Carlo Strenger
Haaretz (Opinion)
December 14, 2011 - 1:00am

I have spent two days in Doha, Qatar at the United Nations Alliance of Civilization conference. The real value of such forums is in the informal meetings behind the scenes. You meet people you would never get a chance to talk to otherwise. The great challenge is to open up sufficiently to allow prejudices and preconceptions about nations, ideologies and other groups to be challenged by empirical experience.

Here is what I came away with. Israel was far less in the focus of official discussions than expected. And yet our small country plays a significant role in the Middle East. After all the background of this conference, held for the fourth time, is Samuel Huntington’s much discussed thesis that the international system is governed by the Clash of Civilizations as a new organizing principle – most of all, of course, the clash between the West and Islam.

My encounters with Arabs in Doha have certainly not led me to believe that the Arab Spring is about to turn the Middle East into a variation of Scandinavia. Most Arab nations are far from endorsing liberal democracy. But these encounters have strengthened my impression that the Middle East is a world in flux and transformation, and that its attitudes towards Israel are far from fixed.

Personal and off-the record discussions about Israel yield a complex picture. At least in the more sophisticated layers of Arab society the picture is less black-and-white than you would assume from what you gather from the media – certainly the Israeli ones. Israel may not be loved in the Arab world, but neither is there as much visceral hatred across the board as you would suspect.

The repeated message is: “the Israel-Palestine conflict has an enormous symbolic role. Do something about it – and you will find ways to gradually integrate into the Middle East. Help us to undercut radical Islam by getting this conflict that has become the symbol of the West’s arrogance and disregard for Arab culture out of the focus. We want to take care of our own problems, and we want this conflict off the table.”

There is no mention of wiping Israel off the map; for the overwhelming majority of Arab elites Israel is a fact of life with which they are coming to terms. Most of them see radical Islam as a threat they want to defuse – and the Israel-Palestine conflict is one of the stumbling blocks on the way to do so.

Back in Israel, I come to the painful realization that the ruling coalition will kill this chance. The official Israel is a mirror image of what it says about the Islamic world: At best it sticks to positions Ze'ev Jabotinsky, the found of revisionist Zionism formulated almost a century ago. Arabs only understand power. At worst it thinks in terms that we tend to ascribe to Islamic radicalism: This is a religious conflict to be fought to the last drop of blood.

Unfortunately, most of Israel’s right has amputated Jabotisnky’s essentially liberal view of what Israel should be. Let us not forget that Jabotinsky said explicitly that he did not exclude the possibility of an Arab Prime Minister for Israel – a thought that most Likudniks today would find unfathomable.

The Likud has adopted the language that it attributes to Arabs: A language in which there is no sophistication; no perspective of a historical process that is changing the world at large and the Middle East in particular. A language in which religions and civilizations are unchanging structures in which mythical figures like Abraham, Yitzchak and Ishmael are more real than the actual human beings living in the Middle East.

Still under the deep impression of the personal encounters, I read the following headline: “Israel Education Minister: Palestinian State in the West-Bank a dangerous move”. Mind you: our education minister Gideon Sa'ar is one of the more enlightened members of the ruling Likud party.

The context of Sa'ar’s statement was his visit of the settlement at the ancient city of Shilo. Saar says: “Jews will always be in Shiloh,” the education minister said. “We should not delude the Arabs that one day there will be no Jews here. Jews will always be here, and any other illusion will bring obstacles on the road to peace.”

In the last two years Israel’s right wing has finally come out of the closet. Netanyahu’s much touted Bar Ilan Speech of 2009 was a ruse designed to keep international pressure at bay. The ruling coalition doesn’t believe in the two-state solution. A minority of its members like Knesset Speaker Reuven Rivlin and leading Likud figure Moshe Arens believe in a truly democratic state west of the Jordan in which Palestinians will enjoy political rights.

The majority of the coalition wants a Jewish state west of the Jordan; some right-wing figures, like national-religious Rabbi Uri Sherky, say clearly that Palestinians will have no political rights; others are more vague in their intentions, but mostly make clear that this state will be essentially Jewish, no matter what the demography.

Netanyahu, Lieberman, Sa'ar, Danny Dannon, Ofir Okunis (“McCarthy was right in every word he said”), et al live in a static universe defined by ethnic and religious structures. For them Jewish power is the guiding value; they have no strategic vision of Israel’s place in the world except announcing that the Islamic world is a black mass of fanatics who need to be forced into accepting Israel’s doing whatever it pleases.

Israel’s ruling coalition speaks a language frozen in a Biblical Past in which Israel is “a people that shall dwell alone and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Num 23:9). Alas, the Likud and its allies are about to turn this into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

I did not come back from Doha with the belief that wolves and sheep, Arabs and Jews, will live in harmony any time soon. But I came back with the impression that a sophisticated foreign policy towards the Arab world that, by and large, does not want radical Islam to take over, and a flexible position towards Palestinians, stands a good chance to move Israel towards a positive place in the Middle East. Netanyahu, Lieberman, and company are about to destroy this chance through their unique combination of short-sightedness, lack of foreign policy sophistication and sheer, unbridled fanaticism.


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