Mideast peace talks are too precious to fail, says Israeli negotiator

March 02, 1994|By Joel Obermayer | Joel Obermayer,Sun Staff Writer

WASHINGTON -- Yair Hirschfeld is an angry Israeli

He didn't spend months holed up in secret negotiations with the Palestinians to let the agreement they reached be undone by Jewish extremists in or from the United States.

"We won't let those murderers undermine the peace process," he whispers angrily, during a break in a mission to speak to Jewish philanthropists in Baltimore and elsewhere in the United States.

The professor of history at Haifa University was the original negotiator for Israel in secret talks with the Palestine Liberation Organization in Oslo, Norway, last year -- talks that led to the signing of the Washington peace agreement in September.

After the massacre of Arabs in a Hebron mosque and the breakdown of the peace process last week, Dr. Hirschfeld drew some encouragement in the knowledge that it had often looked as though some incident might collapse negotiations in Oslo. In February 1993, he recalled, the talks began to unravel over the Israeli government's decision to deport 400 Palestinian militants to an isolated part of southern Lebanon.

"The negotiations were stopped, and the feeling was [that] the thing had gotten out of control," Dr. Hirschfeld said.

He said that his belief about what to do now has remained the same as it was in Oslo -- keep talking, no matter where, no matter how, no matter when.

"That's the most important thing," he said, "just to maintain communications."

In Oslo, even when the two sides couldn't agree on anything substantive, the negotiators would exchange jokes, just to keep the lines open. And in the end, they did come to an agreement.

These days, Dr. Hirschfeld, 49, is interested in keeping communications open with another group that threatens the peace process: American Jews.

He said that he has seen while in the United States that many mainstream Jewish groups have a harder time accepting the land-for-peace compromise and the rollback of settlements in the West Bank than the Israelis do.

"In a way, the Israeli public was more ready for peace than the American Jews," he said. "The Israelis have sacrificed so much."

While a majority of American Jews may favor the peace process, they are a silent majority, drowned out by those who actively oppose it, he said.

Even worse, he said, supporters of the assassinated Rabbi Meir Kahane, whose militant settler groups spawned Hebron killer Baruch Goldstein, continue to get much of their support from Jews in the United States, he said. He said that full-page ads in major U.S. newspapers in support of militants reflect that support.

"You cannot give them legitimacy by saying or praising or giving money or anything for those radicals," he warned.

"This was basically a fascist act, but to legitimize it, that's crazy," he said. "The Jewish community has got to learn the moral and religious responsibility to take serious measures against these people."

Will Friday's massacre in Hebron destroy the peace process he worked so hard to build?

As when they told jokes in Oslo to keep from being overwhelmed, Dr. Hirschfeld laughs. He has seen hopes for peace rise and fall like a roller coaster.

The Israeli people are terribly upset by last week's events, he said, but too much has happened to walk away now.

"We are determined," he said. "We believe the same determination exists on the other side. We have lived through so much."

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