Israel’s top diplomat in the UK went head-to-head with his Palestinian counterpart on Monday, debating the Middle East conflict live on radio for an hour.
Israeli Ambassador Mark Regev and Palestinian Ambassador Prof. Manuel Hassassian traded arguments on LBC, both insisting the other was placing preconditions ahead of future peace talks, but that both were ready to sit down.
Hassassian said Palestinians would return to the negotiating table when there was a moratorium on settlement-building and a release of prisoners, while Regev said Palestinians had to acknowledge the Jewish people’s right to their historic homeland.
The envoys were interviewed separately by LBC presenter Iain Dale in July, after which they agreed to debate together, providing a rare glimpse of senior Israeli and Palestinian representatives discussing substantive issues alongside one another.
The two men had five minutes to press the other, with Hassassian asking Regev to define Israel’s borders, and Regev asking Hassassian why the Palestinians “rewarded terror”.
Regev asked why President Mahmoud Abbas’s Fatah organisation chose the Munich commemoration at the Rio Olympics last month to praise Black September’s terrorist operation which killed 11 Israeli athletes.
He then asked why the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) paid a monthly salary to “the people guilty of the most heinous crimes against humanity, people who killed babies, who throw bombs into schools”.
Regev said: “If I steal a car, I get nothing. If I murder innocent civilians, if I get a 25-year sentence, I get £2,400 a month from the Palestinian Authority… Why do you reward brutal terrorists? What are you saying to your own people?”
Hassassian said there were 7,000 political prisoners in Israeli jails, including 500 women and children. “Do you tell me all these people have their hands covered in Israeli blood? Those who are in jail have families. Their homes have been destroyed. They are providers…. The money goes to every political prisoner.”
Pressed on the point of paying killers, Hassassian said: “There is a difference between someone who has committed a criminal act, and someone who is patriotic, who is fighting for his land, there is a big difference.”
On the peace process, Hassassian said that the two sides should not “make the mistakes of incrementalism… just go to the final status, put all the issues on the table and let’s have the white smoke. I don’t think my president would say no”.
Both men said their respective leaders would be happy to meet. Regev asked Hassassian to tell Abbas that Benjamin Netanyahu “would clear his schedule” in order to meet in New York at the UN General Assembly this week. Hassassian said Russian President Vladimir Putin had invited both Abbas and Netanyahu to meet in Moscow, but that Netanyahu had been too busy.
The pair’s wide-ranging discussion also included Hamas, with Hassassian asking: “Why is this always an impediment?” Regev said Israel had withdrawn from Gaza only to see Hamas take over, so “Israel has to think about the day after [the sides sign a peace agreement]”.
Regev acknowledged “legitimate” Palestinian concerns, including settlement building, but said Israel also had concerns, including terrorism, incitement, hate speech and “a consistent refusal to live up to past commitments”.
Among the questions was one from former Middle East minister Alistair Burt, who said there were people who were desperate to work with both Israelis and Palestinians for peace but who were “unsure whether you both want it”.
Hassassian said the only option was to negotiate, but to negotiate “we need to be on parity level… the question of mutual mistrust must be shunned away”.
On the issue of trust, Regev invited Abbas to say “we understand that the Jewish people also have a legitimate right to national self-determination, to a state of their own, that they have a legitimate claim on their homeland, and that we will find a way to live together, if he said that it would revolutionise the dialogue”.
Hassassian said: “President Abbas has recognised the State of Israel as a legitimate state in our part of the world. The problem is that Israel does not recognise us.”