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Carter Center Experts Q&A - Two Palestines? What is Risked by a "West Bank first" Policy? Q&A with Middle East Experts

In the following Q&A, panel members from "Two Palestines? What is Risked by a 'West Bank First' Policy?," held at The Carter Center in July 2007, answer audience questions that remained following the event.

Panelists included Daniel Levy, former adviser to Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Barak and leader of the Geneva Peace Initiative; Mustapha Barghouthi, former minister of information in the Palestinian National Unity Government; and William Sieghart, founder and chairman of Forward Thinking, an independent U.K. charity addressing the growing social isolation of Muslim communities in Britain and promoting a more inclusive peace process in the Middle East.

Q: My late husband (an Emory physician) and I were in Palestine in the late 1980s and early 1990s. We never imagined it could get worse. There was hope, no suicide sacrifices. It is far worse now. Do you see any difference between U.S. political parties as to working for real peace with justice?

Daniel Levy: While there have only been minor differences between the U.S. political parties over the last several decades in their approaches to the Arab-Israeli conflict and Middle East peace, the current policy of the Bush Administration is a significant deviation. While the Bush Administration's rhetoric has sometimes focused on the right goals – promoting a two-state solution and peace in the region – actual policy has been one of minimal engagement, of uncritical support for the most counter-productive of Israeli actions, such as outpost expansion, rout of separation barrier, and the encouragement of a boycott policy towards the elected Palestinian government, Syria, and others. The neo-cons' ideological agenda is indeed a source of losing hope. Serious commitment to multilateralism and diplomacy inclusive of all major parties is needed. And hopefully things will again change for the better.

Q: Do you think that the Israelis are serious in giving back the West Bank and agreeing to a Palestinian state with the 1967 borders?

Daniel Levy: According to a Geneva Initiative poll (a joint Israeli-Palestinian effort to peacefully end the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), 70 percent of the Israeli public supports a two-state agreement with the Palestinians, likewise there is a majority support for a two-state agreement in the Israeli Knesset. Most of Israeli society has evolved to the point where they can accept a Palestinian state along the 1967 borders – with some relatively minor adjustments to allow for some of the settlements that are closer to the green line, and with commensurate territorial compensation to the Palestinians – as long as measures are taken to guarantee Israel's security from external attack and threats. The major obstacle to moving in this direction, however, lies with the political leadership, which is far behind the public in this respect – and of course, the lack of U.S. sensible shepherding does not help. I do think though that the onus is on Israel to finally end the occupation.

Q: The United States has partially been heavily biased towards Israel and with the Bush Administration it got much worse. Should this be also considered as one of the root causes of the symptom of Israeli hegemony?

Daniel Levy: U.S. policy over recent years has been disastrous – not only for the peace process but also, I would argue, for American and Israeli interests – and yes, the neo-cons have played a major role in that. The United States should and has occasionally in the past, used its special relationship with Israel to advance a peace agenda. The absence of that approach needs to change.

Q: You have spoken about bringing all the parties to the table; what role can religious leaders from Islam, Judaism, and Christianity play in gathering parties together and resolving grievances of the past?

William Sieghart: The teachings of the major world religions are consistent with the goal of finding a peaceful solution to the Middle East conflict. While an immediate solution requires bold moves by the political leaders, support from various religious communities could provide critical support to policy makers and could help enable some unpopular compromises that might be required to reach peaceful settlement of the conflict.

Q: How is the U.S. government helping or hurting possibilities for peace?

Mustapha Bargouthi: In my view, the current U.S. administration approach, or the "West Bank First strategy" – supporting the Abbas government of Fateh, while isolating Hamas – is likely to have disastrous consequences in the region, severely undermining the prospects for reaching a two-state solution, and for democracy-building in Palestine. Isolating Hamas from the process can not succeed, since Hamas enjoys broad popular support among many Palestinians. Any attempt to exclude them only serves to undermine democratic institution, since Hamas won the majority in the last elections in an election widely praised as democratic and meeting international standards.

Q: Do you think the strong response to President Carter's book has helped things or hardened them?

Mustapha Bargouthi: I believe that President Carter's book "Palestine Peace Not Apartheid" has played a very important role in creating much-needed space for open discourse and dialogue in the United States, where genuine constructive criticism of Israeli policies has not been possible. The book highlights the consequences of Israel's policies on the prospects of building a viable democratic state in Palestine. If the current approach is not modified, the vision of a two-state solution will be increasingly difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. While debates of these issues are vibrant inside in the Israeli press and public, similar debates in the United States have been lacking.