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Between 2004 and 2010, Just Vision interviewed more than 80 Palestinian and Israeli grassroots leaders. The interviews in this archive represent a fraction of the civic leaders working in the field at a particular moment in time, and aim to provide audiences access to a range of perspectives and approaches.

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Yossi Alpher

Yossi Alpher is the co-editor and co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, an English Internet magazine that serves as a platform for discussions concerning the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The idea for the website was born out of Yossi’s extensive involvement with Track II negotiations, where he met his partner and the co-founder of Bitterlemons.org, Ghassan Khatib. With the power of the Internet, which made multi-party spaces for dialogue worldwide a feasible reality, Bitterlemons.org was launched. Prior to his work with Bitterlemons.org, Yossi served with the Israeli Intelligence, Mossad and as the Director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University. He is currently a board member of the Council for Peace and Security.

  • Please tell me about yourself and your background.

    I was born in Washington, D.C., made aliyah in 1962 and have lived in Israel for 47 years. I was raised in a home that was not Zionist and assimilated to the non-Jewish culture around us. I became a Zionist and made the decision to move to Israel as a response to the Eichmann trial,1 which took place while I was a student. The trial made me identify myself as a Jew in terms of my nationality, as opposed to my religion. I suppose I was at an age where I was searching for my identity. Even before learning Hebrew or coming to Israel, I would tell my parents that I felt Israeli. This was before 1967 and American Jews weren't making aliyah at the time. My decision was a radical one and nobody around me understood it. I was drafted to the IDF, which meant giving up my American citizenship, and continued on with a career focused on security, [serving with the Israeli] Intelligence and Mossad.

    • 1The Eichmann trial refers to the criminal trial of Adolf Eichmann, a German Nazi and Holocaust orchestrator, who was held in Jerusalem in 1961. Fleeing to Argentina after World War II, he was captured by the Mossad, Israel's intelligence agency. An Israeli civilian court later found him guilty of 15 of the charges that were brought against him, including war crimes and crimes against humanity. He was hung in Israel in 1962. See Cesarani, David. "Adolf Eichmann: The Mind of a War Criminal." BBC. 17 February 2011 http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/worldwars/genocide/eichmann_01.shtml

  • You've been the co-editor of Bitterlemons.org since 2001. What made you decide to launch the site?

    In 2000, I decided I had reached an age and status that made me want to control my own life. I made a list of all the projects that I had wanted to promote for years, but for different reasons, could not. The idea that later became Bitterlemons.org was critical. Years of impressions from diplomatic Track II meetings between Israelis and Palestinians, and between Israelis and Arabs in other countries, connected me to the idea of dialogue. This is where I met Ghassan Khatib. When the Internet was born, it became technically possible to engage the world in dialogue - or a multi-party discussion. There was this feeling that the Internet would enable non-governmental diplomacy, that it could be possible to break down the discussion rooms' walls, create a serious discussion on a given topic and share it with the world. I approached Ghassan, based on the fifteen years we spent together in Track II diplomacy and mutual respect. This respect is based on the agreement that even though we never fundamentally agree on anything, we would always part ways in a friendly and respectful manner. In other words, we know how to respect our differences in opinion, and those are plentiful. In 2000, Ghassan directed the JMCC which had one of the first Palestinian websites. Their website was very active and included updates and a weekly newsletter for the foreign press. As opposed to me, Ghassan already knew how to work with the Internet. We agreed that we would share all the decision-making and writing [for Bitterlemons.org], but that I would fund raise and he would be the webmaster.

  • Where does the name "Bitterlemons" come from?

    The name "Bitterlemons" was born while I was sitting under the lemon tree in my garden. I looked at the lemons and was reminded of Lawrence Durrell's novel, Bitter Lemons.1 Durrell used the term as an image of a bitter, difficult and cruel revolution. The name matched the criteria we set for ourselves: catchy and alluding to our situation. [The name was] available so we pounced on "Bitterlemons.org".

    • 1Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was an English writer and dramatist. Born in India, he also lived in Greece, Egypt, Cyprus and France. While in Cyprus, after war broke out between the Greek and Turkish Cypriots in the 1950s, he was working as the British public relations officer. It was during that time that Durrell wrote the book Bitter Lemons, his account of the war. See "Biography." International Lawrence Durrell Society. 24 June 2011. http://www.lawrencedurrell.org/bio.htm.

  • Why is the site only published in English?

    The first edition was published in November of 2001. We insisted on collecting the necessary funds before we started working [on it] to avoid putting the project on credit or funding it ourselves - that seemed very risky. We received a grant that enabled us to publish the edition in Hebrew and Arabic, and we published these editions two days following the launch of the English edition. A year later, we realized that the English edition had become a huge success, while the Hebrew and Arabic editions had not. We continued to fundraise for advertising and promotion. For a certain period, the Hebrew newspaper, Ha'aretz, was sympathetic to our cause and published content from Bitterlemons.org in the upper left corner of the paper's front page. Initially, we had reached out to elite readership in terms of the type of materials we offered and the writers we selected. Because of this, we refrained from setting up a chat forum and a talkback section, which to us, seemed to lower the level of readership. We were astounded to discover that 98% of the readers from Saudi Arabia who entered our site chose the English edition, rather than the Arabic one. A year after we realized that the elite tends to read in English, we ceased publishing in Hebrew and Arabic. A year and a half later, in July of 2003, we launched Bitterlemonsinternational.com, which deals with the entire Middle East. The four writers, excluding Ghassan and myself, can write from anywhere. However, we continue to insist on the principle of equilibrium: if one writer is Iranian, there has to be an Israeli, too; if one writer is Lebanese, there has to be a Syrian, too. We broached the task of finding writers as a challenge. From the start, I was surprised by how easy it was to recruit Israeli and Palestinian writers. The more publicity the project received, the easier it became. Nobody, no matter how radical - Hamas or settler - will refuse presenting his views for people to assess if I let him write, reach out to over 200,000 readers and pay him to do it. We set a rule from the outset called "the pigs and monkeys rule", which is a commitment to a basic civilized quality of writing - writers present their opinions, but politely. We've had cases where we've deleted expressions written on both sides, and we applied the same rule to the rest of the Middle East. An additional project we are working on is Bitterlemons-dialogue.org, which enables ongoing dialogue. We budgeted twelve such dialogues and we've produced ten over the past three years. These dialogues are very interesting but it's been difficult finding participants and maintaining them. We now want to launch a fourth project: a yearlong project of weekly editions dedicated solely to the Arab League's Peace Initiative called BitterlemonsAPI.org. This initiative will be at the center of Internet discussions for a year. For the first time, Ghassan and I will attempt to publish a document we both agree on, a sort of road map for realizing the Arab League's Peace Initiative. If we receive the funding, the project will begin at the end of 2010.

  • Why didn't you continue with Track II diplomacy?

    I left the Mossad at a young age and came to the Jaffee Center.1 One incentive for the transition was my desire for a different kind of dialogue - one based on equality. I joined Track II diplomacy at the first opportunity that presented itself. Gradually, I climbed the rungs and joined smaller meetings, where I coordinated the Israeli team. In 1992 - 1993, as the Oslo talks were taking place, I participated in meetings with Palestinian Security representatives that dealt with security-related issues. Rabin realized the importance of these meetings - they affected him with regard to Oslo II and helped pave the road there. I continued to try to develop a framework for research that influenced policy-making toward issues that were more influential and complete in their scope, and at a certain point I summoned discussions. I organized the only conference in history held with both the settler and PLO leaderships. One of the goals of Track II diplomacy is to stay one step ahead of the establishment. We're trying to do just that at Bitterlemons.org, always predicting things a little bit ahead of time, and testing [ideas] to find out what people dealing with our conflict or with conflicts in general, are interested in. Many Israeli-Arab - and mostly Israeli-Palestinian - projects are based on the principle of consent. According to this principle, if Israelis and Palestinians agree on certain issues, this will promote joint work. I have nothing against this, and to these projects, I grant my blessing. We, on the other hand, reach out to a small target audience. When relationships are based on consent, they are based on normalization and most of the Arab and Muslim world currently rejects normalization. My wonderful friendship and partnership with Ghassan is based on disagreeing. In terms of administration, if we don't agree on how to do something, we simply don't carry it out, but essentially we seek out the topics we disagree on, bearing in mind that in doing so, we are reaching out to a much wider audience. Our effect, beyond granting knowledge and access to all perspectives - a goal in and of itself - is the attempt to make people accustomed to the idea of being opponents who don't agree, engage with each other in dialogue.

    • 1The Jaffee Center, now part of the Institute for National Security Studies, is an independent external institute of Tel Aviv University that focuses on issues related to Israel's national security and Middle East affairs. See information about the center at http://www.inss.org.il.

  • What do you do at the Council for Peace and Security?

    I've been a member of the Council for Peace and Security for a decade now and a board member for several years. At the Council, I discovered people who have a similar or parallel background in security to myself. I define the Council's members as security-minded peace doves, which is how I define myself. We share a common language and together we have the power to influence. We present and clarify our position to prime ministers and ministers of defense, whether we know them personally or not. Our influence is much more effective when we think of ideas together. The Council is also an interesting debate club - we have our disagreements. For example, I think we should be highlighting the Syrian issue1 this coming year. Distinguished Palestinian colleagues tell me we should focus on the Syrians. They claim that there's no use talking to the Palestinians this year, the Fatah leadership is in chaos due to the split from Hamas and if Israel manages to weaken Hamas through Syria, it would help [Fatah]. That's why I'd focus on Syria but most of the board members disagree.

    • 1Alpher refers to Syria's claim that the Golan Heights, annexed by Israel in 1981 is still legally a part of Syria. Israel's annexation of the Golan Heights has not been recognized by the United Nations. Some Israelis see resolving the Golan Heights issue with Syria as a way to bolster Israeli security, weakening Syria's ties with Iran and groups such as Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah, which all operate offices in Syria. See Golan Heights, Hamas, Islamic Jihad and Hezbollah. See also "Editorial / Israel should cede Golan for full peace with Syria." Haaretz. 30 October 2009. http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/editorial-israel-should-cede-golan-for-full-peace-with-syria-1.5092

  • How have the events of the Second Intifada affected Bitterlemons.org?

    Our guiding principle has always been a civilized exchange of views between people who disagree. We present one theme and the differences of opinion regarding that theme can be sorted out through dialogue. As opposed to many other joint Israeli-Palestinian projects, the Intifada's events didn't harm us. They didn't hurt us physically because our project is not based on physical meetings, which couldn't materialize during the Intifada. It is completely virtual, writing-based and built for conflict. I could be cynical and say that the Intifada provided us with discussion topics and that it amplified the underlying principle of Bitterlemons.org: when there is real fighting, there is an increased need for us to model how opponents should engage in dialogue. We have always presented a range of views - from Hamas to settlers - and I dare to say that this is what protects us from political harassment. We don't highlight the opinions of opponents engaging in dialogue in our headlines, but anyone is able to see the [range of perspectives we provide] by reading our material. You can see who the writers are, how their views contrast and how antithetical they are, yet, everyone agrees to present him or herself on the same page.

  • In your view, what is Bitterlemons.org's greatest achievement?

    One is the large readership. I think our site has had over two million visitors and we have 14,000 online subscribers. Our effect is taking root - newspapers all over the world, specifically in the Middle East, are printing our articles. Just this morning, Ghassan informed me that Al-Quds newspaper published my article from yesterday's Bitterlemons edition, and the article was later published in the Jerusalem Post. Ghassan and I receive many requests for interviews and requests to write, and while it's flattering, this still isn't a reliable index [of achievement]. Some people are liars, like Sacha Baron Cohen,1 and you have to steer clear of them. To me, people impersonating us is the greatest achievement. Ghassan would likely answer differently. Maybe he would say that our greatest achievement is that we disseminate the Palestinian position far and wide, breaking down barriers. This is very important and I understand him.

    • 1Sacha Baron Cohen is a Jewish British actor who interviewed several Israeli and Palestinian organizations and individuals for his film, Bruno. See Alpher, Yossi. "What Kind of Interview Confuses Hamas and Hummus?" The Jewish Daily Forward. 30 June 2008. http://www.forward.com/articles/13679/.

  • You mentioned that one of the achievements of Bitterlemons.org comes from the way you choose writers. What are the drawbacks?

    There are always problems in terms of quality. Bitterlemons.org is an Israeli-Palestinian project working remotely. In addition, we select two writers, an Israeli and a Palestinian, or in the case of Bitterlemonsinternational.org, we choose four writers and try to capture different perspectives. There are times that someone submits something terrible at the very last minute, silly and of poor quality, and it's too late. Another drawback is that all our articles are op-eds. A writer could be a settler or a Palestinian scholar writing something I deem nonsense or incorrect, but he's gone and constructed his thesis and you can't just go and destroy it. If a writer bases his views on facts I know are wrong, the discussion produced is low in quality and that creates a negative feeling. That's a drawback. Had we edited a periodical, a quarterly or a monthly magazine, we could sort and choose, but that's impossible in our case. Being dependent on international funding is another drawback - some of the funders are tired of this conflict.

  • Is there a connection between Bitterlemons.org and a future peace agreement?

    We avoid presenting our own plan, so our contribution is less straightforward. I think this distinguishes us. I hope our work contributes to bringing down the barriers that restrict dialogue, and assists decision-makers who read and draw on some of the ideas we raise in our articles. I was encouraged a year ago when I heard that Condoleezza Rice, former U.S. Secretary of State, reads Bitterlemons.org. When I write, I present my ideas knowing she and other people in important positions are reading it. That's important.

  • What is the conflict about in your opinion?

    Fundamentally, it's a conflict between Islam and Judaism. On another level, it's historic, religious and cultural. At yet another level, it's over land: a geographical conflict that assumed demographic dimensions. It's also a political conflict, and that may be the simplest part to resolve, because it involves other actors of the Middle East and the rest of the world. When you approach issues such as the Right of Return and the Temple Mount - existential issues that require resolution to bring an end to the conflict - we realize how deep this conflict runs.

  • How do fears affect the conflict?

    Undoubtedly, fears affect the conflict; each side fears the other. However, I personally don't view fear as a central issue in the conflict. Good people are dedicating all their efforts to treat the fears, bringing people together to meet each other and having each person share his or her story. While this allows the other side to see the person speaking, a person with similar problems to themselves and a family of their own, unfortunately, this hasn't helped much. My feeling is that if there is to be a solution soon, it could be stable, but it would only be a partial solution. It would be based more on the idea of "divorce" rather than "marriage," separation rather than integration. Whether we like it or not, this is the trend, and a solution won't confront fear.

  • How can the conflict be resolved?

    One of the most interesting - intriguing, I would say - but also depressing phenomenon that emerged in recent years is that the Israeli public is sobering up. People don't believe in "peace." They witnessed peace with Egypt, with Jordan, they saw Oslo - peace with the Palestinians - and the Israeli public doesn't want that. They don't believe in it. The Israeli public seeks a settlement, but the collective perspective is almost cynical. People are no longer interested in eating hummus in the market in Damascus.1 If there is peace, I'm assuming it won't be a very warm peace. I doubt that the idea of a new Middle East, one in line with Shimon Peres' vision of it, is attainable. He talks about comprehensive peace with the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon and about Israel as a member of the Arab league. Even if the Arabs seriously implement the Arab Peace Initiative, I don't believe that it will transpire. While it does talk about normalization and even of shared security, that vision is becoming more and more distant. This doesn't mean we shouldn't try to attain peace, but the Israeli public's approach should be kept in mind.

    • 1Damascus is the capital of Syria, a country that has no relations with the State of Israel. Est. population of Damascus in 2009: 1,711,000.

  • Are there any fears that compel you to do your work?

    All of my adult life, I've known people from all over the Arab world, and I know it's nearly an impossible feat to find an Arab who would be willing to sign a declaration that states that the State of Israel is the legitimate expression of the Jewish people's aspiration to re-establish its state in its historical homeland. Some Israelis transform this into a fear that the Arabs are never going to accept us. Israeli fear and cynicism conceals a tremendous longing to be accepted, loved, embraced. I see this as the other side of the fears Israelis have. I think I'm more realistic and this doesn't scare me. Even if we aren't accepted or embraced, in the best-case scenario, a peace agreement will take generations. It's a matter of personality, your relationship with the other side and of acceptance. When I meet with a Saudi, Egyptian or an Iranian, I know from the outset that with regard to a Jewish national identity, they won't accept me. I'm a Zionist and I believe in Israel's ability to deal with any circumstance and possible occurrence, whether we are accepted or not. That doesn't scare me.

  • Where do you see signs of hope?

    The Arab Peace Initiative inspires a tremendous amount of hope in me because it is an Arab statement. I view the Initiative as a possibility for reaching a state of coexistence. Even if it is a cold peace,1 it's still peace and not war, and that would be a huge achievement. The stable peace with Egypt and Jordan also inspires hope in me. There have been people who prophesize that our peace agreements won't hold. I'm encouraged by Bashar Assad's stand - he's been begging to talk peace. While there are many problems, to the best of my knowledge, he is an Arab leader proclaiming he wants to make peace with us. Assad realizes we have larger concerns - Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. If you survey what can be achieved this coming year, I'm hopeful that something will happen with Syria.

    • 1A cold peace denotes that while relationships between the countries' peoples may not have improved, the countries have diplomatic relations and are not at war with one another. Many describe the outcome of the Israeli-Egyptian and Israeli-Jordanian peace treaties to be cold peace. See "Cold Peace." Al Jazeera English. 27 October 2009. http://english.aljazeera.net/programmes/general/2009/03/2009320135935779149.html.

  • Do you have any educational goals?

    When we began publishing in Arabic and Hebrew, we were approached by the Center for Educational Technology1 in Israel and they suggested we turn Bitterlemons.org into an online discussion tool for high school students. My answer at the time was that I needed to consult with my Palestinian partner and get him on board, too. Ghassan went to the [Palestinian] Minister of Education and to Arafat for permission to bring Israeli perspectives into Palestinian high schools. We haven't succeeded and I have to listen to what Ghassan says. It's frustrating because the Center for Educational Technology was interested and I think Bitterlemons is an educational tool. I would very much want to see it used in high schools.

    • 1The Center for Educational Technology (CET) is an Israeli nonprofit organization that is committed to the advancement of Israel's education system, in addition to education in the Jewish world and around the globe. They are known for their large-scale development of advanced technologies in schools. See the center's website at http://cet.org.il.

  • How did the Gaza War in the winter of 2009 affect you?

    The War didn't affect our work. The war was unnecessary - the siege only took us further away from the moderates in Gaza who traded with us, importing and exporting agricultural produce. Moderate people are going bankrupt while people running the tunnels from the Gaza Strip are getting rich. Our leaders are supposed to be thinking strategically and [they should] understand that if they have used a strategy and it has failed, they should abandon it. As a former security chief, I reject the claim that we waged a non-humanitarian war. Instead of making these accusations and setting-up endless investigative committees against soldiers who deliberated whether they were killing innocent civilians or terrorists, the international community should blame the Israeli government, the Egyptian government, the government in Ramallah - all of whom provided their consent and encouraged starving the Gaza Strip. That is a war crime. I don't have any claims against the IDF. My claims are against the government and civil society, who didn't realize that this war could have been avoided and that this terrible and pointless form of collective punishment could have been prevented. Let's admit the strategy was wrong. Let's start off by changing our strategy. We used to pride ourselves on being surrounded by Arabs who hated us. Nasser wanted to throw us in the sea,1 and we said, "Let's talk, unconditionally." We were willing to talk to our greatest enemies.2 What happened to that policy? It was logical. Why aren't we talking to Iran, Hamas, Hezbollah, saying we are willing to talk unconditionally? If they refuse, that will work to our advantage. At least our conscience will be clear and we won't have to hide behind slogans. That frustrates me.

    • 1See an excerpt from an interview where the reporter asked Nasser, "Why do you want to throw the Jews into the sea?" at Harkabi, Y. Arab Attitudes To Israel. Trans. By Misha Louvish. New York: Hart Pub. Co., 1972, p. 35, http://cojs.org/cojswiki/Quotes_by_Gamal_Abdel_Nasser,_1954-1967.
    • 2Alpher refers to various Israeli officials who attempt to speak with various Arab government officials in between and sometimes during times of war, on occasion with the aid of a third party. For the perspective of a former Israeli diplomat, see Eytan, Walter. The First Ten Years: A Diplomatic History of Israel. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1958.