October 3, 2002
Telling Both Sides Of The Story
Bitterlemons.org is a venue for the crossfire.
Every time I open my e-mail, I find material from one or two new Web sites devoted to Israeli hasbara (advocacy). I suspect that they have very little impact because, for the most part, they are preaching to the converted.
Arab Web sites are also multiplying day by day. And, again, they are probably not very influential because they are mainly accessed by true believers.
There is one significant exception to the partisan Web sites: www.bitterlemons.org , which is devoted to presenting Israeli and Palestinian viewpoints on various aspects of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other regional issues. It is produced, edited and partially written by Ghassan Khatib, a Palestinian, and Yossi Alpher, an Israeli.
Both men are well-connected with their respective establishments. Khatib teaches cultural studies at Birzeit University and is the director of the Jerusalem Media and Communication Center. He was part of the Palestinian delegation to the Madrid Middle East Peace Conference in 1991 and the subsequent bilateral negotiations in Washington from 1991 to 1993. Today, he is minister of labor in the Palestinian Authority Cabinet.
For many years, Alpher was a senior official in the Mossad. Afterward, he served as director and acting head of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University and then as director of the American Jewish Committee's Israel/Middle East Office. Author of a plan for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement, he has served as an adviser to Prime Minister of Ehud Barak on the peace process and today heads the Political Security Domain, an independent nongovernmental organization.
Alpher and Khatib grew to know and respect one another within the framework of nongovernmental interchanges between Israelis and Palestinians. But when the intifada made it difficult to hold such meetings on a face-to-face basis, they decided to create the bitterlemons Web site, which began operations in November 2001.
It is not a place where all the contributors agree with one another. On the contrary, it is very much a venue for what the subhead of the bitterlemons logo describes as "Palestinian-Israeli crossfire." The "firing" is done by Alpher and Khatib, plus one additional person from each side, who is either interviewed or writes himself.
The Israeli participants are drawn primarily from the left and center. Yet bitterlemons has also hosted people like Justice Minister Meir Sheetrit, former Defense Minister Moshe Arens, professor Efraim Inbar and a leading spokesmen for the settlers, Israel Harel.
A similar division exists on the Palestinian side. Taking part in the interchange are both a variety of independent moderates and official Palestinian Authority spokesmen like Muhammad Dahlan.
In July, bitterlemons took a retrospective look at the Camp David talks two years after they had taken place. The failure of those talks was attributed by Khatib to the fact that "Barak used territory as a bargaining chip for avoiding compromise on other issues." And in a similar vein, Dahlan charged that "nothing tangible was on the table."
In contrast, Alpher, said that Barak came with "a realistic peace program," while professor Shlomo Ben-Ami, who was Israeli foreign minister at the time of the talks, feels that they failed for two main reasons. They should have been preceded, he said, by a preliminary summit, particularly on the issue of Jerusalem. Another impediment was the presence of Arafat, who Ben-Ami described as "the most impossible man I have ever met."
Other topics covered of late include democracy and the conflict, water and private peace initiatives.
While Alpher and Khatib don't ask for details about those who subscribe to bitterlemons, they know that subscribers include senior journalists (who have quoted the newsletter on many occasions), an Arab prime minister, a member of an Arab royal family and many influential Israelis. How reading a publication that tells both sides of the story will affect their thinking can't readily be determined, but at the very least, say its founders, "bitterlemons proves that a civilized dialogue is still possible."
Nechemia Meyers, a former Angeleno, has been a journalist in Israel for five decades. His articles appear in many Jewish newspapers, as well as in general publications.