Reuven Kaminer immigrated to Israel from the United States in the early 1950s and became a prominent figure in Shasi (Israeli Socialist Left). He was a member of the Israeli delegation that met with the PLO in Romania in November 1986. Israeli authorities brought Kaminer and three others to trial for violating a recent law that makes such meetings illegal. Joel Beinin interviewed him in Jerusalem in August 1987.

Where does the legal process of the trial of the four who went to Romania stand now?

The trial will continue at least until December. Nobody is in a hurry. We are not interested in permitting the prosecution to have a quick and easy trial. We want a detailed hearing of our position.

The first witness for the prosecution was Elyakim Rubenstein, the secretary of the cabinet, who appeared as a representative of the government. He reiterated the government position — that the only adjective that could be linked to the PLO is “terrorist.” Even so, we were successful in convincing the court that we can challenge whether or not the PLO was a terrorist organization in November 1986 when we met with them.

A Shinbet functionary was brought in to testify that certain Palestinian newspapers that covered the meeting in Bucharest were indeed representatives of the PLO. This provided a good chance to discuss the nature of the PLO. Lo and behold, he presented many functions which certainly could not be considered terrorist under any definition. The testimony was so startling and had such a tremendous effect in the Israeli press that the next day the official spokesman for the Shinbet came out with a kind of retraction. But the damage had been done. This testimony by a witness for the prosecution showed that the government was going to have a hard time proving that the PLO is in essence a terrorist organization. If the representatives that we met with in Bucharest in November 1986 did not represent a terrorist organization, then of course we are not guilty of any crime.

On the second day of the trial the commanding officer of the police investigation had to admit that he had consulted the Shin Bet on a regular basis while preparing the prosecution. This was, to say the least, very embarrassing for him. It is not surprising that they were working with the Shinbet, but it is surprising that we were able to break this thing wide open during the trial.

Our legal strategy is becoming clearer. Most of the arguments will not be about who went and who was there. The legal questions will be much larger and more complex than anybody assumed. This is a tribute to the first-class legal counsel we are getting. Interest in the trial seems to accumulate. We are already talking about additional investigations, and other trials are looming on the horizon.

Since your trip in November 1986, a second delegation of Israelis met with the PLO in Budapest. What effect did that have on your trial and on the political situation in Israel?

It had a tremendous impact. First, this delegation had a strong component of activists from the Sephardic, the Oriental, Jewish community. The fact that another delegation went registered the fact that the PLO is committed to this diplomatic activity as a permanent feature in its struggle to get its political line across to the masses in Israel and to the international community. There is another delegation looming; they are talking about intelligentsia, writers, artists. The government cannot criminalize this section of public opinion. The reverberations would be tremendous. If our trial is conducted successfully and we get a lot of solidarity and people protest our being on trial, then we will increase the political and material cost for the Israeli establishment of imposing this reactionary and anti-peace legislation. That is the basic strategy.

In his address to the Budapest delegation, PLO leader Abu Mazen spoke in favor of continuing such meetings and expanding them.

I think something very important has happened which is not directly connected to the trial or the meetings: Progressive Jewish peace forces in Israel and the PLO and progressive people connected with the peace camp in the US and all other countries have a common political platform today. We are past the tiresome, sterile debates about the rights and the wrongs of the Palestinian question. I don’t think that was unimportant historically, but we now have a political platform that can unite us. The only option is our program, the program of the peace forces in Israel, of the PLO, of the Arab world, of the anti-imperialist camp and of the peace people in the US — an international conference with PLO participation. It is doubly important, then, to fight efforts to make criminals of those who recognize the PLO as the legitimate Palestinian representative. This becomes the only reasonable position.

That perspective seems a little too rosy. Shimon Peres is interested in a peace conference without the PLO, and with minimum participation from the Soviet Union and other Arab states, besides Jordan. So how do we get from Shimon Peres’ peace conference to yours?

If the pro-American camp in Israel and the Arab world could conceivably put together a “Camp David II” — Mubarak, Hussein, Peres and Shamir — then they would do it. But if they couldn’t do it at the height of the Amman Accords, when the PLO was split, Peres was head of government and Reagan had prestige, then I think the time for that kind of subversion of genuine peace is past.

Even people in the pro-American camp, like Peres, are saying that something has to be done. Peres’ conditions for an international peace conference are clearly unacceptable. His plan has two basic faults. First, he thinks there can be an international peace conference without the PLO; second, he thinks that he can get the Soviet Union to play a technical role like a piece of furniture in this scenario.

But it would be a mistake to say that Peres’ approach is the same as Shamir’s. Two of the things Peres is talking about are patent impossibilities, and at a certain stage he will either have to follow through or acknowledge that he has been faking. There is an element here of diplomatic momentum. It is not impossible that the Americans will consider the possibility of a serious international peace conference in the Middle East. I am not saying that this is going to happen tomorrow. But down the road, the policies that will bring about an agreement with the Soviets on intermediate-range missiles are the same policies that could bring about a Middle East peace conference.

There are growing sectors of the Israeli political establishment, not progressive ones, which are more and more concerned that the occupation is not a viable status quo. The ruling circles had thought that time was on their side. But on the twentieth anniversary of the occupation, the bargaining chip becomes hotter and hotter to hold. There is cleavage and polarization in Israeli society because there are more and more crazies — even in the Israeli ruling circles, like Dekel. [1] There is hesitation elsewhere in the ruling circles. They say that if we become a pariah state like South Africa, then we are going to outlive our usefulness to the US. So it is not out of concern for Palestinian rights or any humanitarian urge that Israelis are having second thoughts about occupation, but rather hard-nosed analysis of where this could bring Israel in terms of its traditional bases of power.

Endnote

[1] Deputy Defense Minister Michael Dekel, a member of the ruling Likud Party, has proposed that Palestinians in the West Bank be forcibly removed to Jordan, which he said was “their country.” His proposal was taken up by minister without portfolio Yosef Shapira, leader of the National Religious Party, who suggested in a party meeting that Israel give $20,000 to any Arab willing to emigrate from Israel. Washington Post, October 31, 1987.

How to cite this article:

Joel Beinin "“The State Cannot Make Criminals Of Those Who Want Peace”," Middle East Report 150 (January/February 1988).
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