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An Open Letter to the Arab Street

First and foremost, congratulations. Even from our vantage point on the other side of a seemingly unbridgeable divide between our peoples, the extraordinary nature of what you have accomplished in recent weeks is obvious. The eventual outcome of your revolutions in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and elsewhere is clearly still in question, but there is no doubt that by your actions you have changed the Middle East, possibly forever.

From our point of view, two very ironic things have emerged from what you have done. The first is that, contrary to the widely held belief that the Israel-Palestinian conflict is the main reason for the "anger" of the Arab street, and the great impediment to political reform in the region, Israel's name has been all but absent from your demonstrations and protests. This, in and of itself, is a hopeful sign. The second is that Israel's own reaction to these events, despite their great promise, has been an ambivalent one.

The reason for our generally cautious and skeptical approach to your revolution is simple: we do not know if it is real or not. At this point, it is quite possible that you do not know, either. But if it is indeed real, and if it is here to stay, safe from the forces of reaction religious or secular, then there is no doubt that you will soon face an extraordinary opportunity. Through your silence on the subject, you yourselves have signaled that Israel is not, after all, the major obstacle to progress in your region. But the war against Israel certainly has been. You now have a chance to rid yourselves of that obstacle once and for all.

These days, amid the endless discussions about how much or how little Israel will or should concede in order to achieve peace, it is easy to forget that the Arab-Israeli conflict was, in fact, an Arab creation—in particular, a creation of the leaders you are now in the process of shrugging off. None of the wars between us, let alone the hundred-year war waged by the Arab world against Zionism, had to happen. They were wars of choice. Had your predecessors acknowledged our rights from the beginning and found some way to accommodate Zionism geographically and politically, we might have avoided a century of conflict. The cost of not doing so has been extremely high for both of us.

On our side, we have had to contend with constant fear, constant readiness, and the inevitable casualties of war. But the effect on you has been even more deleterious. War and hatred, with Israel and Zionism as their perpetual justification, have entrenched autocracy and authoritarianism in your countries, undermined your civic culture with conspiracy theory and violence, and stunted political and economic progress. And all of it was and is unnecessary.

The new openness and liberalism that we all pray will result from your uprising will present a unique opportunity to change this state of affairs. What is required is only one radical and courageous act: call off the war against us. Unilaterally and unconditionally, make peace with the state of Israel.

This may appear to be nothing more than a pipe dream, but I hope you will agree that the practical steps to be taken are clear enough.

First, the member states of the Arab League should recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people. In so doing, they need not recognize specific borders; stating their intention to negotiate them in good faith is enough. They may also wish to stipulate that the rights of Israel's Arab minority must be respected. But the main issue is to cross the barrier the Arab world has failed or refused to cross for more than sixty years: the public acknowledgment of the national and collective rights of the Jewish people in the state of Israel.

Second, the economic and cultural boycotts of Israel should be ended both formally and in practice. One of the many ways Arab leaders have fostered and perpetuated hatred of Israel has been by walling you off from it. As a result, a mythic Israel, seen as a nearly omnipotent source of evil, has taken the place of the real Israel in Arab eyes. Ridding yourselves of this pernicious myth will be a long but beneficial process. It can help disabuse your societies of some of the most destructive aspects of their political culture—in particular the ubiquity of conspiracy theories. When we get to know each other, it will be that much harder for us to hate each other.

Third, there must be a concerted effort to put an end to anti-Semitic propaganda in the Arab world. Without this, reconciliation will likely be impossible. Ideally, this would be accompanied by a concerted effort to report the truth about anti-Semitism and its insidious effects. This, too, could help foster a new culture of openness and self-criticism that is vital to the transition to democracy so many of you wish to accomplish.

It goes without saying that Israel will have its own responsibilities were the Arab states to take these steps. Clearly, territorial compromise is the most daunting of them. And yet, even in the current atmosphere of rejectionism and hostility, polls indicate that a tentative majority of Israelis is willing to support such a compromise. It is likely that, in the presence of a good-faith attempt at reconciliation, the numbers would be much higher. With the passage of enough time to convince Israelis that the attempt is genuine and not merely tactical, it would be supremely difficult for rejectionist forces in Israel to prevent that compromise.

The most obvious counterargument to everything I have said was voiced by a leftist friend of mine: "It'll never happen." Indeed, it may not. If your attempt at establishing liberal, representative governments in the Arab world should fail, and hyper-nationalist or fundamentalist regimes rise up instead, it would be all but impossible.  It may also be that the seeds of hatred sown over the last hundred years have borne fruit so plentiful that there can be no deep change, and that we may have to resign ourselves, once again, to taking periods of quiet where and when we can get them.

But it does not have to be that way. Once the throes of your revolution have passed, and if you do succeed in replacing autocracy with something resembling representative systems of government, you will have an opportunity, for the benefit of the region and yourselves, to make an honest effort, unobstructed by the manipulations of your previous leaders, to understand us and our point of view, and to reconcile yourselves to our existence.

For a century, those leaders and many of your own people have actively pursued an unjust war against another people; you can choose to pursue a just peace instead. In brief, you are now faced with the opportunity to make a choice between blessing and cursing, between life and death; I ask, respectfully and hopefully: choose life.

Benjamin Kerstein is a writer living in Tel Aviv.  Read his feature on Israeli democracy here.

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Zev Guber on March 9, 2011 at 9:48 am (Reply)
As much as I do like this article, I think one of the subtle points that can not be over emphasized is the need of both the Israeli government and people to reach out to and acknowledge their respect for the Arab people for standing up and speaking out. There is no forgone inevitable conclusion or outcome here; rather there is a new opportunity for both sides. And it is up to Israel to figure out how to extend support for these voices from the heart of the Arab people across the Mid East.

Anti-Israel rhetoric was useful to the hideous dictatorial governments as a bulwark against the suppression and exploitation of their own people. Israel now needs recognize that that day has passed. Israel, for it's own well-being and security, needs turn the other cheek, and get on the right side of history.
This opportunity may not come again.
Ellen on March 9, 2011 at 10:30 am (Reply)
What many people are refusing to consider is the possibility that these widespread revolts will lead to a Lebanese sort of conclusion, which is to say - nothing definitive at all except chaos, ruin, and emigration of the most progressive elements.

Everyone assumes that these revolts will lead to a new coherent governing structure consisting of either liberal-leading democrats with a secular bent, or an Islamic dictatorship. In a place like Tunisia, a relatively homogenous and prosperous (by Arab standards) country, you might get a successful secular, liberal regime. In most of the rest of the Arab world, you are likely to get a Lebanon, in my view. There is no real civic culture or even national identity in any of these artificial countries, except in Egypt, where the economic problems are crushing and probably insoluble.

Essentially, the Arabs waited way too long before revolting, and the 60 years that they wasted blaming Israel for all their problems are not recoverable. The rest of the world has moved on, and the Arabs have nothing to offer in the present global economy (other than their diminishing oil assets) and nothing to offer culturally. It looks to me like they are doomed, except in a few unusual spots like Tunisia.
Kolya on March 9, 2011 at 11:14 am (Reply)
Unfortunately even a doomed group can create a lot of trouble for the rest of the world - There are lots of young men around for demagogic leaders to stir up and what better way of uniting them than to start another Arab / Israeli war.
Deborah Thuman on March 9, 2011 at 1:34 pm (Reply)
Israel's hands have not been completely clean the past 63 years. We need to admit where we have fallen short if we wish to negotiate with the Arab nations in good faith. I believe peace is possible. But I believe peace will only come of Jews and Arabs reach out to one another in friendship and humanity. Only then can we reach a just solution. Only then can we have peace.
Ellen on March 9, 2011 at 2:20 pm (Reply)
Doomed groups are especially likely to cause trouble, because how else can they attract the world's attention. The Arabs will not disintegrate quietly, like much of SubSaharan Africa, that no one pays attention to. They will attempt to go out with a big bang and drag others down with them.

That, fundamentally, is what Al Qaeda is all about - dragging others down with the shipwreck of Arab civilization.
DeeDee on March 9, 2011 at 3:52 pm (Reply)
Arabs aren't a monolithic group, yet every comment here assumes that all Arabs will move and think en masse. Given that the focus in many countries in the ME/NA should rightly be on nation-building--not placating some of the people--including Europe, the US, and Israel--who saw to the care and feeding of brutal men who terrorized them--who should they concern themselves with you?
Why do you believe people who have survived for thousands of years are doomed, or should disintegrate, quietly or otherwise? And just because you don't value the people of subSaharan Africa, tossing them on the scrapheap of the unimportant the way you do is ugly, vulgar, and short-sighted.

Ellen on March 9, 2011 at 4:24 pm (Reply)
Now that's an amusing comment on two counts. You ask, why the Arabs should concern themselves with the Jews? Beats me why they're so obsessed by Jews, Judaism, and Zionism when it has no particular relevance to the most serious problems they face, which you correctly state is building nations out of tribes. Then, you tell me why they have spent 60 years ranting and raving about Jews and Zionism instead of building their states?

I do value the people of SubSaharan Africa, among whom are the most proIsrael Christian constituency in the world. I firmly believe that some of the African countries WILL develop into viable modern states. They have a far better chance of doing so than most of the Arab states precisely because they are not blaming all of their problems anymore on Jews, Americans, colonialism, etc. These were the big scapegoats for the Arabs and now everyone can see that the real problem of Arab backwardness is internal and cultural, not the old excuses about outsiders. The elites in most of Africa came to this realization 20 years ago. They are way ahead of the Arabs in facing reality and some of them do indeed have a brighter future.
DeeDee on March 9, 2011 at 5:14 pm (Reply)
Ellen: My apologies. I should have written "Why should they care about Jews now, given everything facing the countries that have succeeded (or are close to) bringing in new leadership, restructuring governments, etc?"
As for SSA, I don't know where you are getting your information SSA having some of the most proIsrael Christian constituencies in the world, and it doesn't matter. Your original comment--"SubSaharan Africa, that no one pays attention to" is still odious.
Rabbi Eli Mallon on March 10, 2011 at 10:47 am (Reply)
"Had your predecessors acknowledged our rights from the beginning and found some way to accommodate Zionism geographically..."
I unquestionably support the right of Israel to exist. But I'm not sure that the Muslim reluctance to do so is based on a mere lack of acknowledging our "rights." As peoples, we come to this conflict with mutually-conflicting views of whose "rights" are being ignored. I side with Israel, but I recognize the sincerity of the other side's issues, even where they've been exploited by demagogues and despots for supremely selfish purposes. It's thornier than simply accepting our "rights." I'm not sure how a solution can be worked out. But I believe it ultimately will be, im yirtzeh Ha-Shem.
Victor Bassini on March 10, 2011 at 1:58 pm (Reply)
Represetative democracy, respect for human rights, and freedom for women....hmmm. I simply don´t see it coming to pass; not among the Arabs.Their own past and present history vouch for this. They´ve been governed by cut throats and butchers from time immemorial. The outcome of these revolutions will bring to power a new generation of butchers. And as far as a reduction of their Jew-hatred is concerned, forget it.
Golda Meir had it right when she stated that there would be peace with the Arabs when they would love their children more than they hate ours.
Jon on March 10, 2011 at 2:18 pm (Reply)
In a world filled with people posing as "peace-loving" and "optimistic," it's fascinating to read Benjamin's piece which maps out the only true path to peace and the only hope for an optimistic future.

As the writer points out, the hundred-year war between Israel and its neighbors has been completely optional, something those neighbors have had the power to end at any time. And given what maintaining their seige has cost these societies, any rational calculation would come out in favor of the enormous Arab world coming to terms with a tiny non-Arab polity within their midst then getting on with solving (or finally addressing) their real (and equally solvable) problems.

Alas, while the author paints the only way forward to an optimisitic future, he is also clear-eyed in pointing out how unlikely it is that the current state of flux in the Arab world will lead to this conclusion.
walter rand on March 11, 2011 at 8:03 am (Reply)
Leon Uris in his monumental story "The Haj" relates about two families that occupy land they farm as neighbors in Palestine, one family is Jewish and the other Arabic. He tells that they were friendly and cooperative with each other until the time when the possibility that Israel would be established as a state for a Jewish homeland. It was at this point that the relationship between the two families became antagonistic to the extent that violence was committed by members of the Arab family against the Jewish family. Uris explores the reason for this and explains in the words of the Arab patriarch that if Israel becomes a state in which he has to live then his greatest fear is that he would lose control of his family which is the utmost reason for his opposition to Jewish statehood because of the Jewish liberal and democratic attitude to their own women and children. Therein lies the basic fear and antagonism of the Arab world against Israel. This fear overrides and is more significant to an Arab than the possible loss of land or sovereignty. The possible loss of an Arab man's strict control of his women and children because they will follow the dictates of their own heart and mind and not his, is the reason why it will be extremely difficult to reconcile Arabs to accept Jewish friendship.
Victor Bassini on March 11, 2011 at 11:53 am (Reply)
To Walter Rand:

Your post was very revealing since years ago I had a Palestinian sales agent whose territory was the whole Middle East. He often told me that the reason the Arabs wouldn´t accept Israel in their midst was that that the Jewish state set a bad example for the Arab populace.

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