In his speech at the United Nations General Assembly last week, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu unveiled his vision of Israel's place in the Middle East. Netanyahu spoke about the historical link between the Jewish people and the Land of Israel, stating that "we are not a foreign occupier" and how Israel yearns for peace. He also described the struggle against Iran and fundamentalism as a struggle between "a 21st century civilization" and "a ninth century civilization."
Netanyahu, if his speech is any indication, believes that Israel is a country that stands apart and stands alone; an island state that is forced to protect itself from its Arab and Muslim neighbors by security fences and cultural defenses. He did not express any desire to become acquainted with these neighbors or their culture, or for Israel to become part of the Middle East community. As far as Netanyahu is concerned, the peace Israel wants is a deal between leaders and not peoples. "Any time an Arab leader genuinely wanted peace with us, we made peace," he said.
According to Netanyahu, Israel is the paradigm of technological advancement, has a highly sophisticated media, is responsible for decoding the human genome and saving the environment. Iran and its supporters, in contrast, are primitives from the dark ages. In terms of the repression of women, minorities and homosexuals under Islamic regimes, he is quite right, but by portraying Israel as an island of progress in a sea of cultural and technological backwardness, he goes too far. Iran also has Internet access and science and research institutes, just as minorities are discriminated against in Israel. Israel's opposition to the Iranian regime and its hostile ideology cannot justify a condescending and patronizing attitude.
Netanyahu is not the only one guilty of this patronizing attitude. Defense Minister Ehud Barak has in the past described Israel as "a villa in the jungle." Many Israelis see their cultural inspiration as coming from New York, Paris and London; they take no interest in the people and lands surrounding us. The study of Arabic is a minor discipline in the Israeli education system and, for the most part, is used as preparation for military service in the intelligence arm or Shin Bet security service, rather than as a bridge to understanding Arabs and their culture, in Israel or aboard.
Only one Israeli prime minister, Moshe Sharett, spoke Arabic, since his family lived in an Arab village after immigrating to Palestine. Sharett was and remains the only Israeli leader who recognized that Israel needs to open up to its nearest neighbors and learn about them from up close. Netanyahu, who was educated in the United States, has never shown any interest in Arabs or Islam. The sources of inspiration he quoted in his General Assembly speech were the Hebrew prophets and Western leaders - mainly Winston Churchill.
Netanyahu demands that the Palestinians and the Arab states recognize Israel as a Jewish state. His call for such recognition would be a lot more convincing and understandable if he, for his part, would recognize the history and culture of the Arabs and Muslims who live in and next door to Israel. In his UN speech, Netanyahu missed an opportunity to call on Israel's neighbors to tear down the walls of suspicion and isolation to create peaceful relations between societies and cultures, even though political differences remain. Peace of this kind would be stable and more profound than any legal agreement between governments and leaders.
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