Being in Istanbul on the day of the Israeli election is instructive. To get from my home in the West Bank city of Nablus to the airport in Jordan's capital, Amman, I had to drive past a number of Israeli settlements. The road leading to the settlements was lined with election billboards featuring the Likud campaign slogan "It's us or them.”
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Who, I asked myself, are the “us” when the image on the billboard shows only Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu? He must symbolize all rightwing-thinking, rightwing-voting Israelis. And who are the “them?” Obviously, he is referring to Zionist Union leaders Isaac Herzog and Tzipi Livni, his main challengers in these elections. But "them" doesn't stop there. We Palestinians belong to the dark side of this schizoid, either-us-or-them approach. As do the Israeli moderates, all those who want an end to our ruinous and senseless conflict, people with common sense, people rightly concerned about Israel’s long-term security in the Middle East.
In Istanbul, the center of the former Ottoman Empire, such a slogan seems tragically short sighted. For centuries under Ottoman rule, and for decades under the British, Palestine was a mosaic of peoples, religions and traditions. In the Nablus I knew as a child before the 1948 war, Muslims, Samaritans, Greek Orthodox and Catholics lived side-by-side peacefully. No one ever imagined discriminating against other groups in the name of purity. Us-versus-them thinking had no place in the ethnic tapestry of our lives.
This comes to mind because my Turkish interlocutors are following the election campaign with the passion of soccer fans. What I’m hearing from my friends, both inside and outside the Turkish government, is this: Once Israeli leaders support a two-state solution along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative, Israel will take up its rightful place in the region as a dynamic center for science, high-tech and innovation. Far from wanting to shun Israelis, Turks are eager to partner with them to ensure enduring security and prosperity for the Jews, Muslims and Christians of the Holy Land and the wider Middle East.
This has been the message I’ve been seeking to communicate for years to Israeli leaders. Both as part of a group of Israeli and Palestinian businesspeople and independently, I’ve tried numerous times to meet prime minister. I even asked an Israeli acquaintance to hand-deliver a letter to Netanyahu in which I confessed having “lost my voice a dozen times arguing with fellow Palestinians and many Israelis that you are the man who can make the breakthrough in a regional peace. Yasser Arafat called Yitzhak Rabin the 'Israeli De Gaulle.' You, I believe, can be the Israeli Winston Churchill.”
Netanyahu never responded. Strangely, the more Palestinians have presented a vision of living side-by-side with Israel in a win-win relationship, the more vociferously the prime minister has come out with the canard of “no partner.” Now, thanks to the Likud campaign billboard, I know the reason for this.
Netanyahu and his natural allies on the right systematically foster a climate of perpetual fear and hopelessness in order to discredit a peace process that would require Israel to reverse its colonial expansion into the West Bank and to give Palestinians our liberty. This zero-sum strategy intentionally blurs all differences in the “them” — we are all potential terrorists, all of us want to destroy Israel, we are a kind of foot and mouth disease to be quarantined behind walls, walls that simultaneously demarcate the Bantustans of the Greater Israel dream.
Regrettably, the present Israeli prime minister is not a Winston Churchill; he resembles Yitzhak Shamir who tried for years to obfuscate, bluff, delay and disseminate a two-state solution. Like Shamir, Netanyahu should be ousted from office during these elections.
For the sake of Israelis and Palestinians alike, I hope and pray that today, Election Day, Israeli voters will choose better leaders with the courage to cut the noose from around all our necks. Once Israeli withdrawals from the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israelis can find their rightful place in our region.
Munib R. al-Masri, a businessman and philanthropist, has been active for 40 years in finding a peaceful solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.