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Canadian Jewish News: "Time running out for two-state solution, Peace Now head says"

If there is ever going to be peace in Israel, and if Israel is going to remain a Jewish democratic state, it must be willing to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, says Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of Peace Now.

Thursday, 21 February 2008 

By SHERI SHEFA, Staff Reporter    

TORONTO - If there is ever going to be peace in Israel, and if Israel is going to remain a Jewish democratic state, it must be willing to share Jerusalem with the Palestinians, says Yariv Oppenheimer, director general of Peace Now.
He believes a peace treaty that's acceptable to both sides will have to compromise on the issue of Jerusalem.

"It is not a zero-sum game. It's not simple, it's compromising. We are going to pay a huge price for it, and the Palestinians as well, but in order to survive as a Jewish democratic state. it's going to be a struggle," Oppenheimer told more than 100 people last week at Temple Sinai.

He was speaking at a panel discussion on the Middle East with Amir Gissin, Israel's consul general in Toronto.

The program was organized by Canadian Friends of Peace Now, a left-wing NGO that calls for the establishment of a Palestinian state on land occupied by Israel in 1967, and National Jewish Campus Life. It was moderated by Myer Siemiatycki, a professor in the politics and public administration department at Ryerson University.

Oppenheimer said the Israeli government must try to reach a two-state solution.

"It's not only the Palestinians who will gain. It is in the Israeli and Zionist interest. Without it, either we are not going to be a democratic state, or we're not going to be Israel."

While much of the discussion focused on the challenges of achieving peace in the Middle East, Gissin said it frustrates him that Israel doesn't speak to the rest of the world in a unified voice.

"There isn't any one major effort. to present Israel to the world, and we pay the price for it every day," he said.

Speaking from his experience as the former head of the Israeli government's hasbarah department, Gissin added that Israel doesn't make its image a priority, as evidenced by its communications budget, which is smaller than those of some major corporations.

He said the challenges Israel must deal with today are new, such as the Iranian nuclear threat and the international community's inability to put effective pressure on Iran, as well as ongoing rocket attacks from Gaza.

"But what is becoming more and more critical is the effort by our opposers and adversaries. to present Israel or brand Israel as the new South Africa. to brand Israel as an apartheid state."

He said that anti-Israel groups have shifted the focus from depicting Israel as occupiers of the territories to "an entity called `Palestine,'" and they call for  a one-state solution rather than a two-state solution.

"This is a new phenomenon," he said.

Gissin stressed the importance of changing Israel's image on the world stage.

"You all know the visual of the Israeli tanks and the Palestinian boy who is throwing stones at the tank. It is a very frustrating visual. It is very difficult for us to cope with as Israelis. But this visual is very unique, because it encapsulates the conflict and it encapsulates our mistake," he said.

"Our mistake is that for the last 30 years, we were trying to convince the world that the tank is the victim. Don't get me wrong, the tank is the victim - historically, politically, in almost every aspect, the Jews are the victims. [but] what we have to do. is try to develop other ways for people to look at the conflict."

But Oppenheimer said he doesn't think Israel's problems have anything to do with hasbarah. He said that if the conditions on the ground don't change, the world will continue to see the Palestinians as the underdog.

When Israel shut the electricity in Gaza in response to Hamas' rocket attacks, "in one hour, the whole world was against Israel, and no one remembered the Qassam missiles that were coming into Israel," he said.

"The thinking of the Israeli government is that in order to take down the government of Hamas, we need to make life in Gaza so miserable that they will not be in favour of Hamas and say that we cannot handle it. But the exact opposite happened."

He said this tactic only creates a breeding ground for more radical views, more anger toward Israel, and more empathy for the extremists.

"Israel's image will get worse, people in Israel will become more extreme - either more right wing or left wing - and the Palestinians will also become more extreme."

He said that Hamas is taking over the agenda in the Middle East by creating a violent and miserable existence for both sides, which takes the focus away from a peace treaty.

"Who cares about a peace treaty - about splitting Jerusalem, about helping to solve other problems concerning settlements - who wants to talk about it when you have Qassams flying from Gaza into Israel?" Oppenheimer asked.

"This is what Hamas wants to achieve. They want to make it impossible to reach an agreement."

He said the fact that Hamas is a religious group rather than a political one makes the situation much more complicated.

"It is easy to say, `Let's talk to Hamas. Let's try to make peace with them.' I don't know if there is a part of Hamas that is ready to talk to Israelis. I doubt it. But I do know that next to Hamas, there is Fatah. They are not part of the Jewish Zionist movement, but they are ready to talk to Israelis."

But Oppenheimer warned that time is not working in favour those who support a two-state solution.

"It is becoming more of a religious conflict than a political conflict, and I am afraid of the day when in Israeli society, it will be religious conflict, and in the Palestinian society it will be a religious conflict, and then it will be very hard to solve. I do believe that this is the time to do it."