Waiting for the Second Coming of Sadat
Today's guest blogger is Ari Alexander, a co-founder of Children of Abraham, an international organization dedicated to the promotion of dialogue between Jewish and Muslim teenagers around the world. Ari spent 2008 in Paris, where he co- founded Génération Dialogue with Ambassador Jacques Huntzinger. Ari has spoken at numerous international conferences in South Korea, Spain, Senegal, Belgium, France, Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar.
In an extraordinary week featuring President Obama's Al Arabiya interview and Senator George Mitchell's first trip as Special Envoy to the Middle East, a bizarre scene unfolded at the typically stuffy World Economic Forum in Davos. On January 29, a panel about the Gaza War served as a sobering, if fascinating, stage to bring us down from cool, calm, strategic communication-land (a.k.a Obamaville). Washington Post columnist David Ignatius served as moderator to the panel, which featured Turkish Prime Minister Erdogan, Israeli President Peres, UN Secretary-General Moon and Arab League Secretary-General Moussa.
The high drama was provided in the 62nd minute. The three speakers prior to Peres had spoken for a total of less than 40 minutes. Peres had spoken for 20. Prime Minister Erdogan wanted to rebut the rebuttal with several points, and though he spoke longer than the one minute to which the moderator had reluctantly agreed, he was eventually cut off. He stated that he would not be returning to Davos because he had not been given sufficient time to speak. The Turkish Prime Minister promptly walked off the stage, making Klaus Schwab's closing message of peace appear somewhat ridiculous.
Israel supporters likely heard the panel discussion one way: 40 minutes of Israel-bashing by the leading voices of the UN, the Arab League and Turkey, followed by an uncharacteristically impassioned Shimon Peres. Peres reminded his co-panelists of the 1,167 Israelis killed by terrorism over the years and of the 5,500 rockets landing in Israel in recent times, sending mothers and children into bomb shelters and leaving Israel with no choice but to respond, as any nation in the world would do. Peres said that Hezbollah learned its lesson in 2006 and has since refrained from violence, and that Hamas, he hoped, would learn the same lesson. Peres declared that Israel doesn't want to hurt anybody, never fires the first shot, and wants peace.
Palestine supporters likely took in the same panel differently: world leaders in the global spotlight speaking unequivocally about Palestinian human suffering and brutal Israeli occupation. They watched an uncomfortable Israeli president struggling to defend the killing of 1,200 Palestinians in three weeks. They saw three world leaders speak unflinchingly in support of the Palestinians and with outrage and anger against the state of Israel for its collective punishment through economic blockade, disproportionate use of force, and its lack of seriousness about peace.
And those of us who see no contradiction between being pro-Israeli and pro-Palestinian listened for common ground. We felt tugs between the various points being scored on either 'side'. We anticipated potential critiques that would undermine those same points and therefore undo some of the demonization implicit in their arguments.
In a moment of psychoanalytic theater, Erdogan interjected that Peres sounded guilty, as if he knew that hundreds of deaths were on his conscience. Though Erdogan seemed to intend this to be a 'gotcha' moment, Peres had in fact already reflected his emotions, explaining with great sorrow that, after sitting silently through months of bombardments on the south of Israel, civilian deaths were a tragic component of an operation Israel had no choice but to launch.
Unlike the domestic political climate in Israel throughout most of the '90s, it is now mainstream (formerly right-wing) Israeli thinking that the current Palestinian violence is not connected to occupation. Israelis believe this is proven by the post-South Lebanon and, especially, post-Gaza disengagements. For most Israelis, South Lebanon and Gaza are occupation-free laboratories where rockets were Israel's reward for withdrawal, leaving them with the message that Netivot or Kiryat Shmomah, which are inside Israel, and Netzarim, which is a former Israeli settlement inside Gaza, are, for their enemies, one and the same.
The Israeli center has come to believe that Hezbollah and Hamas not only want Jews out of occupied lands in Lebanon, Gaza or the West Bank; they want Jews out of the entire neighborhood. As long as most Israelis interpret the situation in this manner, the Israeli government will assert its right to defend itself against all rocket attacks and any other form of violence.
I see three primary flaws with this analysis: First, it pretends that the people of Gaza and the people of the West Bank are not the same people -- as if there aren't hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers living in the West Bank, complicating any future two-state solution. Secondly, this analysis ignores the fact that Israel has used economic blockades and regulated the flow of goods in order to squeeze the Palestinian population and exert pressure on Hamas. It may not be an occupation of settlements inside the Gaza Strip, but it certainly is not a laboratory in which peace and mutual respect can flourish. Thirdly, this analysis shirks Israel's own responsibility for the weakening of Fatah and the rise of Hamas.
I was in Israel during the war in Gaza, passing many hours in bomb shelters. For three weeks, school had been closed for 20% of the Israeli population. As we drove into Sderot for the first time in my life, I was ordered to take my seatbelt off, because when the siren sounds, you only have fifteen seconds before the rocket lands.
The fear is real. Terrorism terrorizes.
In a conflict, the citizens of the more powerful party can also be victims, worthy of the same kind of empathy and security received by the victims on the other side of a conflict.
Three days earlier, I had been in Ramallah, a Fatah stronghold where I met a Palestinian journalist in frequent contact with Hamas leadership during the war. The journalist told me that a change had quietly taken place in 2002, when moderates within Hamas gained the upper hand over the hard-liners, realizing that they needed a realistic political platform, because they could not 'liberate Palestine' militarily. In effect, the moderates within Hamas became Fatah, minus recognition of Israel - the card they believed best held for negotiations.
Hamas is eager, the Palestinian journalist told me, to be respected and brought into the political process. They had even gotten to the point of publicly declaring their willingness to live with a Palestinian state shaped by the '67 borders. Even last week, the Israeli newspaper, Ha'aretz, reported that three different Hamas leaders shared their willingness to agree to a Palestinian state within the 1967 borders, just as the journalist had conveyed to me.
Each trip I've made to Israel/Palestine in recent years, every transition I've made from Damascus to New York, and every conversation I have with Jewish friends and Arab friends has forced me to grow accustomed to listening to and empathizing with duel narratives - the story of national self-defense and the story of resistance to military occupation. Both narratives need to be understood with compassion by those who seek to help the warring parties find a way forward.
I went to Beirut for the first time in March, 2002 as a graduate student. The week I arrived, the Arab League Summit was taking place at the Inter-Continental Hotel. It was at this Summit in which the Saudi Peace Plan was formally adopted as an Arab Peace Initiative.
Last week in Davos, Amr Moussa challenged Israel directly regarding the initiative, noting that for nearly seven years, the Arabs have been waiting for an official Israeli response to the historic initiative. In response, Peres made it very clear that from an Israeli point of view, the problem with the Arab Peace Initiative is that Iran is not an Arab country, and that Iran is the real threat - both as a potential nuclear power and as a supplier of arms and money to Hezbollah and Hamas.
Peres uttered a statement - that from a security point of view - took for granted that Israel is no longer concerned with the Arab world. This is a very promising insight to take out of last week's heated exchange.
Israeli friends often tell me that Israelis are waiting for a Palestinian Sadat or a Syrian Sadat -- someone to take a life-threatening risk for peace like Sadat did. The assumption is that Israel is of course always interested in peace. But we live in strange times -- times where most of the world watching (including a sizable number of American Jews who also love Israel) believe that Israel's behavior shows it to be the more intransigent party to the conflict at present. The Saudis initiated a serious peace plan. The Arab League adopted the plan calling for full recognition and normalcy.
If anyone in the world needed a reminder that bold, visionary leadership matters, they got it with the newly elected American president. The moment is ripe for an Israeli leader to meet President Obama on this grand stage of history and take a bold risk for peace. It is now time for Israel to answer its own prayer to usher in the next Sadat moment. Seven years after the Arab Peace Initiative was launched, time is running out on an historic window of opportunity for Israel to be recognized as legitimate in the Arab neighborhood.
The content of this blog reflects the views of its author and does not necessarily reflect the views of either Eboo Patel or the Interfaith Youth Core.
February 4, 2009; 2:33 PM ET
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Posted by: srimath7 | February 5, 2009 6:45 AM
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