Looking for a partner

George Papandreous was almost in a trance dancing, surrounded by cheering supporters. This was Greece, in the summer, and I had accepted an invitation from the UCLA to participate in a brain storming session on the hot topic of the day, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s disengagement plan, with a handful of prominent Israelis and Palestinians and hosted by a distinguished American scholar. Personally, I also wanted to breathe some fresh air, even if hot, as opposed to the suffocating atmosphere in Gaza.

We had little time to enjoy the beautiful beaches of Porto Heli, but we enjoyed the warm Greek hospitality and one breezy evening we were in for a special treat when we were invited to meet the charismatic Papandreous who is not only an accomplished politician but also a keen folk dancer. While George danced like Zorba, my mind went back to my first night in Athens in 1965 when I arrived as representative of the executive board of the Palestinian Students Union, had my first taste of Ouzo and woke up with a headache and Frank Sinatra singing "Strangers in the Night". That was back in the dying days of colonialism when an exciting world was bursting with liberation movements.

In our first session, Professor Steven L. Spiegel opened the discussion by asking for opening statements. The Israeli participants, almost as one, proceeded to express their belief that the disengagement plan was an opportunity to salvage the peace process. For my part, I expressed my reservations about Sharon’s intentions. Two Israeli delegates, however, dismissed the question as irrelevant. It was as if I had entered into a discussion of metaphysics in the company of a group of logical positivists. "Why bother ourselves with intentions?" one friend exclaimed. "All that matters is that he is going to leave Gaza." And, in a tone I imagine preachers have used down the centuries, he added, "you should hang on to this opportunity or you will again miss a chance as you have so many times."

We on the Palestinian side were not in a good mood. We were exhausted, bewildered and wounded. We knew that we were losing ground by the day, as well as land. We knew that we have given Sharon all he needs in terms of excuses and justifications to kill and destroy in the name of fighting terror. We were deeply disturbed, not only because we had left our people behind in big and small prisons, but because we realized that our just cause of liberation was being twisted and abused so that we had to defend ourselves not just against the oppression of the occupation but against the "terrorist" label. We knew that we were in a serious mess, because of Sharon as well as our internal polarization.

So, very quickly we moved on to the practical meaning of the disengagement plan and what might be requested from us to turn it into an opportunity. We left the "metaphysical" question of intentions and talked about economics, the settlements, the elections, and of course, security. After two days of discussions we were ready for a draft paper, now published under the title "The Athens Plan". It calls for the Palestinian Authority to unite its security forces and proceed with the elections. It calls for major economic rehabilitation and development with an emphasis on the Arab and European roles. Above all it asserts the position that the disengagement plan can only be successful if it is part of the roadmap.

Nonetheless, I left Greece with my lingering question about Sharon’s intentions. And then, in early October, in a Haaretz interview with a close confidante and top advisor to Sharon, Dov Weissglas pops up and candidly tells the whole world that the intention of the disengagement plan is to freeze the peace process, to prevent the establishment of a Palestinian state and to postpone indefinitely any questions of land, Jerusalem, borders and refugees.

For the last four years former Israeli premier Ehud Barak, Sharon and US president George W. Bush have worked hard to spread the slogan that there is no Palestinian partner to peace. Now I have a question: Who destroyed the Palestinian Authority and kept pounding its infrastructure every time there was a Hamas suicide bombing? This is a question that will strike Sharon in the face if President Yasser Arafat is leaving the political field. The question will soon be, is there an Israeli partner for peace?