For a more rational approach to peace and normalisation

As a 35-year-old Arab, I have learned not to put too much faith in my leaders’ ability to rise to my expectations, no matter how reasonable and modest they happen to be. I have also learned that any regional leader, Arab or Israeli, who thinks that a solution to the conflict can be accomplished by military means is an idiot, albeit a dangerous one.

Aside from anything that happens at the Beirut summit, there are many Arabs, of all classes and backgrounds, who sincerely want a more rational and compassionate approach to peace and normalisation.

The peace formula that I yearn for is simple and well-known: the return of all Israeli-occupied Arab land in exchange for official recognition of Israel by Arab governments, and the beginning in earnest of the process of normalisation.

Insisting on full withdrawal does not mean that compromises cannot be made when leaders sit around the table. The point is that compromises should not be made on the basis of power relations. Compromises made under duress inflame popular sentiments and create more problems than they solve.

Compromises should be made with an eye towards the future and the stability of the region as a whole. Negotiators should put issues of stability and peace higher on their agendas than issues of sovereignty – in fact, all sides may need to compromise on sovereignty in favour of peace.

But whatever compromises are agreed, they must be saleable to the people. Selling peace is not going to be easy, considering the bitterness generated by so many decades of confrontation and hostilities.

Selling peace is eventually what every leader in the region will have to do. Each leader needs a good peace package for himself, but cannot afford to acquire this at the expense of others. This is the trick.

If Yasser Arafat had accepted the solution proposed by Ehud Barak a year ago, I am sure that civil war would have broken out in Palestine long before it was declared an independent state, and that would have spelled trouble for all neighbouring countries, Israel included.

Another key issue is normalisation. Once a peace accord is signed, the process of normalisation should begin.

This will, naturally, start with an exchange of ambassadors. But to expect Israeli tourists groups to begin strolling along the narrow streets of Old Damascus shortly after the signing of an accord is not simply unrealistic but problematic.

There are many things that need to be addressed first, including stereotypes that exist in the minds of each people with regard to the “other side”. We cannot neglect the emotional side of this: the Arab-Israeli struggle has affected, adversely in the great majority of cases, the lives of all peoples involved. The bitterness and the pain cannot be forgotten easily.

As for the stereotypes, the growth of religious fundamentalisms – Islamic, Jewish and Christian – in the region presents us with a very complex situation. The images that the fundamentalists propagate against each other, no matter how libellous, ignoble and medieval, strike popular chords with many people in the region.

Arabs, who in effect represent the conquered side, have more problems in this area than the Israelis (frustration makes people more susceptible to hate speech), which is why normalisation should be a gradual process.

An article that appeared in a Saudi newspaper recently can serve to illustrate this problem. The article revived the ancient European myth concerning the alleged use by Jews of the blood of Christian (and Muslim) children in some of their religious rituals. Though very few fundamentalist Muslims will be willing to believe such claims, in the context of ongoing developments in the region, many are willing to let such claims go unchallenged and to exploit them even as part of their propaganda efforts.

Some Israeli Jewish Fundamentalists, on the other hand, have made outrageous claims of their own concerning the Arabs, with the well-known Rabbi, Ovadia Yosef, describing the Palestinians, a few months ago, as “vipers” and saying that God Himself “repents” for having created them.

The difference in this case lies in the unequivocal condemnation of the Rabbi by Israeli journalists, intellectuals and officials. But in the case of the Saudi article, very few critical voices were heard, though, and under international pressure, the contract of the article’s author was later terminated.

It is clear, then, that the absence of freedom of expression in most, if not all, Arab countries, is stifling the rational and conscientious voices out there. This is exactly why normalisation should be a gradual process. Rational and conscientious voices in the Arab World, and in Israel, need to be given time to help soothe all those negative emotions fostered by so many decades of bitter conflict.

The problem could be met, in part, through the establishment of regular popular forums, via satellite or the internet, where those involved could meet and discuss matters pertaining to the conflict itself or their religious and
cultural traditions.

Exchange of visits by groups made up of artists, intellectuals, religious figures, and “average citizens,” could then take place, leading to more debates and talks and paving the way eventually for full-fledged economic and cultural activities, tourism included.

Published on the site of Mideastweb.