DAVID GREENE, HOST:
Twenty-five years ago today, Israelis and Palestinians started on a road to peace - or so it seemed. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat met Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin and signed what were called the Oslo Accords in 1993.
STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
The people who recall that moment include Yezid Sayigh. He advised the Palestinian side as they were granted a Palestinian Authority. It was expected to lead toward a state for Palestinians and security for Israel.
YEZID SAYIGH: This process of normalization in which Palestinians could now start looking at Israelis as humans instead of enemies, Israelis could look at Palestinians as humans instead of enemies, I think, was a fundamental political and psychological shift that was necessary as a basis for future steps.
INSKEEP: Yezid Sayigh recalls the '90s as a period when Israelis and Palestinians had a chance to understand each other. He's a senior fellow now at the Carnegie Middle East Center in Beirut. And his is one of many perspectives, Israeli and Palestinian, that we hear over time about this conflict. When Sayigh talks, we hear his version of how the conflict has grown so bitter today, as the Trump administration works to impose a deal.
Sayigh is among those who believed the peace process could work in the '90s. But then, he says, Palestinians grew overconfident that their state was at hand. Negotiations failed. Palestinians staged uprisings and bombings. Israelis staged military crackdowns and built settlements on land presumed to be under negotiation.
SAYIGH: They continued very actively to push Israeli settlement activity in the occupied territories, especially in the West Bank. The other thing was that every time there was a terrorist attack by the Palestinian opponents of the peace process, the Israeli government imposed collective economic punishments on the entire Palestinian population by closing crossing points for trade and workers and so on.
INSKEEP: A few more years went on. And Palestinians, when given a chance to vote, voted - many of them - heavily for Hamas, an organization that does not recognize the existence of Israel and believes in violent resistance.
SAYIGH: By 2006, you'd had a reoccupation by the Israelis by force of pretty much the entirety of the West Bank. You'd had the Israeli withdrawal from Gaza in a way that was not coordinated with the Palestinian Authority and therefore lent a lot of political credibility to Hamas. And so elections that followed immediately on all this were almost inevitably going to favor Hamas instead of the, you know, Palestinian peace camp.
INSKEEP: Whatever the precise rhetoric they may use, do you think that Israelis are at all committed to a two-state solution anymore?
SAYIGH: Well, I think there are many individuals who are - would be or would like to be. But I think the Israeli government, which today is the most right-wing in Israel's history - this government is openly and publicly and unashamedly opposed to Palestinian statehood. The Palestinians, on the other side, I think probably a majority would prefer it but don't trust the Israelis to prefer it.
They no longer know how to achieve this given that we have a U.S. administration that, for the first time in decades, has taken us back to the early years after 1948, when Israel first was established. In those early years, U.S. policy was, there is no Palestine problem. This is just a refugee resettlement issue. It's a humanitarian problem, not a political one. The Trump administration has taken us right back, nearly 70 years in other words.
INSKEEP: Well, the Trump administration has suggested that its steps, which it describes as pro-Israel, are also aimed at resolving this impasse. President Trump has said that it was a step forward to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and move the U.S. Embassy there; the Trump administration has cut off aid to the Palestinians; it's closing a Palestine Liberation Organization office in Washington, D.C. - all of this seen as ways to pressure the Palestinians to accept such a deal as may be offered to them. Is this moving things closer to a deal?
SAYIGH: It is impossible now to have any kind of deal. So why pretend to ourselves that we're talking about the deal of the century when the refugee issue is now being openly liquidated by the U.S. administration, who believes it should cease to be an issue to be negotiated? Jerusalem has been taken off the table. I mean, what exactly are we left with to negotiate?
INSKEEP: Well, this is the dynamic the administration has suggested it's trying to set up. And let's talk about this as if it were a cash deal rather than a giant negotiation. The administration is essentially saying, we used to be offering you a thousand dollars to settle, and you didn't take that deal. So now we're offering you $500, and you better take it before it's $200 or $50 or nothing.
SAYIGH: I mean, that sounds like an argument. But it isn't because - I mean, look. I'll speak in a very personal way. I'm reflecting exclusively myself. I don't really care if there's a Palestinian state and Palestinians are members of a Palestinian state. There's about 6 million people in that territory who the Israeli state regards as noncitizens and denies equal rights - 6 million people. I don't care if the state that represents them is Israel or Palestine or has some other science fiction name. These are human beings who are entitled to live a life of dignity, of prosperity in which they fulfill themselves as individuals and as groups - politically, culturally, economically - in every possible way that any American or British person or Chinese person would want.
I don't care whether they have an independent state or not. I just care that every single Palestinian whose life and his life prospects or her life prospects are blighted - they can't export or import a tiny object, whatever that object might be, without Israeli approval. They can't travel to see each other, to study, to do whatever they want without Israeli permission. This is the reality that Palestinians have lived in for decades - a prison - a big prison, sometimes with more comforts, sometimes with fewer.
INSKEEP: Do you see merit - do you acknowledge any merit in the basic Israeli narrative that they feel this is their historic homeland, that they came there after being oppressed elsewhere, that they've built a successful state and that they feel threatened by terrorist attacks?
SAYIGH: Absolutely. We find it hard, a lot of the time - or other Palestinians or Arabs find it very hard to buy when Israelis see themselves as threatened or as victims. But I accept and understand that this feeling is genuine and true. We understand totally because of the history of the Holocaust but also for centuries before. Israelis would talk about fulfilling the return to the Jewish land of 2,000 years ago. I understand that. But then, why is it so difficult to understand the longing of Palestinians to go back to homes they lost only 70 years ago, not 2,000 years ago?
INSKEEP: Yezid Sayigh, thank you very much.
SAYIGH: Thank you.
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