by Rhonda Spivak
Hanna Seniora, the man that Yasser Arafat appointed to be The Palestinian Authority’s Ambassador to the U.S. in 2002, agreed to let me interview him while he was sipping a cup of turkish coffee. We were in Beit-Jalla outside of Bethlehem.
The white-haired 72 year old Senoira, is a Christian Palestinian who lives in East Jerusalem, and is the co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information. He is also currently a member of the Palestine National Council and the chairperson of the Palestinian-American Chamber of Commerce.
In the 1970’s, Siniora served first as editor-in-chief, and later as publisher of the Jerusalem Arab newspaper Al Fajr. That paper has an English-language edition known as The Jerusalem Times founded in 1994, of which Seniora is currently the publisher.
I first asked Seniora was how many Christians (who made up over 75% of Bethlehem’s population in 1947) currently lived in Bethlehem, which now has a Moslem majority. Do the Christians continue to leave? Seniora answered “About 40% [of Bethlehem’s population] are Christian. They are staying. They are born and raised here...”
At the time, Seniora’s answer struck me as a little odd, one which tried to downplay the ongoing exodus of Bethlehem’s Christians. According to Israeli surveys, Christians now make up less than 25 percent of Bethlehem. According to Wikipedia, in 1998 Bethlehem’s Christian population had already declined to 23%.
While Seniora mentioned his inflated figure of 40%., he didn’t mention that in Bethlehem, Christians have long complained of anti-Christian violence. His prediction that Christians in Bethlehem will all be “staying” struck me as rather untenable.
Seniora has long been a proponent of dialogue in working towards a resolution to the Palestinian-Israel conflict, and is viewed by many as a moderate.
He said that “in the long run”, he believes that a two state solution “ is the only solution” to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, but “in the short term it’s difficult because the Israeli government is still reluctant about a two state solution.” Seniora made no mention at all of any notion that there are those on the Palestinian side of the equation who oppose a two state solution, or are “still reluctant.”
Seniora said that “We [the Palestinians] have to stop violence, and they [the Israelis] have to freeze settlements.”
I asked about a Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and Seniora spoke of Palestinian elections. Seniora said “ Eventually the [Palestinian] people will have to decide. We are trying to start a democracy where the results will be respected. Unfortunately, [in the last election when Hamas won in Gaza], the results weren’t respected and this led to [conflict]. Now Mahmoud Abbas is saying, let the voters decide and the Palestinian Authority will respect the results of the elections.”
Seniora’s above statement about the PA holding elections in the West Bank, and respecting the results if Hamas won, seemed rather fanciful to me at the time. My interview with Seniora took place last August. Since we are now in January 2010 when these elections were to be held, we can certainly say that Seniora’s statement turned out to be way off the mark. Regardless of whether Abbas declares that he is resigning or not, one thing has become increasingly clear-it’s not likely that we will see elections in the near future, since Abbas might well lose!
On the subject of Hamas, Seniora said this past August “Even Hamas has changed in the last three years from asking for the whole of historical Palestine.... Until now they [Hamas] refuse to recognize the State of Israel. They say that the PLO did that, and what did it get them? They [Hamas] say that if Israel will withdraw to the 1967 borders and the State of Palestine will take shape in the borders of ’67, then they will reconsider their position on the recognition issue.”
In response, I said to Seniora, that Hamas’s view that they would “reconsider their position,” is very different then saying they would recognize Israel. Seniora acknowledged this distinction.
When I asked whether he was saying he thought Hamas would recognize Israel, he responded “I think eventually, yes, they would.”
He said that currently “Hamas says they are ready for a long term ceasefire for ten years.”
While he was saying this, I thought to myself, that throughout the interview Seniora was trying to sell me a rather strong smelling concoction: not only will all the Christians stay in Bethlehem, but Abbas will soon call elections and respect their results, and, of course, Hamas is really in its own humble way telling us that it recognizes Israel.
Seniora expounded, “Hamas are saying that they are for ending the occupation and they have said they will live in a state [with the 1967 borders], which means that they indirectly recognize Israel.”
Seniora then said “Israel should go to Hamas and say that Hamas can participate in [Palestinian] elections in January 2010 and we[Israel] will respect the results of that, and will negotiate with you [Hamas] if you win.”
Seniora noted that Gershon Baskin, the Co-CEO of the Israel-Palestine Centre for Research and Information,[IPCRI] disagreed with him in this regard.
“Gershon [Baskin] thinks that Hamas can not participate in elections without recognizing Israel’s right to exist, but without them [Hamas] we can’t have a peaceful settlement,” Seniora said.
“Most of [Hamas’s] people justify it[ not recognizing Israel] by saying how can I recognize Israel, when I don’t have a state?,” Seniora added.
After hearing Seniora try to sanitize what Hamas has been saying, I finished the interview feeling rather pessimistic about the prospects for peace.
But there was something else that made me feel more pessimistic.
I interviewed Seniora just before a two day peace education conference IPCRI held in Beit Jalla, outside of Bethlehem on Aug 7-8. Baskin and Seniora, as Co-CEO’s of the organization were scheduled to speak at the opening session. But, when the time came Seniora wasn’t there and Baskin opened the conference without even mentioning his whereabouts.
Throughout the two day conference, Baskin actively participated and attended the sessions. But, I didn’t see Seniora attend any of the sessions. He wasn’t around much, and when he was around, he was sitting having coffee in the lounge. Baskin also gave closing remarks at the conference without Seniora.
Was this an accident, or was it symptomatic of the fact that Seniora’s interest in peace workshops is waning?
Subsequent to the conference, I read the IPCRI website, and was not surprised to find writings of Baskin posted, but nothing of Seniora’s.
Rhonda Spivak, an attorney and a writer, is a member of the Canadian and Israel Bar Associations, now editing the Winnipeg Jewish Report at http://winnipegjewishreport.com/