An Open Letter to the Arab Street

By Benjamin Kerstein
Wednesday, March 9, 2011

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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