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Choose to shout or choose to listen on Israel and Palestine Stephen Daisley

Interview: A conversation about war and peace, trade and hope with Israeli diplomat Yiftah Curiel.

Yiftah Curiel: Israeli diplomat with a different story to tell.
Yiftah Curiel: Israeli diplomat with a different story to tell.

Stop me if you've heard this one before.

An Israeli diplomat, Yiftah Curiel, visited Scotland for the first time on Wednesday. He set aside some of his time to speak to students at the University of Glasgow about Israel, Europe, trade, culture, and peace.

But during his talk, some people decided they didn't like Mr Curiel, his country, what he was saying, or some combination of all three, and began heckling the speaker and brought his remarks to a halt.

Eventually, the discussion had to be moved to another location, where it went ahead without further incident. The university said it was aware of the disturbance, which involved only a tiny minority of students and saw no one physically harmed.

Mr Curiel said afterwards: "It was good to meet and discuss Israel and Europe with students at Glasgow Uni. The event took place despite an attempt by a small number of students to hijack freedom of speech on campus for their narrow, violent agenda. Those who preclude dialogue are necessarily part of the problem and not the solution.

"Those who preach hatred and division, are on a dangerous path to violent incitement. It was sad and disappointing to realise that freedom of expression, a pillar of academic discourse and British tradition, could be so easily trampled by a small group of extremists on a UK campus."

This is a common experience for representatives of the Jewish state on university campuses in the West. Speakers, invited to engage in dialogue, are met not just by healthy protest but opponents so antagonistic towards Israel they seek to shout down anyone who offers an alternative perspective.

Another Israeli diplomat Ishmael Khaldi was meted out the same treatment during a speech at the University of Edinburgh in 2011. Mr Khaldi, a Bedouin Muslim who ran a Jewish/Bedouin outreach programme before going to work for Israel's foreign ministry, has a unique story to tell but the people who shouted him down were not prepared to listen.

The routine deployment of the heckler's veto is symptomatic of an encroaching epistemic closure amongst liberal-leftists on the subject of Israel. Like their right-wing counterparts on matters like Europe and immigration, self-styled "progressives" have made up their mind and are not willing to see blissful certainty disrupted by the sinister temptations of doubt.

Historically, support for Israel, and before that for the re-establishment of a Jewish polity in what had come to be known as Palestine, was a mainstream position for left-of-centre people. The Zionist pioneers who risked imprisonment or death in their campaigns to ingather Jews, oppressed and hounded in much of the Diaspora, seemed natural comrades for socialists in the West.

Their kibbutz ideology was the most complete form of collectivism outside the Soviet Union, they were fighting the imperialist British occupation forces in Mandate Palestine, and antisemitism was still for many on the Left a supreme evil against which exacting vigilance was essential.

The Six-Day War in 1967 marked a turning point. Israel pre-empted a coordinated invasion by the surrounding Arab nations, aimed at destroying the 19-year-old Jewish state. At the cease of hostilities six days later, Israel held the Sinai and Gaza (since returned to Egypt and the Palestinians, respectively) as well as a united Jerusalem, the Golan Heights, and the West Bank, previously known as Judea and Samaria and considered the cradle of Jewish history.

To Israel, it had redrawn new, secure borders in a defensive war. But to swelling numbers of those on the left, the socialist Zionist utopia had become an occupier and, worse, a satellite state of the hated United States. The rise of the Palestine Liberation Organisation, and the use of terrorism against Israeli military and civilian targets, became a dividing line in Western politics. If you were pro-Israel, you were anti-Palestinian and if you were pro-Palestinian, you were endorsing terrorism. The continuing failure of the peace process down the years has only reinforced this polarisation.

It is against this backdrop that Yiftah Curiel and other Israeli diplomats do their jobs. Hence the anger and shouting and accusations. What is at stake matters a great deal and both sides have spokespeople and activists determined to make their narrative the official truth.

The mild-mannered and soft-spoken Mr Curiel was on a visit to Scotland (his first) to meet students, academics and journalists. He serves as the spokesperson for the Embassy of Israel in London. He was educated at Tel Aviv University, holding degrees in law, political science and the arts, and worked for the left-wing Israeli newspaper Haaretz before joining the country's ministry of foreign affairs, where he has held positions on nuclear non-proliferation, culture, and communications. He was born in Israel, as were his parents, but his Viennese grandfather Leo joined the British Army during World War II and fought the Nazis, ending up in a prisoner of war camp.

In the UK, Israel is viewed almost exclusively through the prism of the Palestinian conflict but there are strong trade ties between the Jewish nation and the UK and Mr Curiel was keen to talk about the value those connections bring to both countries. The UK is Israel's number one export market in Europe and number four in the world, with trade between the two countries doubling in recent years and now standing at almost £4bn. The Middle Eastern country is feted for its innovative medical and hi-tech sectors, two industries where Scotland is finding itself more in demand on the world stage and Mr Curiel sees opportunities for the two countries to work together in these areas.

For Israel, trade is a not just about economic advantage. It is a key form of "soft diplomacy".

Mr Curiel explained: "In order to make the relationship between any two countries meaningful, and this goes especially for Israel and Europe in a specific context, you have to fill it with as much content as you can. That includes trade, academic cooperation, and cultural cooperation. I think that, given Israel's history with Europe, there were very high points -- Jews flourished in Europe for a long time and the founder of Israel, Herzl, was a European liberal Jew.

"On the other hand, there's a darker part of that history in the destruction of almost all of European Jewry in the Holocaust. So the relationship is not just any bilateral relationship; it has deep historical aspects. We need to fill that relationship not with these historical extremes but with positive, day-to-day content and that is with trade and culture. That is the best way to influence one another. That's the best bridge between countries."

Yet, as ever in the Middle East, we can set the conflict aside only for so long. Because trade and commerce have become the new battleground between Israel and the Palestinians and their respective partisans. A pro-Palestinian movement for boycotts, divestment and sanctions (BDS) campaigns to disrupt trade and cultural and academic relationships with Israel and Israeli organisations. Israel, the BDS movement contends, must be isolated in the international community to compel it to comply with international law.

Mr Curiel rejects this movement and its aims, arguing that it not only fails to alienate Israel but undermines hopes for peace on both sides.

He maintains: "There is nothing wrong with being pro-Palestinian. You don't have to be either pro-Palestinian or pro-Israeli. That's the most important message I'd like to bring. But I think the people who try to be divisive and incite are dangerous. BDS is not denting trade, which has doubled in recent years, and it's not denting any part of the real relationship.

"But what it is doing is sending a worrying message to Israelis that no matter what you do, the people who hate you will continue to hate you. One example is the Sodastream factory that was boycotted for a long time, even though it employed hundreds of Palestinians at equal wages, and now because of financial reasons it's moving to the Negev and BDS has announced that they'll continue to boycott it. That gives you a real insight into the aims of BDS. I wish that the people who are pro-Palestinian here in Glasgow would realise that it takes dialogue and it takes listening to the other side if we are ever going to reach peace."

The need for dialogue and compromise has been at the fore once again in recent weeks. Tensions have flared up around Jerusalem's Temple Mount, the holiest site in Judaism but also the location of the Al-Aqsa Mosque, and the past month has seen six Israelis murdered in terrorist attacks. The Temple Mount is the subject of almost constant rumour and a common theme is the claim by one Islamist group or another that Israel is about to defile or destroy Al-Aqsa. Such is the sensitivity of this one hill in Israel's capital that it is administered by a neighbouring Arab country and while Muslims are free to pray there, Jews are forbidden from doing so and can ascend only at select times.

Mr Curiel said his government was determined to bring the recent unrest to a peaceful end.

He said: "Israel has maintained the status quo on the Temple Mount since 1967, since Jerusalem was reunited. That status quo is very clear and simple, meaning Muslims pray in Al-Aqsa while non-Muslims, such as Jews and tourists, are allowed at specific times and are not allowed to pray. That status quo has never changed and it hasn't changed in the past few weeks, despite what people are saying.

"We are now trying to calm these tensions and our prime minister Netanyahu has reiterated what I am saying. He has spoken with the King of Jordan, whose organisation the Waqf sees over the Temple Mount. It's extremely dangerous to make these statements of holy wars because these statements can bring individuals to take actions like we've seen in the past few weeks."

Before our time is up we come, inevitably, to the elephant in the room: The two-state solution. It used to be said that everyone knew a two-state solution was the answer but no one knew how to do it. However, in recent years, new voices have questioned the fundamentals of "two states for two peoples". New Yorker editor David Remnick has suggested that Israel's refusal to withdraw from the West Bank makes a binational solution more likely.

Under those circumstances, Israel would cease being the Jewish state and Jews would (in theory) live alongside the Palestinians in a single state. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Jerusalem Post columnist Caroline Glick argues in her book The Israeli Solution that the West Bank should be incorporated into Israel and Palestinians given a path to citizenship, thus joining the 1.7m Arabs living in Israel today.

But these proposals, while accruing support, are still very much outwith the mainstream in Israel and the capitals of the world. Polls consistently show strong majority support amongst Israelis for a Palestinian state. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has accepted the principle also, though many in the rank and file of his right-of-centre Likud party are less enthusiastic.

Mr Curiel insists: "The two-state solution has been the only viable solution for a long time now and it's been adopted not just by Israel's traditional left-wing governments but also by more right-wing governments, including the current one. There is no doubt that this is where we're heading but it takes two sides to do this. We have difficulties, currently, with our partner with Hamas being part of this PA government but I don't see any other solution. The different one-state proposals which are being discussed are alternate ways of destroying Israel as a Jewish state."

And this commitment to peace and coexistence is as much personal as political for Mr Curiel. He explained: "Before I came here, I lived in Jaffa which is a mixed neighbourhood where Israelis and Muslim Arabs and Christians live together. My daughter went to a kindergarten where they spoke Arabic and Hebrew and her friends were from different faiths. That reality is happening in Israel today. It's not as if Jews and Arabs can't live together; they can do it quite well.

"But we've got certain groups out there, like Hamas and others, which are opposed to peace and aided by Iran and others, and I think that when we overcome these obstacles it may be simpler than we thought. Simply because, people, on the day to day level, want to live their lives. They're not interested in violence.

"I think it still stands true today what the late former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin said. 'We must pursue peace as if there is no terror but fight terror as if there is no peace.' Sometimes the idea is thrown around that we can be relaxed on terror and achieve peace but that is never going to work. That is why Israel is sometimes viewed as an aggressor when it is actually doing the only thing it can do to create a reality in which peace will be possible."

Mr Curiel is a young man from a young country -- Theodor Herzl's "Old New Land" - and he speaks hopefully of coexistence and progress. It is, however, a very Israeli optimism, tempered by the bitter and painful lessons of war and terrorism, error and failure. Israel is a country that anyone who cares about peace must work to understand. Understand, but not always agree with the policies of this government or that. Protest, demonstrate, and agitate if you feel strongly. Condemn and denounce injustice when you perceive it. Fly your Palestinian flag and send your money and show solidarity if you choose. But if you want to be part of the solution and help create a climate where peace can be achieved, you have to talk -- and listen.

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