Robert O. Freedman, professor of political science and dean of graduate studies at Baltimore Hebrew University, has long been in the forefront of influential Jewish academics urging Israelis and Palestinians to sit down together for peace talks.
A past president of the Association for Israel Studies, Dr. Freedman, 52, was in a Brookings Institution delegation that met Tunis in February 1989 with Yasser Arafat and other PLO leaders. He was bitterly criticized by American Jewry's right wing.
Three times in 1988 and 1990, he served on U.S. delegations exploring possible Middle East solutions with Soviet government officials and scholars. On his return from a visit to Israel last year, Dr. Freedman praised Yitzhak Rabin's coalition as the closest thing to an Israeli peace government since 1977.
Born in Philadelphia, he taught at Marquette University and at West Point before moving to Baltimore in 1975. He is a prolific author. His most recent book, "The Middle East After Iraq's Invasion of Kuwait," was published two weeks ago by the Florida University Press.
QUESTION: How do you view the peace agreement between Israel and the PLO?
ANSWER: I'm basically very optimistic. It's a great start. This agreement is just below the Sadat visit to Jerusalem in importance. [Egyptian President Anwar el Sadat's decision to go to Israel in 1977 led to the Camp David accords and the peace treaty that won for both Sadat and Menachem Begin, Israel's prime minister at the time, the 1978 Nobel Peace Prize. Sadat was assassinated in 1981.]
Q: Why are Mr. Rabin's recognition of the PLO and Mr. Arafat's recognition of Israel so important?
A: This is a very historic development. The key point is that it gives the Palestinians the opportunity to demonstrate that they can run their own area, with the possibility of a demilitarized Palestinian state living in peace and harmony side-by-side with Israel. It protects Israeli security and, at the same time, it's the best deal possible, probably the only deal possible, for the Palestinians.
Q: What are your reservations, if any?
A: We have to see three things done. First, the Palestine National Council has to meet and has to approve a change in the charter as Arafat promised [formalizing recognition of the state of Israel by the PLO]. If that doesn't happen, a lot of Israelis and a lot of American Jews are going to be very concerned.
Second, if the Palestinians don't maintain security -- if there are attacks on Israel -- this whole business could fall apart. The actual must follow the symbolic. The PLO must, in fact, curb the violence, stop the intifada [the 6-year-old uprising of Palestinians in the occupied territories.]
And third, the money has to flow from the outside to fund development projects and give jobs to people in Gaza and the West Bank and help resettle refugees who are coming back from Lebanon. The money is needed to insure that the Palestinian entity as it develops will be economically viable.
Q: Money from the United States?
A: Some from the United States. I think there'll be a lot coming from Europe and a good bit from Japan.
Q: When you met with Mr. Arafat in 1989, you told him that his peace overtures had won over about a quarter of the Israelis -- the left -- but that he needed to do much more to convince an Israeli majority that he was serious about peace. Has he now done this?
A: I told him that he had to announce the elimination of the Palestine National Covenant [which denies Israel's right to exist.] That, for me, was the key symbolic issue. He says he is going to bring this before the Palestine National Council.
Another requirement was the ending of terrorist attacks on Israelis, and he now says he will end these attacks and discipline the violators. So to my mind, he has met the requirements. Yes, more than half the Israelis would support the Rabin government.
Q: Does the peace agreement go far enough for either side?
A: I've been advocating for a very long time this idea of "Gaza first." The Palestinians have been very worried that "Gaza first" would mean "Gaza first and last."
Now, with this new system -- Gaza and Jericho, very clearly stipulated elections, the Israeli withdrawal from populated areas, chance for the Palestine council to operate -- we have a perfect testing ground. Postponed, of course, are the very, very divisive issues -- [control of] Jerusalem, the return of refugees, the Israeli settlements -- about which there would be negotiations after a certain amount of trust has been built up. And I think that's just the way to go, tackling the easier ones first.
Q: Edward W. Said, a Columbia University professor and former member of the Palestine National Council, wrote recently in The Sun that the peace plan may be "the final dispossession" of the 50 percent of Palestinians not resident in the occupied territories, such as 350,000 stateless refugees in Lebanon and twice that number in Syria. What is your response?