The scare headlines in the Israeli press continue. MI [Military Intelligence]: Iran will cross nuclear threshold by 2009. The No. 1 bestseller on the non-fiction book list is The Point of No-Return, about Iran's nuclear program, by intelligence expert Ronen Bergman. And right-wing opposition leader MK Benjamin Netanyahu uses every possible platform to argue that Israel and the Jewish people have " returned to 1938," the eve of the Holocaust.
Despite, or perhaps because of, this backdrop, an unusual event recently took place in Amman, Jordan. Behzad Saberi, an Iranian career diplomat who works for his country's foreign ministry, participated in a conference devoted to “Promoting Peace through Dialogue,” together with Israeli academics, journalists and students. While Saberi declined to participate in a public panel together with Israelis, he had no qualms about entering into public and personal dialogue with them. In order to facilitate the process, conference co-organizers the Palestine-Israel Journal, Global Majority and the United Nations University created a one-man plenary panel for him, which he chose to call “The Unnecessary Crisis.” His thesis was that the current crisis has no winners and is the result of increasing hysteria about the possibility of another war in the region due to Iran's nuclear program, a war that he said was still preventable. He claimed that Iran has not made a decision to opt for nuclear weapons, and that it needed nuclear energy because its oil resources are finite. Saberi said that Iran is ready to accept international resident monitors, is open to an international diplomatic solution to the crisis and has demonstrated a willingness to be a reliable partner to all international agreements.
From the floor, I praised his readiness to appear at a conference together with Israelis and to enter into dialogue with them. At the same time, I noted that Israelis are concerned that Iran is using Hamas and Hizbullah as agents to undermine Israel's security, and the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's inflammatory statements denying the Holocaust and threatening "to wipe the Zionist regime off the map" arouse genuine anxiety among Israelis and play into the hands of right-wing politicians like Netanyahu, who thrive on fanning the flames of anxiety.
His response was that Hamas and Hizbullah were voted for in legitimate democratic elections, and he "knows nothing about Iranian military aid to Hamas and Hizbullah." He ignored the question about the affect of the Iranian president's inflammatory statements on the Israeli public.
After the panel, he was ready to continue the discussion in private in a more open manner. He also accepted an invitation to lunch with three prominent Israeli academics, Prof. Daniel Bar-Tal, Prof. Daniel Jacobson and Dr. Menachem Klein. However, while expressing a readiness to continue the dialogue in the future, his bottom line was that the primary dialogue to defuse the crisis had to take place between the Iranians and the Americans. Only afterwards would it be possible to have an Iranian-Israeli dialogue.
Since Saberi is a doctoral student in International Law at Tehran University, he also participated in the l0 day pre-conference training seminar in “Negotiation, Mediation and Conflict Resolution,” together with 40 Israeli, Palestinian, Jordanian, Egyptian, Lebanese, Iraqi, American and European students.
The training seminar and “Promoting Peace through Dialogue” conference were an impressive demonstration of the possibilities of dialogue, despite the current multiple crises in the Middle East. The opening panel, which set the tone for the conference, ably facilitated by Global Majority President Professor William Monning, was entitled “Palestine and Israel: Breaking the Impasse - Ways to Move Forward.” Keynote speaker Prof. Johan Galtung (Norway), the founder of the peace research discipline, posed a six-state Middle Eastern community as the model for a solution; while Dr. Tony Klug (UK), Dr. Hassan Barari (Jordan), Prof. Munther Dajani (Palestine) and Prof. Daniel Jacobson (Israel) all presented innovative ideas for progress. Further insight was provided by Paul Arthur (Ireland), Dr. Boatamo Mosupyoe and Hon. Jeanette T. Ndhlovu (South Africa) about lessons learned from conflict resolution in Ireland and South Africa.
A stimulating multi-discipline, multi-generational workshop with students, activists and academics on “Israel and Palestine: Next Steps” provided a slew of additional ideas.
Other panels at the conference were devoted to "June 1967-2007: 40 Years of Occupation," featuring presentations by former Palestinian Authority Minister for Jerusalem Affairs and PIJ Co-Editor Ziad AbuZayyad and former PIJ Co-Editor Prof. Bar-Tal; "The Question of Jerusalem," featuring presentations by AbuZayyad, Dr. Barari and Dr. Menachem Klein, former advisor to Prime Minister Ehud Barak and Foreign Minister Shlomo Ben-Ami on Jerusalem; "The Role of Civil Society in the Promotion of Non-Violent Conflict Resolution"; "The Dangers of Nuclear Escalation in the Middle East: Prospects for WMD Free Zone" organized by International Physicians for the Prevention of Nuclear War (IPPNW); and "Non-Violent Action in Israel and Palestine."
The Amman conference demonstrated that constructive dialogue is still possible. All that's needed to take these ideas forward is a combination of vigorous civil society activism together with courageous government leadership, and, of course, adequate financial resources.
And just one final word about the UN University in Amman, led by Dr Jairam Reddy (South Africa), which served as an extremely effective host for the conference. It was a revelation to discover that there are 13 UN universities around the world, an extraordinary resource to help build a better and more peaceful world.
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