Friday, April 13, 2007

From: MJ Rosenberg

Washington DC, April 13, 2007
Issue # 318

Try A Little Empathy

Last week New York Times columnist David Brooks published an intriguing piece called "Dueling Narratives" about a conference he attended in Jordan with people he described as "moderate Arab reformers."

The "Dueling Narratives" to which he referred were not those of Israelis and Palestinians, or Jews and Arabs, but Americans (specifically pro-Israel Americans) and Arabs. According to Brooks, the Arabs mainly wanted to focus on Israel which they view as "at the root" of Middle Eastern problems while the Americans wanted to discuss "the Sunni-Shiite split, the Iraqi civil war and the rise of Iran."

Brooks was seemingly taken aback by the fact that the Arabs wanted to talk about Israel while he saw no need to (he did not include Israel as one of the issues he was interested in discussing).

For me, the startling thing about Brooks' column is that he was surprised that Arabs want to discuss the Israeli-Palestinian issue with Americans. Of course, they do. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict is the only issue about which all Arabs (and, in fact, Muslims) are in general agreement. Sunnis and Shiites may not agree about much but they all want the post-’67 occupation to end. Arabs want to talk to Americans about it because the United States is Israel's number one backer in the world. Arabs understand that without US involvement in ending the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, it will simply not end.

I imagine that the reason Brooks was surprised is that, like so many Americans, he does not take Arab and Muslim concern for the Palestinians seriously. People like Brooks believe that Palestine is a pretext. For Brooks, it is not, it cannot be, the main reason so many Arabs and Muslims have such strong antipathy to the US government.

And the fact is that the Palestinians have often been used as a pretext for incitement against Israel and Jews by the same forces that have done virtually nothing to ease the Palestinians’ plight. And also, of course, as a pretext for war. Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah professed love for the Palestinians while he was attacking Israel last summer and killing Palestinians along with their Israeli neighbors.

But, for the most part, Arab anger about (and sympathy for) Palestinians is utterly genuine. Why wouldn’t it be?

The other day I had a conversation with a young woman from the Washington suburbs. She was born in the United States, as were her parents and grandparents. She told me that if "another war breaks out in Israel this summer, I'll just die. Last year, I just sat in front of my television and cried when I saw Israelis fleeing their homes in Haifa."

There was nothing remarkable about that statement. Many, if not most, Jewish Americans felt that way.

A few decades ago, the Jewish community here actually got a million people to come to Washington to protest the treatment of Jews in the Soviet Union. I was there. There were angry speeches and there were tears. All this about Jews in a country thousands of miles away who were from being prevented from immigrating to Israel.

So why would anyone assume that Arabs are faking their anguish over the suffering of Palestinians. Palestinians have, if anything, a greater connection to their fellow Arabs than Jewish Americans have to Israeli or Russian Jews. They live in the same region. They speak the same language. Only a third of Jewish Americans have even visited Israel and I doubt 2% can speak Hebrew. For Jordanians, Egyptians, Syrians, Lebanese, Saudis and Iraqis, Palestinians are either the people next door or a few hundred miles away.

They are also a people who suffered a terrible tragedy. If the establishment of Israel was, as I believe it was, one of the best things that ever happened to Jews, it was the worst thing that ever happened to Palestinians. No matter that they could have accepted the Partition Plan or any of the other plans that would have shared the land with the Jews. They were the overwhelming majority of the country for 1900 years and had no interest in sharing it with anybody which, of course, turned out to be a colossal blunder.

As a result, a culture and way of life disappeared. As General Moshe Dayan put it in 1969, "Jewish villages were built in the place of Arab villages. You do not even know the names of these Arab villages, and I don't blame you because geography books no longer exist, not only do the books not exist, the Arab villages are not there either. Nahalal arose in the place of Mahlul; Kibbutz Gvat in the place of Jibta; Kibbutz Sarid in the place of Huneifis; and Kefar Yehushu'a in the place of Tal al-Shuman. There is not one single place built in this country that did not have a former Arab population."

That is a tragedy, by any definition, just as the disappearance of the once flourishing Jewish communities of the Arab world is a tragedy.

The good news, and it is very good, is that we can put an end to the historical epoch that included so much Palestinian and Jewish suffering. Unlike the legendary baby in the King Solomon story, this "baby" called Palestine or Israel can be divided and still survive. Not only survive, both parts will do better if separated into two secure states. Negotiations based on the Saudi Plan (still on the table and generally being ignored by both Americans and Israelis) could accomplish that goal.

Until that happens, David Brooks can expect to hear "moderate Arabs," not to mention those not so moderate, fixating on Israel. If he really cared about Israel, he might also start fixating on a way to end a status quo that is so deadly to both Israelis and Palestinians. I understand that a tenet of the neoconservative philosophy holds that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not central to the region's problems or to America's declining fortunes in that region. But that is hogwash and everyone not blinded by ideology knows it. It is not the only problem we have in that region, but it is a huge one and, 40 years after the occupation began, it looms larger and larger.

For Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims worldwide, the situation in the West Bank and Gaza is a hole in the heart. And whether some people like it or not, America's standing in the world – and Israel's security – will continue to decline until we help end the conflict that spawned it.

MJ Rosenberg is the Director of Israel Policy Forum's Washington Policy Center. If you would appreciate receiving this weekly letter via e-mail, send an e-mail, with the subject "subcribe" to:

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