An Interview with the Israeli Ambassador to the Netherlands and the Head of the Palestinian Mission to the Netherlands
By Johannes Schroeten
The Diplomat is a liberal journal. Our aim is to promote peace and we can not deny that we believe in diplomacy, instead of conflict. Thus, it is hard for us to understand the ongoing violence in the Isreali-Palestinian conflict. Why are there no solutions? What are the obstacles to peace?
Who better to ask than the representatives of the respective governments. In an extraordinary chance, the Diplomat got the possibility to discuss the issue with H.E. Ambassador Haim Divon of Israel, and H.E. Dr. Nabil Abuznaid, Head of the Palestinian Mission.
The two ambassadors arrive in separate cars. Large sized models, manufactured by well-known German companies. Seeing both walking up to the building where the interview will take place, one thing comes first to mind: These two men look strikingly alike, both in their mid-50s, suits, glasses and the professional day-to-day routine, acquired from countless events like today’s. Indeed, from the distance, we could not tell them apart. An interesting observation, considering that these two men represent the strongest enemies since, perhaps, Germany and France in the 19th century.
After a few minutes for refreshment and settling, we are called into the room. One observation is evident from the start: Our interviewees are the least thrilled. Sitting side by side, they spread a sense of calmness. Staff and organisers seem to worry much more and are restless, re-scheduling and planning already the rest of the program. We, however, take seats across the table, facing now our two interview partners. A short introduction, and then we start.
The Diplomat: Thank you for having us! Let me start with a very general question: What effect will debates like today have on the ‘road to peace’?
The ambassadors look at each other. A short exchange à la “who starts” and Dr. Abuznaid begins.
Dr. Abuznaid: First, I think it is important for students to understand the conflict. Second, it is good to see us in a civilized and friendly way. Even though we have different views on this conflict. And third, to hear from people what they have to tell us and what advice they have to the Palestinians and the Israelis, since both of us in all these years of conflict didn’t find a solution, yet! So hopefully, this generation will help to bring us more together.
Ambassador Divon: First of all, I agree a hundred percent. Unfortunately, it won’t affect the decisions on the senior level. That is not the way it goes. With all due respect to what we are doing as ambassadors, these are decisions that take place at the level of President Abbas and Prime Minister Netanjahu. But, I think that many people feel that Israelis and Palestinians, whenever they see each other, they right away go into a fight. That’s not the case! Differences yes, there is violence, there are extremist ideas! But I believe that the majorities on both sides want to put the conflict behind them. For you, as a younger generation, living in Europe, it’s a bit difficult to understand. But we are both living in conflicts since the days we are born – and it’s not a picknick! We can not lose hope, but certainly you, the younger generation, you should not give up on any conflict. Keep pushing us to move in the right direction!
The Diplomat: The international community’s attention has shifted towards other issues, such as the Iran Deal and especially the Syrian conflict. Does this maybe provide opportunity for a calm rapprochement, with absence of world attention?
Again, both struggle to figure out who starts.
Dr. Abuznaid: You want to go first? (Ambassador Hain shakes his head). Okay, then I keep going first.Maybe, we should look to the roots of the conflict. And many people say that maybe, the Israeli-Palastinian conflict in the region with blood shed for almost a hundred years, played a part to create a mentality to address the conflict. It is not healthy, it never created a healthy environment in the region. Even internationally! Today, Israel and Palastine should share a vision for security, as I told the ambassador a few minutes ago, we are together in this situation. There is a threat that could concern both of us. Violence and terror do not have borders. I agree on the issue that more attention is given to the other conflicts and we are ignored a little bit, because it is being said that there is more killing in Iraq and Yemen and Syria. I think this is an issue where the Palastenian and Israeli situation should be handled in a peaceful manner, and the countries of the region should unite against a common threat, namely ISIS. So how does it come that we allow them to play with the Palastenian and Israeli conflict, although we say: ‘Don’t use this conflict for your own sake.’ Sometimes people think it is a just cause to fight Israelis and to use the Palastenian situation as a justification. So I think it’s a message for us and the Israelis really to try hard to finish all these problems and to unite against a common threat. So to come back to your question, it has taken some attention away, but also send a message to move forward, to end this conflict or otherwise both of us could be victims.
Abassador Divon: Yes, attention is diverted to a certain degree. But if you follow for example the discussion in the Dutch Parliament or in Brussels, you see that it is still there, although many times not in a way we Israelis like it. If you take for instance measures like labeling products coming from beyond the green line, we feel that this not the right approach. The question we ask ourselves is, by using punishing measures, do you bring two sides together? That is a question you should always ask before every step. There is a conflict, so what is the best way to get two parties to the table to negotiate? I don’t know what frustrates the Palestinians, but one thing that frustrates us is the labeling of products. This is a punishment. For what? For not sitting down, when we are ready to sit down? The approach we see in Europe is often counter productive. Again, as I said, it’s a pity that we are not able to advance a peace process. That is not up to us ambassadors, but the fact that we are sitting here, talking and respecting each other is elementary. Therefore, parliaments in the EU should ask themselves: ‘what are the best measures to press ahead’. And sometimes we feel that the measures taken against us are just creating bitter feelings, not just among the government but also among the people. The measures don’t really serve the purpose.
Although there are other conflicts which are much more grave than ours, terrible disasters and tragedies. Not that we have been friends with Syria, but all Israelis feel for the Syrian people, their suffering and the falling apart of the country. When it comes to us, I am not so sure that the approach of the international community and the UN is the right way. And this is something where we (He points to Dr. Abuznaid) do not agree, for instance. We do not agree with the steps taken by the Palestinian authorities take to get accepted in the international arena. We feel that they have to go through the negotiation process with us, as stated in the Oslo agreements. Going back to your question, yes there are other conflicts, but there is also a lot of effort to resolve our conflict, yet not in the right direction.
The Diplomat: Coming to the UN. Do you think they should get more involved in the conflict?
Dr. Abuznaid: Well, I think yes. The UN is an international organisation. We are members of the UN, the UN represent the international community, and if two countries are in conflict with each other, they should go to the United Nations. This is the representative of the world. We have an issue that we can not solve, so we say: ‘you are the international community, please give us the advice, the direction and the guidance on how we can achieve peace.’ And we should respect the international community’s decisions on our issues. We should accept them although they might not suit us. In the Arab-Israeli conflict, most of the resolutions are not implemented. So I agree, that the UN is the umbrella organisation of the international community, we should support it and we should respect its rules and regulations. They are trying to support and deal with issues on every level, education, health, environment etc. And Israelis and Palasetianans should be part of the international community, part of the civilized world and accept its recommendations and its guidance. It’s a plus for us to be members.
Ambassador Divon: My position is a bit different. Our record with the UN is not the most positive one. Look at the achievements of the UN, not only when it comes to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but also other conflicts. The UN does not have the best record. And in particular, for many reasons, we are not pleased with the way the UN approaches this conflict. It does not mean that the UN should be out of it. We are very much disappointed with some of the decisions of the UN and the inability to move things ahead. I am not taking away the good intentions of the UN. But let’s try to think about where the UN was successful in solving a conflict. Their record is not so impressive. We would like to see that the players in negotiations are both influential and can be trusted. Trust is very important. By the way, if we look at Oslo, we were able to move ahead through direct negotiations. The negotiations for the peace agreements with both Egypt and Jordan were guided by the Americans. They have to take the lead in negotiations without excluding anyone from the table. But concerning the UN, we have our reservations. We let them be there, as one of the players, but certainly not the only one.
The Diplomat: Let us come to a more personal question. Ambassadors are committed to find diplomatic solutions and promote peace. So… Isn’t it frustrating to see so much violence still going on?
Dr. Abuznaid: I think it’s not only being a diplomat, it’s also being an Israeli or Palestinian. Personally, the first thing I do in the morning is to look on my phone, and if there is no killing, on both sides, I am happy. But believe me, maybe half of the time there is killing. This is affecting us on the personal level. We are humans, we have children, we have a life. For Haim and me, both approaching retirement, we face the same question. What are we going to do? How will we continue our life? In the end, an ambassador is a human being as well. To be ambassador of Israel or Palestine is different from other areas, you have to be determined that you will continue to have the hope and the will to achieve peace. And I have no doubt that we will get there. But the question will be: Why did it take us all these years? History will not forgive us. Because we should have stopped the killing long ago. It is not a matter how many you killed from the other side, but also how you protect your people from being killed. It is really a challenge, it is difficult, so you need a commitment for peace to be a diplomat for Palestine or Israel.
Ambassador Divon: I agree with Nabil. I always ask myself, what my colleagues -and I will not mention names- do when they get up in the morning. What do they do? What’s on their desk? Living in the conflict and caring for our people and our country, and being patriots, we are in this conflict day in and day out. Wherever I go and at every event, there are always people asking me: ‘What is going on, what is happening, please explain.’ People expect answers, they want to know: ‘what is your explanation, what is your take on this.’ Even for this lecture, you would not invite ambassadors from the Philipines or China or Latin America. Because this conflict is very high on the agenda of political science, we are in the focus all the time. But it is not that I keep repeating mantras. I do not have to sit hear and rehearse government policies. We both can talk and come back to our respective governments and make suggestions, for example about possible involvement of the Dutch government which is respected by both sides. And the government did help, for example to implement scanners at the border between Gaza and Isreal in order to facilitate the movement of trucks. That was appreciated and meaningful for both sides. We visited the border crossing with the Dutch minister Koenders together, and we saw an interesting and good will of the Dutch government. That’s an example that both of us work on the conflict and try to create a platform. This is our contribution. Other than that, there is, of course, the hope that one day we will be able to put the conflict behind us for the sake of our people. No one enjoys living in a conflict. And maybe also as an example for others because there are so many terrible conflicts. Our rapprochement could be kind of the shining light in these dark days that we see in so many spots around the world.
The Diplomat: Thank you for the interview!
Being completely honest, we have to admit that we did not even manage to ask half of our prepared questions. Nonetheless, the extensive and open answers shed new light on our understanding of the conflict. Maybe it is indeed a question of small steps to approach each other. Grasping this issue as what it is, namely a territorial conflict between two different religious and ethnic groups, might make it easier to achieve a solution. To see the two ambassadors together, both being very compromising and calm, was a fundamentally different image than what we would expect. This is the misperception of the conflict that is healthy discussed around the world. The strong polarization that has taken over almost every political discourse in the world is not constructive at all. The guilt question, with a childish: ‘But they started it’ will not lead us anywhere. Thus, we entangle ourselves in immaterial discussions and lose sight of the real goal: to establish a sustainable solution between two fighting parties. Dr. Abuznaid said, with respect to his generation: “History will not forgive us!” For their generation, it is already too late to put this conflict aside and to commit to their responsibility for future generations. We should not make the same mistake!