Monday, October 02, 2006

On the Eve of the Anniversary of the Yum Kippur / Ramadan War and the Cold Peace between Egypt & Israel

Normalization would have been a good example to defeat the rejectionist ideology of both sides

The last time the first day of Ramadan and Rosh Hashanah coincided was thirty three years ago; that was the year of the “war to end all wars” according to Anwar el Sadat which started on Yum Kippur or the tenth of Ramadan. I celebrated the first day of Ramadan this year at the house of Jewish friends joining them for their Rosh Hashanah dinner to break my fast. On the way back from dinner I was reflecting on an Al Jazeera TV news program that I saw a while back which showed images of Sadat’s first moments visiting Israel and then the famous pictures of Sadat, Begin and Carter and their big hand shake. The Jazeera program focused on the failure of the normalization between Egypt and Israel and had two guests, the former Israeli ambassador to Cairo and an Egyptian writer. The anchorwoman did not hide her delight at the failure of normalization; the Israeli guest did not seem to have much coherent to say and was not allowed to say much anyhow. The Egyptian guest was full of solidarity with the Palestinians and rejection of the peace process, full of slogans from the Nasser era about Egyptians never forgetting their Arabism. There was really no debate, an Israeli complaining about the Egyptian Government failure to push normalization and an Egyptian complaining about the Egyptian Government for pushing normalization.

The anchorwoman failed to challenge the Israeli ambassador over the early days of the peace between Egyptians and Israelis when ordinary Egyptians welcomed Israelis visiting synagogues in Cairo and Alexandria with applause and when, much to the dismay of most Palestinians and Egyptian Arab nationalists and religious fundamentalists, the overwhelming sentiment in Egypt was pro peace with Israel. It was the Israeli suppression of the two intefadahs, Israel’s continued brutality and injustice against ordinary Palestinians and the rising wave of religious intolerance in the region that eventually led to the shifting in the views of ordinary Egyptians. The anchorwoman also failed to challenge her Egyptian guest over his secular Arabist rationale which is clearly out of step with the Islamic identification that dominates the Egyptian street nowadays. Further she failed to challenge him over the successful normalization in sectors such as Sinai tourism and the number of Egyptian workers in Israel.

There is little doubt that peace between Egypt and Israel is cold and normalization has largely failed. Whether this is a good or a bad thing for the Palestinian cause, which the anchorwoman and her Egyptian guest clearly support, is the question at hand. Watching Al Jazeera, one feels that the default position is that to reject Israel is to be more supportive of the Palestinians.

However, when you have a recipe that has not worked for some 60 years is it perhaps worth re-examining it? Could the venting of hate and anger at Jews, Israelis and their supporters by Arabs and Muslim commentators, who clearly only want the best for the Palestinians, constitute an act of self indulgence and intellectual laziness that can no longer be indulged? Does commitment to the Palestinian cause and solidarity with them prevent their supporters from taking a more analytical approach of the merits of normalization?

Many Arab and Muslim Americans blamed Sharon for the collapse of the prospects for peace over the last 6 years. Could a more successful normalization between Egyptians and Israelis have made Sharon’s case more difficult? As someone who has actively engaged in promoting peace and dialogue in the Middle East for many years I am amazed at how many Israelis actually believe that the Jews of Europe came to mostly empty land in Palestine and the deep rooted hate for Jews and anything Jewish by Arabs and Muslims is what led to the conflict over the last hundred years. Israelis are fed a version of history full of the suffering of the Jews, the massacres of Jews in Hebron in 1929 and in Baghdad in 1941 and again 1969 etc. These events, in the long shadow of the undeniable horrors of the Holocaust, feed a version of history where the wars of 1948 and 1967 are seen as self defense. Even the 1956 Suez war, now fully confessed to by Israel’s co-conspirators as a war of aggression on Egypt, continues to be taught in Israel as a campaign of self defense.

Most Arab and Muslim commentators including many here in the USA appear to have standardized on a language that absolve the Palestinians from blame for electing Hamas. The argument goes something like this: … the Palestinians really wanted the Fateh agenda for peace with Israel but Fateh is so corrupt and incompetent domestically and Hamas has been helping people on the ground. The argument goes on to voice respect for the legitimacy for the Palestinian choice and democracy. Some more sophisticated commentators blame Bush and Sharon for their rejection of Arafat and for their failure to deliver results to his successor Abbas as Israel continued with its violence against the Palestinians and continued to expand settlements and to grab more land from the Palestinians in the West Bank and especially around Jerusalem. While all these points are may indeed be legitimate, here too I would argue that the Palestinians now have made a huge mistake and have chosen their leaders poorly at a crucial point. Democracies make mistakes and Democratic elections that produce legitimate governments can be described legitimately as mistakes. Stronger nations can afford to make mistakes; the Hamas election has proven an expensive mistake for the Palestinian people everywhere.

Should the Arab and Muslim Americans who are strongly committed to supporting the Palestinian people refrain from criticizing the Palestinian choice and refrain from describing Hamas as a terrorist organization? Should we continue to defend the view that an elected Palestinian Government can move back on recognizing Israel and prior “peace” agreements. Should we stay in silence watching the Palestinians inflict self damage with their new elected leaders incompetently presenting the case for Palestine? Should we too take the line of Al Jazeera that normalization is bad business? Should we too buy into describing those who get themselves killed while attempting to kill some random Israeli civilians as martyrs? Should we too here in the US use the Israeli war crimes and their decades long oppression of the Palestinians as a legitimate excuse for everything? Will we be helping the Palestinian cause more by keeping quite and hoping that the new Israeli Government with the party Sharon established at its helm will, out of its own sense of justice or its desperate need to be recognized by the Hamas led Government, actually do something for the Palestinians?

As of today the Palestinians and the Israelis are now ruled by those who reject the possibility of peaceful coexistence and reconciliation in any meaningful form. It is highly unlikely that the real peace prospects for Israelis and Palestinians will move forward in the near future. I would argue that for those who advocate real, just and lasting peace on both sides it is important to speak out now and it is vital to find ways to prove that normalization does work and there is no genetic pre wiring hatred of all things Jewish in the hearts of all Muslims. It is tough to speak out in the middle east except in support of the corrupt Governments, discredited Socialist Arabism or of course the more fashionable narrow Islamic fundamentalism; those of us in the West and particularly in the US should not shy away from speaking out for peace even in such dark times.

Thirty three years ago fasting Muslims and fasting Jews fought one another on a massive scale in the desert of Sinai and on the Golan Heights, for the sake of the memory of the thousands who lost their lives in that war and all the other Arab Israeli wars let’s overcome the hatred and work towards reconciliation; neither side has the option of prevailing by force. Only through dialogue, building trust and understanding the conflicting narratives will there ever be justice and peace in the Middle East.

October 1, 2006

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