Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
March 24, 2008 - 6:02pm

It has been a busy week - the fifth anniversary of the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, Osama bin Laden's resurfacing with another audio tape threatening Western targets, sort-of elections in Iran, see-sawing global stock and commodity markets, a dramatic presidential primary contest in the United States, Egyptian-facilitated diplomacy on the Palestinian front, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel's official visit to Israel.

The most significant of these events in historical terms was probably Merkel's speech before the Israeli Knesset, in which she expressed contrition and shame for Germany's Holocaust against the Jews some three generations ago.

This is the sort of event that can contribute to changing history - if we grasp its significance, and emulate its courage, sincerity, and deep substance. What just happened between Germans and Israelis should offer powerful lessons for others in conflict, especially in the Middle East where many conflicts appear unsolvable.

The first German chancellor born after World War II, Merkel is also the first German chancellor ever to address the Israeli Parliament. She acknowledged the "special relationship" between Israel and Germany because of the memory of the Holocaust, adding that "the Holocaust fills us Germans with shame. I bow before the victims, I bow before the survivors, and before all those who helped them so they could survive."

During the visit, eight German Cabinet ministers and Merkel held a joint session with the Israeli Cabinet, agreeing to broad cooperation in several fields. Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said that was "a unique event, perhaps even unprecedented." He had earlier accompanied Merkel to Yad Vashem, Israel's official Holocaust memorial, which she referred to as "an exceptional gesture."

Exceptional indeed, but not only because of the almost unimaginable magnitude of the Nazi genocide against the Jews and the mass murder of other victims. It was also exceptional because it showed how honest, decisive leaders can overcome the immense burdens and constraints of the past and transform chronic, distrustful enemies into colleagues, friends and even partners in solidarity, mutual security, and development.

Expressing shame and contrition before her Jewish Israeli hosts was not an easy deed for Merkel to perform . Here was true leadership and statesmanship in action. It is important to know why this happened and what it could lead to.

What sort of debate went on in her government to agree to her making these statements and gestures? How hard was it for German leaders to agree to go to the heart of global Judaism - the Israeli Parliament - and bow in humility in reaction to the historical German attempt to kill every Jew in Europe? Was this gesture made to cleanse a guilty German conscience? To rid this generation of Germans of the incessant feeling of responsibility for the crimes of many in their grandparents' generation? To erase Israeli-Jewish mistrust and allow Germany to play its natural role in the Middle East? I hope one day the German leadership will share their thoughts with us on these important issues.

I say this because acts of acknowledgment, regret, shame, contrition and apology are absolutely crucial for resolving some of the most intractable conflicts of our world. Such gestures alone do not resolve a problem or end a conflict; astute politics and diplomacy are also needed to negotiate realistic agreements. The combination of technical accords and powerful human gestures or reconciliation can stop active warfare and shift human energies on both sides of a divide into the business of coexistence, mutual development, prosperity and security.

One critical ingredient for resolving conflicts is reciprocal rehumanization among antagonists who had dehumanized each other through demonization and violence. Arabs and Israelis demonize and kill each other every day, with majorities on both sides expressing approval because of their existential fears. Palestinians and Israelis in particular often see themselves in a zero-sum contest, with one side winning all the land and the other side dissipating into the history books of forgotten and dispersed people.

Greek and Turkish Cypriots have experienced similar antagonism and fear, as did the parties in Northern Ireland and South Africa when they were in conflict. Change happens and peaceful coexistence and mutual security reign when daring leaders acknowledge the realities of history and the humanity and legitimacy of what had often been their fatal foes.

So, of all the big events that occurred this week, Angela Merkel's bowing in shame before the Israeli Knesset was far and away the most historically significant and emotionally moving. George W. Bush MBA-Presidents Sep-07 , Dick Cheney, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Osama bin Laden look like clowns when compared to her.

Arab and Israeli leaders alike might consider pausing for a moment, to ask themselves if they have anything they should be ashamed of in their treatment of their foes, their neighbors or their own citizens. In the meantime, we can each in our own way salute Germany's leadership for its timely lesson in humility and humanity.


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