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A lawyer’s personal investment in Mideast peace

by Tom Tugend

December 22, 2010 | 3:24 pm

Josef Avesar, left, founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, meets in Bethlehem with Suleiman Al-Hamri, who was twice imprisoned by Israel but now backs Avesar’s confederation concept. Photo by Michael Avesar

Josef Avesar, left, founder of the Israeli Palestinian Confederation, meets in Bethlehem with Suleiman Al-Hamri, who was twice imprisoned by Israel but now backs Avesar’s confederation concept. Photo by Michael Avesar

Josef Avesar is a soft-spoken lawyer with a wife and four children, but for the past six years he has spent most of his time and a considerable amount of his own money on an all-consuming project: to establish an Israeli-Palestinian Confederation (IPC) and break the interminable impasse between the two groups.

Unlike another dreamer, Theodor Herzl, the father of modern Zionism who in 1897 foresaw, amid widespread derision, that in 50 years there would be a Jewish state, Avesar is more circumspect in his predictions.

In 2006, speaking before a UCLA audience, Avesar asserted that his vision had a 5 percent chance of becoming reality in his lifetime, but he was more optimistic in a recent interview.

“I am 57 years old, and I believe that there’s now a 50 percent chance of realizing my goal in my lifetime,” he said. “In 100 years, the chances of success are 100 percent.”

Meanwhile, Avesar is taking some concrete steps. Following an initial convention in 2008, he has scheduled another convention in Jerusalem in 2011 in the run-up to an election of the IPC president, vice president and legislature.

Election day is set for Dec. 12, 2012, about a month after a similar election in the United States.

To the numerous skeptics and scoffers of his idea, Avesar responds, “What have we got to lose? For more than 60 years, every other plan has failed. You don’t go back to the same surgeon if all his previous patients have died.

Avesar has drawn up a lengthy constitution for the planned confederation, which draws heavily on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights and whose key elements include:

• Israel and the Palestinian territories (or state) are to be divided into 300 districts, with each district sending one delegate to the legislature. In each district, Jews can vote for an Arab candidate, and vice versa.
• To pass a law will require approval of 55 percent of the Israeli legislators and 55 percent of the Arab representatives. If neither the established Israeli nor Palestinian government exercises its veto power, the legislation will become law.
• Both the two top executives and the legislators will run for four-year terms. If the president is an Israeli, the vice president must be Palestinian, and the two will rotate after two years.

Given all the limitations and safeguards, what could a confederation actually accomplish?

One of Avesar’s basic premises is that Israelis and Palestinians, working together within a parliamentary framework, can eventually develop a sense of trust and learn to disagree without resorting to violence.

In practice, IPC would serve as a mechanism for establishing mutually beneficial infrastructure projects, hospitals, airports, monetary systems and so forth.

For instance, the confederation plan calls for joint construction of utility grids for water, electricity, trains and highways connecting Israel, Gaza and the West Bank.

Last June, Avesar and his allies started calling for future presidential and parliamentary candidates to register, mainly through the Internet. He hopes to have some 1,500 candidates, about five in each of the 300 districts, ready to compete by the December 2012 election date.

As of mid-December 2010, some 221 men and women had thrown their hats into the ring, with Palestinian candidates outnumbering Israeli hopefuls by about 3-to-1.

The imbalance comes as something of a surprise to Avesar. He speculates that Arabs are more disillusioned with the status quo, as well as with Hamas and Fatah, than are Jews, who feel that there is no great need to fix the present situation.

Most notable among the Palestinian candidates for the IPC presidency is Hanna Siniora, publisher of the Jerusalem Times and a member of the Palestinian National Council.

It is fairly easy to punch holes in Avesar’s vision and to dismiss the whole enterprise as quixotic. One of the most likely stumbling blocks would be the attitudes of the current Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who would just as soon do without a “third government.”

In one of his pamphlets, Avesar writes, “What happens if the Israeli or Palestinian governments object to the [IPC] elections?” To which he answers, in part:

“If we are able to achieve the voting of both the Israelis and Palestinians and to get international support, we will be able to pass legislation of an important nature. We believe that the Israeli and Palestinian governments will understand the great service and opportunity we can provide to their people and eventually will support our government.”

Others are less optimistic. During the UCLA panel discussion, Gen. Shlomo Gazit, former head of military intelligence, argued that “the Oslo agreement failed because we postponed the political issues. Dealing with economic or environmental issues first is putting the cart before the horse.”

Professor Nancy Gallagher, who chairs the Middle East history program at University of California, Santa Barbara, took a middle ground. “This plan is not yet ready for prime time,” she said, “ but bold and radical ideas are always welcome, even if they seem naïve.”

Gallagher recalled that the various iterations of the confederation idea have a lengthy history; one was proposed by India in a minority report to the 1947 United Nations partition plan for Palestine.

Most positive toward the idea was Saleem H. Ali, a professor of environmental studies at the University of Vermont and a professional mediator. A native of Pakistan, Ali urged putting economic before political problems, suggesting that there are “different ways to climb a mountain.”

Avesar was born in the Tel Aviv suburb of Ramat Gan into an Iraqi Jewish family that had immigrated in 1936. His father, who worked for the British authorities in both Iraq and Palestine, had been farsighted enough to buy some land in Tel Aviv during a previous visit, in 1929.

One of Josef Avesar’s formative experiences as a 9-year-old boy was the rescue of his sister from drowning by an Arab fisherman and then bringing some chocolate to the rescuer as a way to thank him.

“That was a very emotional experience for me,” Avesar recounted. “I came to realize that the Palestinians were people like us.”

He thinks that Jews like himself, whose families came from Arab countries, have a “special relationship” with Palestinians, which is missing in the mainly Ashkenazi Israeli government.

If family background has shaped Avesar’s attitude toward the Mideast conflict, so has his professional experience.

“In my work in personal injury litigation, I see that the parties in the dispute get so involved emotionally in their points of difference that they can’t see the larger picture,” he said.

“What I try to do is to have one side give some indication of trust, and then the other side will usually reciprocate.”

Avesar lacks the resources for a full-fledged campaign, and he is spreading the word mainly through media interviews and the Internet, where he has set up a Web site, ipconfederation.com, and a second one, ipconfederation.org, for the 2012 election.

During the last three years, his dream has become his chief occupation, and he estimates that he would be $750,000 richer today if he had instead devoted similar time and effort to his law practice.

He doesn’t have to look beyond his family and circle of friends for critics. His German-born wife, Gilda, whom he met while both were serving in the Israeli army, not infrequently comments about her husband’s “crazy idea.”

Two prominent academicians, asked for their comments last month, were also critical, though in more reserved language.

Harvard law professor Alan M. Dershowitz, who had initially seen some merit in Avesar’s idea, wrote in an e-mail, “Why try to federate countries that are so different? A more logical federation would be the West Bank and Jordan, or Gaza with Egypt.

“Has any comparable federation ever worked? It’s merely a gimmick leading to a one-state solution, which would mark the end of Israel.”

Political scientist Steven L. Spiegel, director of the UCLA Center for Middle East Development, wrote, in part, “I do not believe an Israeli/Palestinian confederation would be viable.

“Having two states, and then a “third government … would only confuse the efforts to achieve a viable peace, bureaucratically, ideologically and politically.

“However, the possibility of cooperation on the economic and social fronts between Israel, a future Palestinian state, and also possibly Jordan has long been discussed and would be desirable after a final settlement between Israel and Palestine.”

But Avesar also can point to some prominent supporters. He cited an enthusiastic endorsement from former presidential candidate Michael Dukakis and encouraging words from former President Bill Clinton.

In addition, he has engaged in discussions with a long list of American, Israeli and Palestinian thinkers, spanning the political spectrum.

In any case, nothing is likely to deter Avesar from his quest. “Some of my friends spend their money and time on golf, or buying a Ferrari,” he said. “I might as well put that into something I enjoy doing.”

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