Deputy Israeli Ambassador to the UK, Alon Roth-Snir was invited to give the second address of Epiphany term to Durham Union Society (DUS) on Monday 8 February.
Recently appointed to the position, he was invited to speak about his previous experience working for the Israeli Government and to share his knowledge on issues facing both Israel and the West.
A small demonstration was staged outside the debating chambers on Palace Green before the address. Representatives from Durham University Friends of Palestine and Durham Palestine Solidarity Campaign displayed flags and handed out leaflets bearing the slogan: “Remember, there is a lot that the Ambassador isn’t going to tell you about the Occupation.”
Beginning his address, Mr Roth-Snir said: “I am very honoured to be here” and explained that he wanted the evening to be a “conversation” and an opportunity to “explain how Israelis look at things”. He continued: “I did not come here to give you a lecture through the eyes of Israeli ambassadors […] but in order to listen to you.”
Talking about the current unrest in the Middle East, Mr Roth-Snir said that, for a long time, it has been evident to spectators that something was going wrong. But no one could have predicted that unrest would break out in Tunisia or Egypt. He stressed that there are many factors responsible for the recent eruptions of violence in the Middle East that are nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. “Even if the process finished tomorrow, it won’t stop all conflict.”
He also stated his belief that Western media coverage of the Middle East is overly dominated by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and doesn’t focus on events in the rest of the region enough. He stated that recent events in Egypt make it easier to speak to people about the Middle East because they are aware “there’s much disruption in the region” and it is “very volatile”. But he stressed “I’m not happy about what is happening in Egypt.”
“There are terrible internal and external tensions in the Middle East.” “The whole region is very shaky these days.”
Next, Mr Roth-Snir addressed the issue on most people’s minds with the question “what do we do with Gaza?” He praised Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas’ work to modernise the West Bank where a thriving economy with a yearly growth rate of 9% has been sustained for three years. But whilst “the situation in the West Bank is going up, in Gaza it’s going down”.
Questioned by a member of the audience about the building of illegal settlements in Gaza, Mr Roth-Snir responded that “the question should not be if it’s legal or wise but what we should do to move forward.” He added that Israel had dismantled settlements previously in Gaza and removed the inhabitants. “The issue of settlements is a virtual one […] not a real one” and it is not stopping the peace process from moving forward.
He is confident that “everything can find a solution” but since this is a sensitive issue and the subject of “ongoing conversation”, Mr Roth-Snir detained from speaking extensively on the subject.
But “eternal problems” face the peace process. The Ambassador cited past instances when Israel withdrew from Gaza and then rockets were fired into the southern region of the country. “Israel responded and people condemn them.”
He continued: “Hamas doesn’t recognise Israel’s right to exist.”
“The more suicide bombs we have, the more fighting we have, the less chance we have. Israel feels threatened.”
“We want to have peace and we want to move forward […] but we ask what do we get in return and with whom do we sign?”
Mr Roth-Snir urged listeners to try to “see the situation from the inside”. He explained that young people in Tel Aviv, Israel’s second most populous city, have the same concerns and interests as students here.
He sees the lack of communication as a barrier to progress. “What we lack in the Middle East and in the Israeli-Arab conflict resolution is the people to people aspect.”
Whilst working in Jordan, Mr Roth-Snir explained that he was involved in a project that enabled young people to go to Israel and to meet people who lived there. Some were afraid to cross the border into the country but ultimately, they “found common ground.”
Communication is vital but “Israelis make the same mistake again and again – we don’t listen enough, we don’t read enough”. He acknowledged that Israel’s past conduct has not been blameless but “we always said we are ready to sit and to talk.”
In response to accusations of Israel being an ‘Apartheid state’, the Ambassador reminded listeners that people are welcomed in Israel from around the world. Israel is also the first country in which Bedouins are able to go to university. “We are very far away from an Apartheid state […] come and see with your own eyes how Israel and Arab villages look alike”.
Throughout, Mr Roth-Snir stressed the importance of looking forward rather than “always looking back to the conflict”. “I am not trying to say that everything is wonderful now […] but that we should look forward.”
Ambassador Roth-Snir thanked the DUS for giving him the opportunity to speak and the audience for their questions. He says that he will continue to think about the answers: “for me it is a learning curve that never ends.”
Speaking after the debate, Martha Meloun, a member of Durham University Friends of Palestine, explained she was pleased by the challenging questions put to Mr Roth-Snir. But she stressed that a debate would have been better: “if there’s only one side represented, it’s hard to see if it’s balanced or not.”
She added: “it’s important for us to be here to show that we’re part of the debate too.” The Friends of Palestine will present an alternative view of the situation in their talk, ‘Palestine in Perspective’, next Wednesday.