Rami Khouri
The Daily Star (Opinion)
July 29, 2009 - 12:00am

In traditional Arab culture, when a man wants to ask for a woman’s hand in marriage, his family undertakes a jaha – a delegation of men who visit the family of the would-be bride to request her in marriage. The jaha often includes prominent men in society from outside the groom’s family, the aim being to impress the woman’s family that she is marrying into a family with social standing and clout. Sending all the family males in the jaha also signals collective security and consensus – that the young lady is marrying into a family that fully welcomes her and that also displays sufficient tribal and clan solidarity to ensure that her future is safe.

A jaha delegation can include as few as 10 men, and as many as a hundred or more. It is designed to impress and comfort at the same time – making the would-be bride’s family feel they need not worry about the change they are about to experience. There is also an unspoken element of subtle pressure – making the woman’s family an offer they cannot refuse.

The rules of jaha culture are such that the groom’s family knows ahead of time that the bride’s family will accept the marriage proposal. It would be massively and punishingly humiliating to assemble all the males of the tribe, add on a few prominent members of society at large, make the trip to the fair damsel’s home, and then be turned down. The jaha, therefore, is partly theater, partly power politics, a non-violent shock-and-awe spectacle in the all-important matrimonial and tribal realms.

This week, US President Barack Obama made history by sending the first ever diplomatic jaha to Israel. The Obama jaha of Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Mideast peace envoy George Mitchell, National Security Adviser James Jones and White House senior adviser Dennis Ross aims simultaneously to impress, comfort, pressure and woo the Israeli government to accept the terms of engagement in the Arab-Israeli peace-making process that the US has unilaterally put on the table.

The Obama jaha of senior tribal males is a critical manifestation of American seriousness. The variety of positions held by the jaha members is important because it helps assure Israel that the US understands its fears and will work to assuage them. Washington is saying it will continue to address common concerns about Iran’s nuclear plans, work for comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace agreements, and insist that Arabs and Israelis simultaneously make concessions and conciliatory gestures, and comply with past agreements and prevailing legal norms.

The need to resort to the overkill of a jaha approach reflects the enormity of the challenges the United States faces as it tries to rekindle Arab-Israeli peacemaking. First is the ambitious American initiative – some would say gamble – of trying to achieve comprehensive Arab-Israeli peace, at a time when conditions for this in both Israel and Palestine are highly unpropitious. Washington has stuck its neck out rather courageously, and now has to work hard to make sure it does not lose its head in the process.

Second is the firm American demand of a total and absolute freeze on Israeli settlements in occupied Arab territories. Israel has pushed back on this, and intense talks are underway to resolve the issue. Obama must get the total settlement freeze – even if it is for a short period of time, and couched in fuzzy language – because backing down now would deal a crippling blow to his own prestige and the credibility of the US. For Israel to persist in its settlement building would be the diplomatic equivalent of the fair lady’s family telling the assembled jaha that their daughter is not available and there will be no marriage. It simply cannot happen.

Third, the US is wooing the Israeli damsel while trying simultaneously to achieve several other difficult things, including reasserting Washington’s control of US Mideast policy and freeing it from the influence of pro-Israel lobbies in the US; reviving US credibility with all parties as an impartial mediator; re-establishing trust with the Arab world; resuming serious diplomacy with Syria; addressing Iran and Arab-Israeli issues at the same time; and reassuring Israelis that their security will not be endangered – but actually will be enhanced – by the peacemaking push.

The Arabs understood thousands of years ago that when life-changing decisions must be made, individuals need to feel the power, safety and comfort of their wider human context, namely the family, clan and tribe. The jaha lets this happen in a manner that is part theater and part show of power, part enticing enchantment and part hammer blows. Right now, the Obama jaha to Israel is the greatest show in town.


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