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Israeli means never having to say you're sorry

By Gideon Levy, Ha'aretz, Sunday, August 27, 2000

The foreign flags which flew last week on Tel Aviv streets gave the city an uncharacteristic look. Not being an eternal capital, Tel Aviv isn't accustomed to hosting state visits. Since the King of Belgium traversed the city's streets 36 years ago, as we children waved to him, Tel Aviv hasn't flown foreign flags.There was something especially surreal about last week's flag-flying in Tel Aviv. When winds stopped blowing and the flags stood still, the city seemed to be hosting a very special foreign visit indeed.

Just one white star differentiates between the Jordanian and Palestinian flags. And when flags furled last week and obscured this extra star, it looked like it wasn't flags from Jordan, the friendly Hashemite neighbor, that draped Tel Aviv. Instead, heaven forbid, flags from the state of Palestine appeared to be flapping in the air. A flag which was, until recently, forbidden was flying high in the first Hebrew city - a flag which cost several Palestinians their lives, when they were electrocuted after being compelled to climb up poles to remove them.

Alas, this was only a mirage wrought by the still August air. When the winds returned, the flags showed their full repertoire of stars.

The city's royal guest was Jordan's King Abdullah, a leader with polished English and elegant manners, not the leader of Palestine who speaks pidgin English with quivering lips. What a shame.

Had Israel's prime minister wanted to host a visit which would have really put the stalled peace process back on track, he wouldn't have invited Abdullah to Tel Aviv's promenade. Yasser Arafat would have come. Precisely at this juncture, when tense relations between the leaders represent an obstacle, and public opinion among both nations is laced with skepticism, the time is ripe for such an Arafat visit. Were Arafat to come and shake hands with beach-bathers, and lay a wreath at the memorial at Rabin Square, the atmosphere might lighten somewhat, just before a period in which tough decisions have to be reached.

On occasion, Barak demonstrates creativity, and bold initiative. Yet when it comes to such a simple, necessary and constructive matter as inviting Arafat on an official visit to Israel, the prime minister doesn't dare entertain the thought. While Israel attempts desperately to court the most far-off Arab and/or Muslim leaders, its next door neighbor, the most obvious (yet somehow tattered) partner in the peace process, stands rejected, uninvited. When Israeli prime ministers finally get around to meeting with Arafat, they make sure that the encounter is held in some military-like enclosure situated near a check post, as though they deliberately want to humiliate the PA chairman.

What could an Arafat visit to Tel Aviv do (the PA leader can't come to Jerusalem, prior to the forging of an agreement)? What would happen were Israel's prime minister to show him some respect? After all, we want to make peace with him, and Arafat will soon be the head of a state, a fact which Israel explicitly acknowledges. Were Barak to host Arafat on a tour of Tel Aviv's streets, Palestinians would, for the first time in their lives, witness Israelis treating their leader with respect. And, at long last, Israelis would apprehend Arafat as a leader who has rights. Similarly, a reciprocal visit by Barak to PA territories would make a huge impression upon members of both nations.

Does a show of respect have no relevance in a diplomatic process? This question must be pondered in light of host-guest rituals that prevail throughout the Middle East; and the issue is not one to be taken lightly, however petty or superficial it may sound. At times of crisis (and other times as well), a change of atmosphere can be important; gestures and confidence-building measures can make a difference.

At a time when the diplomatic negotiations are bogged down by disputes, and threats posed by officials from both sides threaten to derail the whole process, gestures can be a crucial factor. Who can forget how Anwar Sadat captured hearts in Israel, many months before a peace agreement was finally forged? Or how King Hussein's humane dignity inspired Israelis when the Hashemite monarch arrived on a consolation visit to Beit Shemesh, after a crazed Jordanian soldier shot and killed schoolgirls at Naharayim?

Israeli leaders, however, are loathe to make such displays of good will. Despite the fact that there is no disagreement that 1948 events in locales such as Lod and Ramle are to be classified as expulsions, Israel will never apologize for them. Why not? Just because. What would happen were it to apologize? Would hair fall out of its leaders' heads? No, apologizing would hurt self-esteem. Far be it from Israel to worry about the self-esteem of the victims of its policies.

Even when 100 innocent villagers at Qana in Lebanon were killed by IDF fire, Israel announced that it was "sorry, but wouldn't apologize."

Why, precisely, doesn't it apologize? In March this year, IDF soldiers fired at least 17 bullets and killed Hilmiya Al Tus, from the Tzurif region, as she traveled by car to visit her grandchildren, and nobody even considered sending a representative to pay official condolences, let alone compensation. Atadel Muamed traveled with her husband and baby in a taxi one night in Gaza. IDF soldiers killed her, and badly wounded her husband and child. The IDF acknowledged this lethal error; but, with justice, the widow (who is still recuperating in a hospital) wondered a few weeks ago why "nobody has come to me to apologize."

Even when Omar Jedah drowned in turbulent waters of the Kinneret after trying to save the life of a helpless Jewish child, Israeli authorities didn't send around a delegate to give condolences to his family, or offer compensation.

Had, in all of these cases, Israel acted differently, the goodwill gestures would have had an effect upon Palestinians. But Israel doesn't apologize.

That's the way we are: We never apologize, we never feel contrition, we never show weakness.

Anyway, we've never had anything to be sorry about. We're not going to invite Arafat, and we're not going to compensate Palestinian victims.

That's our policy. In the end, it'll cost us much more than it has saved up to now

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