatives.
''There is a process - an unorganized process - slowly but surely to address each other and understand each other,'' said Nazzal.
But Nazzal said that there was too much of a tendency on the part of many Israelis and many American Jews to dismiss the statements of Palestinian leaders in exile and West Bank leaders such as Mayor Elias Freij of Bethlehem and ex-Mayor Rashad Shawa of Gaza.
''Some of our leaders have made some very positive statements,'' said Nazzal. ''Why not seize on those statements, hold them responsible, and emphasize the positive?''
Nazzal said that many American Jews engage in a kind of wishful thinking, calling for a ''Palestinian Sadat'' to appear. Or, he said, they try to make a distinction between ''good guy'' Palestinians and ''bad guy'' members of the Palestine Liberation Organization. There is no way of avoiding recognition of the PLO as the Palestinians' leadership organization, he said.
''Perhaps of all of the psychological problems, this is the one we most need to overcome,'' said Mordechai Baron.
''The Palestinians have one clear leadership at the moment - the PLO,'' he said. ''But the PLO is still, in the minds of vast numbers of Israelis, an anathema, not only among the right wing, but also within the Labor camp. There is great fear and great suspicion of the PLO.''
''I think that the Palestinians are also not yet there in completely recognizing not only the state of Israel . . . but psychologically the fact that this is a Zionist state, let alone a Jewish state,'' said Baron. ''Zionism, for an Israeli - even for a dovish Israeli - is a very important belief.''
But the Israeli concluded, ''We cannot wait for two or three generations and all kinds of education and effort to defuse these mutual fears and mutual problems.''