The first Arab to serve as an Israeli ambassador appeared at Hamilton's Chamber of Commerce on March 11. Ali Yahya, who served as Israel's ambassador to Finland between 1995-1999, was in Canada for a series of public speaking engagements and meetings with academics, politicians and individuals working towards peaceful co-existence in the Middle East.
About 60 people, including several members of Hamilton's Jewish community, the local Palestinian Congress, and members of the CIIA, attended the event, which was sponsored by the Canadian Institute of International Affairs (CIIA).
A jovial, warm and unaffected man, Yahya, who currently serves as the Israel Foreign Ministry's coordinator for special projects and the peace process, prefaced his remarks by acknowledging the complexities inherent in identifying as an Israeli diplomat, an Arab Israeli and a Palestinian. In his overview of the history of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Yahya pointed to the Palestinian leadership's lack of vision in rejecting the British Mandate's offer in 1947 to divide Palestine as the main cause of the subsequent tragedy that created hundreds of thousands of refugees and inextricably divided the Palestinian people between those who chose to throw in their lot with the new Jewish state and those who left. While acknowledging that many Palestinians were forcibly expelled from their homes, he repeatedly emphasized throughout his talk that progress towards peace could only be achieved by looking ahead rather than dwelling on the past.
Yahya, who was born and raised in Nazareth, acknowledged that being a member of Israel's minority Arab population has not been easy, but preferred to dwell on the positives such as the high percentage of university-educated men and women, and the excellent relations between the city of Haifa's Arab and Jewish populations. He did admit, however, that political advancement has not followed economic successes, due to what he perceives as the "mistaken" policy that disallows Israel's Arab citizens from serving in the army and a lack of political astuteness similar to that shown by the Shas party, which succeeded in placing the needs of Israel's underprivileged Oriental population at the forefront of the national agenda.
Yahya said that before the current intifadah, now in its third year, there had been significant progress and financial support for peace initiatives between Israelis and Palestinians, but that following the breakdown of the Camp David talks, Arafat effectively "punished" any Non-Government Organization (NGO) that continued to "work for the Israelis." His purpose in coming to Canada, he said, was to gain support for joint projects among Israelis, Palestinians and Jordanians, and he praised the Canada International Scientific Exchange Program (CISEPO), and its chair, audience member, Dr. Arnold Noyek, for promoting programs that bring Israeli and Palestinians together to work on common projects.
Yahya's formal presentation was followed by a heated question period, during which e he fielded questions from Palestinians who protested what they saw as his minimization of Palestinian suffering. When the discussion threatened to deteriorate into shouting match, CIIA member and event organizer, Elham Farah, intervened, reminding the audience that the purpose of the presentation was to look at the Israeli-Palestinian conflict "from a Canadian perspective."
"If the mind is stuck in what happened yesterday", she said, "It will not help."
Yahya responded to his accusers by saying that experience had shown that Israel can not be defeated by violence and that even Hanan Ashwari and Abu Mazen are saying that the only way to influence Israel is through peaceful negotiation. "Time is running out," he appealed to them, "the players are tired" and the Palestinian leadership "must come back to the table."
At the same time Arab countries should look to the European Union as a model of what political unity can achieve and stop blaming Israel "for all the problems of Arab world."
Among the comments by audience members were those voiced by CISEPO chair, Dr. Noyek, who said that Canadians can play the role of "honest broker", by helping Israelis and Palestinians "who want to work together but can't get close together" focus on the things that unite rather than divide them.
CISEPO, which initiates and implements programs involving Canadians, Israelis, Jordanians and Palestinians that promote understanding and dialogue in areas of common interest, supports an initiative led by Dundas resident, Elham Farah, which will bring Israeli and Palestinian teachers to study together at Brock University.