A few days later, following an e-mail exchange, one Mitchell Plitnick responded to this claim on his blog. Yaacov is wrong, he said, it was actually the other way around, the group of Palestinians and Israelis did reach agreement, and it's posted online here. (Mitchell used to work for the NIF, by the way).
I was a bit taken aback by his post. I was saying one thing had happened, and he was telling about a different event: might it not be possible that both happened? Did it have to be either-or? Still, knowing that human memory can be a tricky thing, I said I'd have to look into the matter. My description of an event in July 2001 was written in 2002, but perhaps it was false?
Google is useless for this sort of research, a matter I'm well familiar with because of my other profession, and the Haaretz archive likewise. Only this afternoon did I find the time to do the old-fashioned thing, and go to the National Library where I read through the microfilmed copies from Haaretz of July 2001. Prior to that, however, I did the second best: I used my connections to inquire directly from some of the Israeli participants. I sent them a copy of the two paragraphs I'd written in 2002, and inquired if they might illuminate the matter for me. Only one of them responded at all, and he told me my memory was wrong, the discussions hadn't touched upon the subject of Israel being Jewish or otherwise - tho he was careful enough to say he hadn't been at all of the meetings.
On July 9th 2001 Amira Hass, hardly the most impartial reporter Haaretz could find, filed a short report on the first day of meetings between Palestinian and Israeli peace activists. The original Hebrew is below; here's my translation into English:
Some 30 Israeli and Palestinian writers and public figures met yesterday. At the beginning of the meeting Yossi Beilin requested of those present that they formulate a joint declaration in the hope it will recreate mutual trust and express the joint trust in the possibility of reaching a peace agreement. A committee was set up to formulate the declaration.
The Israelis explained that the [Palestinian] demand for a right of return is understood as an attempt to undermine the existence of the Jewish state, and they further described their feeling of betrayal that the Intifada was launched against an Israeli government of the political camp that brought the Oslo Process. The Palestinians denied that the Intifada was initiated by Arafat. They added that the Palestinian public's trust in the process was undermined by the fact that even though the process was supposed to result in an Israeli return to the lines of 1967, Israeli governments continued to build in the settlements.
My recollections were based on a TV report from the evening of July 8th 2001, which was probably watched by a few million Israelis; the Hass report from the next morning essentially confirms it, it seems to me. That one professor I quoted above agrees with me, now that I've shown it to him (I'm not naming any of the people I turned to since they related to me as a private individual, not a journalist).
So what can we learn from all this?
1. The Israeli demand of the Palestinians that they recognize Israel as the Jewish state, or the state of the Jewish nation, or some similar formulation, was raised by Israeli peace activists in 2001. I don't know if they were the first, but in any case they preceded the demand by Netanyahu by nine years. Moreover, their demand was made publicly, in a manner that millions of us could see and remember.
2. The Palestinians interlocutors sort of acquiesced:
Solutions can be found to all outstanding issues that should be fair and just to both sides and should not undermine the sovereignty of the Palestinian and Israeli states as determined by their respective citizens, and embodying the aspirations to statehood of both peoples, Jewish and Palestinian.
There's wriggle room there (as in, who are the respective citizens of Israel if there's a Palestinian right of return), but even so the Palestinians did accept a formulation about Jews having a right to statehood; would that the present Palestinian leaders would say the same!
3. I was not able to find a single Israeli participant in that event who remembers it as reported at the time by Amira Hass. I didn't contact all of them, but zero from five is an interesting result.
4. Mitchell Plitnick and many of his co-activists seem to accept the Palestinian narrative: the peace process was supposed to end with Israel on the 1967 border, Jerusalem divided, and some Israeli accommodation of the refugee problem. This, however, is counter factual. No Israeli government before 2000 ever accepted those positions (Yitzchak Rabin was openly against them); and while arguably some official Israeli negotiators may have come close since 2000, they were never authorized to do so by the Israeli electorate. On the contrary. The Israeli electorate has clearly accepted the idea of partition and a two state solution, but not on the 1967 lines, not by dividing Jerusalem, and certainly not with any right of return of descendants of Palestinian refugees. Netanyahu's current positions seem rather well aligned with those of the voters (I say this as a Kadima voter), and are not a ploy to thwart peace, rather they're the terms we can live with. Plitnick is welcome to disagree (though doing so from America does rather weaken his persuasiveness), but that's what they're doing: disagreeing with the democratically elected Israeli government.
Here's the Hebrew ff the Hass report, in case anyone wishes to check my translation:
כ-30 סופרים ואנשי ציבור פלשתינאים וישראלים נפגשו אתמול. בתחילת הפגישה ביקש יוסי ביילין שהצדדים ינסו להגיע להצהרה משותפת בתקווה שהיא תסייע להחזרת האמון ההדדי ותבטא את האמון המשותף בהיתכנותו של הסכם שלום. ועדה מיוחדת תעמול על ניסוח ההצרה.
הישראלים ציינו עד כמה העלאת נושא זכות השיבה נתפסת כניסיון לחתור תחת קיום המדינה היהודית, ועל תחושת בגידה שנובעת מכך שהאינטיפדה פרצה נגד המחנה שהביא את הסכם אוסלו. הפלסטינים אמרו, שאין זה נכון שהאינטי פדה היא יוזמה של ערפאת. הם הוסיפו שאמון הציבור הפלסטיני התערער משום שלמרות שדובר על פתרון על בסיס קוי 67 המשיכו ממשלות ישראל בבניה בהתנחלויות.