Palestinian boys look at websites on the Internet in the West Bank city of Bethlehem.
Palestinian boys look at websites on the Internet in the West Bank city of Bethlehem. Photo by AP
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"I hope you will help me present my Internet site to your colleagues because as I envision things, within a short time, it will become an active forum for dialogue between Arabs and Jews and for promoting peace among our people," wrote Avi Melamed to his Egyptian counterpart, journalist Sami Al Bukheiri. A noble vision indeed, considering that public dialogue between Jewish writers and journalists and their Arab counterparts is virtually nonexistent.

Three weeks ago, the Egyptian writer, Dr. Alaa Al Aswany, filed a law suit against Gershon Baskin's Israel Palestine Center for Research and Information (IPCRI ), saying that IPRCI had sponsored an unauthorized translation of his bestselling novel, "The Yacoubian Building," and even disseminated it, free of charge, among its 27,000 Internet subscribers. Al Aswany's lawyer wrote to the Egyptian writers' union demanding it take steps to compensate his client for this wanton infringement of internationally accepted copyright laws.

Does Al Aswany intend to demand compensation from an Israeli-Palestinian organization he himself boycotts? It appears that what prompted him was the fear that somebody in Egypt might conclude he had agreed to have his novel translated into Hebrew, violating the Egyptian writers' union's policy of not collaborating with Israeli authors.

Arab states and Internet sites occasionally sponsor conferences and discussions that address the issues of Hebrew translations of Arabic works and cultural collaboration with Israel.

In general, the upshot of such gatherings has been that cultural disengagement is virtually the only weapon left to challenge the "mistake" made by Jordanian and Egyptian authorities when they signed peace treaties with Israel.

Some intellectuals, though, are unperturbed. A leading example is the Egyptian publicist Sami Al Bukheiri, who writes for the popular Elaph Internet site and others. Elaph, an unusual site, was founded in 2001 by the Saudi journalist and businessman Othman Al Omair, formerly the editor of the international Arabic-language newspaper, Asharq Alawsat, owned by the Saudi royal family. The site was created in London, allowing it to bypass Saudi Arabian censorship rules and present liberal viewpoints, particularly in opposition to religious radicalism.

Elaph is not the only site to raise the banner of liberalism. There are several Arabic-language Internet sites that host writers and sponsor fascinating discussions about issues like democracy and the Arab world, the status of women, minority rights, and, of course, attitudes toward Israel. Al Bukheiri decided to accept Melamed's challenge, and the two engaged in a riveting dialogue on the Elaph site. Melamed, who lives in Givat Haim, worked in intelligence and lectures on Israeli policy. Among his other pursuits, he founded Feenjan.com, a website that fosters dialogue between Israelis and Arabs and present Israeli positions to the Arab public "not by means of official sources, such as the foreign ministry of the IDF spokesman, but as part of a civilian, private project."

In his introductory remarks on Feenjan, Al Bukheiri noted: "I have always sought peace, and I see how ordinary people turn into victims of war while rulers use them for their own purposes, in order to increase their profits and keep their positions of power." For this reason, he said, he had agreed to disclose to his readers his written exchanges with the "Israeli."

Before he agreed to lend a hand to Melamed, Al Bukheiri wanted to hear his views on a number of sensitive issues. Does Melamed believe that Israel will agree at long last to define its borders? What is the meaning of the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state? What will become of the 20 percent of its citizens who are not Jews?

"Muslim extremists in the Arab world claim all the time that 'we told you that Israel is a racist state, and we in response want to declare that our states are Islamic.' I believe that Benjamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Ahmadinejad cause the same amount of damage to the secular liberalism in the Middle East," wrote Al Bukheiri. He concluded by asking whether Israel would be prepared to sign a nuclear non-proliferation accord.

Melamed replied: "I am proud of the fact that I am a Jew and Israel is my homeland. This is the land where the Jewish people was born thousands of years ago. Jews have a right to an independent state on this land. At the same time, I understand that the Palestinian people attaches no less importance to this land. I respect and value these feelings and hope that the Palestinians will have an independent state on it. I, therefore, support the two state solution and am prepared to pay a price for this solution that involves conceding the settlements and dividing control of Jerusalem. But these concessions must be reciprocal. On the question of refugees, they should have the right to reside in the new Palestinian state."

In his response published on October 26, Al Bukheiri expressed willingness to continue with the dialogue since Melamed had reassured him with his position on three important issues in the Israeli-Palestinian dispute: settlements, refugees and control of Jerusalem.

Al Bukheiri wondered whether the Israeli public also accepts these positions, and if so, he asked, "Why is it that we have Netanyahu in power? His positions are so different from yours."

On the question of the Jewish people's historical rights to the land, Al Bukheiri argued that Jewish migration to Israel is not a historical right, but rather, the result of persecution in other places. "The fact is that most Jews in the United States stay there, since Jews in America are not persecuted," he wrote.

Melamed, however, refused to budge: "Jews did not migrate to this country; rather, they returned to their homeland. Why else have Jews from Asia and Eastern Europe, who lived thousands of miles apart from each another, spoke different languages and dwelled in different environments, chosen to live in this specific place?"

Al Bukheiri said that like many, he suspects the demand that Israel be recognized as a Jewish state masks a scheme to empty the country of its Arab residents and turn it into a purely Jewish state.

In response, Melamed clarified that "the fact that Jews have historical rights to this strip of land does not mean that the Palestinians have no rights. It is necessary, however, to recognize [Jewish] rights because if you deny the rights and history of the other side, there can be no future for both sides. As the conflict wore on, many Arabs began distorting this history, refusing to recognize that Jews had deep roots in this land."

Though Al Bukheiri announced that his third letter would be his last, he did send Melamed a fourth. In it, he urged his readers to show restraint and refrain from personal attacks.

"Believe me, the Jews will not succeed in expelling 6 million Palestinians to the desert, nor will the Arabs manage to throw 6 million Jews into the sea. Our fate is to live together under a viable peace agreement, not a ceasefire or a temporary peace."

It is, therefore, incumbent on both sides, he said, to continue this dialogue and ask tough questions. He invited his readers to continue the discussion with Melamed.