It had been described as the highest-ranking exchange yet between an Israeli and a Palestinian in Los Angeles.
Palestinian nationalist Faisal Husseini, 48, newly released from 18 months of “administrative detention” in an Israeli jail and dressed in a dark blue business suit, stood before the fireplace in Stanley and Betty Sheinbaum’s comfortable Brentwood living room, preparing to address a group of about 70 American Jews.
As Giora Furman, a brigadier general in the reserve and a former deputy commander of the Israeli Air Force, sat on a cushioned ottoman a few feet to the side, staring quizzically at him, Husseini traced the century-long Palestinian struggle against the Zionist movement, before describing his present convictions.
‘Security for Israel’
“Israel is in need of the Middle East as well as the Middle East is in need of Israel,” he said. “We need to cooperate with it to build our future and enter the 21st Century in dignity and security.”
He urged Americans to impress upon Israel that “a Palestinian state is not endangering the Israeli state. On the contrary, a Palestinian state is security for Israel. It’s the ticket for Israel to enter the Middle East club.”
In turn, when Furman rose to speak, he said that this trip to the United States was the first time he and Husseini had ever conversed. However, it was not, they discovered by comparing notes, the first time they had “met.”
“In 1967, on the day of the breakout of the Six-Day War I flew the third mission to strike El Masr airport in Damascus,” Furman said. “Faisal Husseini was on the ground in a brigade of Palestinians. They tried to shoot me down.”
The Palestinians succeeded in shooting one hole into the plane that resulted in a fuel leak, he said, but they made it back to Israel safely.
“Now we are here speaking, now sharing this meeting about peace,” Furman said. “It means something to me.”
“There is no compromise that will be acceptable to Israel without full security for the state of Israel. I feel that after 30 years of service to achieve it, that territorial compromise together with full security is possible,” he said, adding that any solution had to be political, military and economic.
Both men had attended a conference of Israelis and Palestinians at Columbia University in New York earlier this month, and had been speaking separately elsewhere. The Los Angeles event last weekend was their only joint appearance, and had been organized by a co-sponsor of the conference, Friends of Peace Now, a support group for the Israeli organization that advocates direct negotiations between the Israelis and the PLO and accepts a Palestinian state that does not compromise Israeli security. The purpose of the evening, co-chair Rabbi Laura Geller said, was to enlist support among the American Jewish community for Peace Now’s “Speak Peace to the PLO” campaign.
Husseini, son of a legendary Palestinian nationalist who was killed during the 1948 war, has been widely identified as a top representative of the PLO in the West Bank and Gaza. He is founder and president of the Arab Studies Society in Jerusalem and spent the five years before his detention under town arrest, unable to leave that city.
Furman, retired from active duty, is an economist, member of Kibbutz Ma’abarot and on the executive committee of the social-democratic Mapam Party.
At times, both men sounded like visionaries, describing in earnest and in detail the relationship that they said could and must exist between the small states of the region. They made it sound like a modern-day land of milk and honey, almost within their grasp: Israel, Palestine, Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, eventually others, they said, would thrive as an economic partnership like the European Common Market, whose 12-member nations plan to become fully operative as the European Community in 1992. At dinner earlier that evening, a woman voiced doubt that animosity and violence could give way to such cooperation. Look at France and Germany, the men reminded her.
Reality of Situation
“This is not realpolitik ,” Furman acknowledged during dinner, going on to say he was pessimistic about the intransigence of the current Israeli government, distressed that the intifada, the Palestinian uprising, was causing a rising nationalism among Israeli youth that was in turn provoking the intifada .
Neither shied from the problems or reality of the situation, but they did not debate them, urging instead the negotiations where the debate would take place.
At the Columbia conference, Furman said, “on 70% of the issues we did not agree--the right of return (for Palestinians), borders, Jerusalem, security arrangements, timing, but we know the only possibility is to talk.”
Later, describing the future status of Jerusalem as the most emotional problem, Furman said, “Each side wants all the cake. Let us leave Jerusalem to the end of the negotiations. I’m sure it won’t be the obstacle (to a peaceful settlement).”
Not all in the room were necessarily supporters of Peace Now, nor certainly of everything Husseini stood for, but they listened in silence, hardly even stirring, applauding only at the end. There were none of the outcries, accusations, distrustful questions or statements thinly disguised as questions that so often characterize such events. Rather the questions were of the “What do you want us to do?” nature or requests for clarification and amplification.
“We want you to go on trying to convince not only Israel but the American government, putting pressure on the American government, that if they see a spot of light not to ignore it. Tell the Israeli government this is the time to reach a peaceful solution,” Husseini said, adding, “We don’t ask you to cut aid for Israel, but if the government does not have the real interests of the people at heart, don’t be so generous.”
Furman disagreed, saying too much confrontation or direct pressure on the Israeli government could be counterproductive.
“Actions like that,” he said of Husseini’s advice, “can create more stupid action by our government. Help us persuade public opinion in Israel, and the government, that it is time to make a turn.”
What seemed to unite the speakers and their listeners most was a cautious, dogged hope. At one point, Husseini seemed to unwittingly express the thoughts many were voicing to one another privately. Looking down at his own body, almost awe-struck as if he had suddenly sprouted wings, he confessed to the group in imperfect but clear English, “Ten years ago I wouldn’t dream I could come and talk to friends of Israel. ‘On my dead body!’ I would say.”