Baltiansky: Israelis see themselves as part of Europe

  

For Israelis EU membership is a dream: a dream that may come true one day, Gadi Baltiansky of 'H.L. Education for Peace Ltd.', director-general of the Geneva Initiative for Israel, told EurActiv Slovakia in an interview.

The Geneva Initiative draws up realistic and achievable solutions to the Middle East problem, based on previous official negotiations, international resolutions, the Quartet Roadmap, the Clinton Parameters, the Bush Vision and the Arab Peace Initiative.

He was speaking to EurActiv Slovakia's Radovan Geist.

To read a shortened version of this interview, please click here.

The EU used to be perceived in Israel as 'pro-Arab'. How is it seen today? Could the EU claim to be an honest broker in the Middle East peace process?

In contradiction to the past, Europe is seen today as a good friend of Israel – thanks to its policies, and thanks to personalities. Some European leaders, including presidents and prime ministers from Italy, Spain, France, Germany, UK and others, show a very friendly approach to Israeli people. And despite some existing differences, they are considered to be friends.

In every public opinion poll you can see that for the first time after many years the Israelis have crossed the 50% threshold of those answering 'yes' to the question: 'Do you welcome an increased role of the European Union in the peace process?'

Of course, it's not like the numbers for the US – more than 70% of Israelis support a bigger role of the US – but it is still a majority.

From the election results, or even from the high approval rate for the military operation in the Gaza Strip, it can often seem like the majority of people in Israel do not believe in the viability of a peaceful solution. How can they be convinced?

The problem today – and this was reflected in the result of the last elections – is that more and more Israelis do not believe that a peace agreement is possible or that it can be reached in the near future. Not that they oppose it: on the contrary. More than 60% support the content of the Geneva Initiative as the model for a peace solution. More than two thirds support the concept of a two-state solution.

But during the last government we had a failure in the peace process, and it was not the first failure, combined with two wars, in Lebanon and Gaza, so many said to themselves: even the government which is, let's say, centre-left, did not succeed in making peace, it even launched two military operations. So apparently the only language which could be used is the language of force. If this is the case, we may as well vote for the right, because anyway there won't be peace.

But this is only one part of the picture. The second part is that although the Israelis moved politically to the right, ideologically they moved to the left. If you compare Israel today to the Israel of five years, ten years ago, not to speak about twenty years ago, in the past most Israelis opposed the negotiations with the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organisation), they opposed dramatically the establishment of the Palestinian state, and they opposed a withdrawal from the West Bank and the Gaza.

Today, there is a clear majority in favour of that. And the fact is that even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanjahu, who is heading a right-wing coalition, who for the whole of his life spoke about the existential threat that an independent Palestinian state would pose to Israel, today he supports this solution, because there is no other solution.

So we should make no mistake – the Israeli public is today much more moderate, much more pragmatic and much more flexible than in the past. But it is also much more sceptical. Our challenge is not to convince people that peace is necessary, but that it is doable.

The Geneva Initiative is a joint Israeli-Palestinian initiative. But what are everyday contacts like between ordinary people on both sides?

Most Israelis have never met a Palestinian. According to Israeli law, Israelis are not allowed to go to the areas under the Palestinian Authority. Most of the Israelis know Palestinians from the TV – but who do you see on the TV? Either politicians, with their speeches and slogans, or terrorists. They don't see the normal human beings.

When we in the Geneva Initiative conduct conferences, workshops, seminars, etc. for different constituencies, we always give the floor to at least one Palestinian speaker. The reaction at the end of the event is always the same – some comes up and says: 'With you Mr. Palestinian, I could make peace tomorrow morning. There is no problem. But the problem is that there is only you!' Now we need to convince them that it is not only him, or her, but the majority of Palestinians.

As there are no meetings, no everyday encounters, there is a misperception on both sides. The more we meet and talk to each other, the better the chance of reaching peace.

Even with the two-state solution, there would be a large Arab minority living in Israel. How should it then be understood when Israel is referred to as a 'Jewish state'?

In the Geneva Initiative, we don't speak about the Jewish state, but about the recognition that the Jewish people have the right to statehood, and that Israel is the national home of the Jewish people. It is the same as the Palestinian people, who have the right to statehood, and Palestine will be their national home.

But in the Geneva Initiative we say that this will not prejudice the rights of all citizens of the country – Jews or not Jews, they have to have the same rights. So it only means that as the country is the national home of the Jewish people, they have right to come and stay if they want. But it is also a home of the citizens of Israel, even non-Jews.

But I cannot say that it is their national home – because the anthem speaks about the Jewish people, the flag is a Jewish flag, the language is Hebrew. Of course they can speak and read Arabic, they have right to their culture. They should be free to do so. But it would not be right to say that Israel is the national home for Arabs in Israel. They can live there as equal citizens. But they will have a national home of their own in Palestine. If they want, they can move there. If not, that's fine, they can stay in Israel as equal citizens.

What are the positions of Arab political parties in Israel on the Geneva Initiative? Do they support it?

Some of them, the more pragmatic or moderate ones, support the basic principles. The more radical ones do not support it, because at the end of the day they want to see one state. So, not all Arab members of the Israeli parliament support it, because it contradicts their ideology of one secular state in the land of Palestine.

From the Palestinian side, it is quite clear that future independent state would need close economic cooperation with Israel. How about the Israeli perspective?

It is in the interest of Israel to have happy neighbours and a prosperous Palestinian state. It is not that we have an economic interest in exporting goods to Palestine: it is a very small market for us. We export to Europe or to the US. Of course, we can benefit here and there, but that is not significant to our economy.

What is significant to our economy and our stability is that the Palestinian economy is prosperous. And that is why, although we need a border with security arrangements, we should allow close ties – also for building infrastructure. It would be good for both sides, and in many issues it is even unavoidable.

You cannot have two capitals in one city in Jerusalem without real ties of infrastructure, roads, electricity and so on. And even for tourism – it does not make sense to have a closed border. It is much better for us to sell a package to a European tourist to come to Israel and Palestine as one deal.

Allow me to touch upon a much broader issue: Israeli regional identity. There are some voices in the EU saying that ultimately Israel may become an EU member. How is this idea received in Israel? And even more importantly: does Israel perceive itself as a Middle Eastern country or as a Western one?

For Israelis EU membership is a dream – maybe a dream that could come true one day. It is obvious that we will not become members as long as the conflict continues. Since peace itself is unfortunately not seen as something which is round the corner, EU membership looks even less probable. Still, it is seen as the ultimate goal, because in the deep sense of the word, Israelis see themselves as part of Europe, part of the Western world.

Maybe they would like to become members of NATO, not only the EU. We have economic ties mainly with the EU or the US; when we go on holidays, we go mainly to Europe or the US. Even if we had peace with the entire Arab world, the future of our trade and economy is not in Kuwait or Bahrain, although I would like to see much improved relations.

It is because the culture is different, the language is different, traditions are different, societies are different, and the regimes are different. We see ourselves as a democracy, much closer to regimes in Europe than in the Middle East. Although we are a Middle Eastern country and we would like to have very good relations with our neighbours, we see ourselves as closer to the West than to the East.

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