Arab World Unrest Threatens Israel's Chance of Neighborly Ties

If Bahrain's royal family falls, the world will lose a leader who was willing to engage the Israeli people directly for peace, even inviting me to interview their foreign minister.

It is highly doubtful that the annual Arab League summit will take place as planned at the end of next month. Many leaders know that if they travel to Baghdad, whose turn it is to host, they won't have anywhere to return. The fate of the Arab peace initiative, born nine years ago at the summit in Beirut, is also now cast in doubt.

Don't expect any tears in Jerusalem. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government, like its predecessor, did not conduct deliberations on the revolutionary pan-Arab offer to replace a state of war with peaceful relations and normalization. This would be accomplished in exchange for a withdrawal from territories occupied in 1967, and a just solution to the refugee problem on the basis of UN decision 194.

illustration - Amos Biderman - February 22 2011
Amos Biderman

In light of the shrunken peace process and the enlargement of settlements, nations such as Syria and Libya have tried to eviscerate the initiative over the years. Egypt and Jordan rejected this opposition and tried, without success, to use their open door to Israel in the hopes of saving the plan.

From 2008-2009, telegrams from the U.S. embassy in Manama, Bahrain, published by WikiLeaks (as reported by this newspaper's Barak Ravid ), show that the Emir of this small principality was willing to deviate from the official Arab line and start a direct dialogue with the Israeli public.

In one of the telegrams, the deputy U.S. ambassador in Manama says that an advisor to the Bahraini foreign minister has informed him that the crown prince or the foreign minister are interested in granting an interview to the Israeli media and had even been in contact with a journalist at Haaretz.

Indeed, in 2009 I read an exceptional article by the emir of Bahrain, Sheikh Sulman Ben-Hamad al-Khalifa, that was published in the Washington Post. He criticized Arab rulers for not doing enough to convince Israelis about their peaceful intentions. I sent an email to the Bahrain Embassy in Washington and suggested that I visit Bahrain, to allow the emir to address the Israeli public directly.

In the beginning of September I received an invitation from the embassy to interview the Bahrain foreign minister in New York. I thanked them, but told them I could not come to New York on such short notice, and suggested that a Haaretz reporter stationed in the U.S. conduct the interview. I preferred to wait for an invitation to the palace in Manama. I haven't heard from them since. Apparently, I'll have to wait a lot longer.

Revolutionary ploughshares

A real revolution will take place in Egypt only when the army trades in their cannons. Since Israel returned the hot Sinai Peninsula to Anwar Sadat in return for (a cold? ) peace, the Egyptian army has been turning its swords into ploughshares.

The removal of the Zionist enemy forced the government to find suitable employment for thousands of unemployed officers. According to WikiLeaks, a 2009 telegram from the U.S. embassy in Cairo quotes a prominent Egyptian professor telling an American diplomat that former army officers were in charge of top government and civil service offices. They had penetrated the media, transportation, the education system, as well as social welfare organizations and humanitarian funds.

The expert said companies owned by the army and run by former generals were particularly active in the water, olive oil, cement, construction, hospitality and gas industries. Army firms paved streets and ran tourist sites. The army held vast areas in the Nile Delta and on the Red Sea.

Senior officers were dependent on the president and the defense minister for their jobs and perks. The defense minister could hold back any contract for so-called "security" reasons.

This arrangement, the professor explained, was intended to ensure that the army did not damage the government's stability. The American diplomat added that this huge interference in the economy hurt free market reforms.

Nonetheless, the professor remarked, mid-level officers were not allied with senior members of the government. Readers of the telegram in Jerusalem no doubt hope that they will not join the new forces, who did not know about the alliance between Mubarak and Netanyahu.

Teaching about the real Hebron

Jewish students must visit Hebron. There is no better way to understand the occupation than a tour of Shuhada Street, which leads up to the abandoned Arab wholesale market-cum-settlement. The important question is, of course, what the teachers will tell the students about political reality in the city of our ancestors and the occupied territories.

According to the editor's column in the latest edition of the Histadrut teachers union journal, Palestinians have been left out of this story.

"One doesn't study about the conflict with the Palestinians in school," editor Yoram Harpaz writes. "One doesn't learn about their national narrative; we don't differentiate between their situations within the Green Line or beyond it; their language is not studied; prejudices and stereotypes are not dealt with; one doesn't study about disagreements among historians."

Harpaz writes that the regional upheavals have put education for peace in a new context, but few educators are dealing with it. He argues that when political and pedagogic leadership do not advance peace, they also do not work to advance education for peace.

Harpaz is consoled by the fact that some try to bring Jewish and Arab students together, and write textbooks that depict the conflict from both points of view. As is well known, some of these books have been banned by the Education Ministry.