Recovering the Cradle of Civilization

The following is an exchange of letters between two of the region's most respected journalists: Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief for the London-based Arabic daily Al-Hayat, and Haaretz senior columnist Akiva Eldar.

Dear Akiva,

The ancient Romans used to say: Ex Oriente Lux: "Light comes from the East." They were not merely referring to the fact that the sun rises from the east. The three main monotheistic religions originated from the so-called Middle East. Indeed, civilization itself started in Mesopotamia.

But in today's world, the Middle East is better known for being the world's biggest source of political upheaval and violence, that has not only plagued the region's people but is now threatening global security. The term "terrorism," which is yet to gain a globally accepted definition, has become a common term associated with developments in the Middle East, and, more ominously, linked to people originating from that mainly Muslim part of the world.

When perpetrators of these violent acts, which are mainly committed against innocent civilians, portray their murderous acts as being in the service of God, one is reminded of Christianity in the Dark Ages and of the bloody "Crusades" that terrorized people in the Middle East nearly a thousand years ago. Are these self-righteous and self-appointed guardians of Islam - Bin Laden and Co. - just beginning to adopt tactics pursued by Christian leaders in Medieval times?

Judaism is not free of the violent types who use religion as a means to achieve political gains either. A case in point is the terrorism committed by the Irgun and Stern gangs in Palestine during the 1940s' movement to establish the state of Israel.

Even if we assume that the Jews and the Christians have succeeded in achieving some of their goals through violence in the past, what do the Muslim extremists, including Hamas and Hezbollah and their Iranian and Syrian backers, hope to achieve today in a world where what you could get away with a few centuries ago, or even a few decades ago, is no longer tenable?

How did the cradle of civilization turn into the cradle of blind political violence in the name of religion?

Dear Akiva, one could go as far back as the Crusades, or much more recently to the times of European colonization of the Middle East and the creation of Israel, with Western backing. One could blame today's miserable state of affairs both on the history of Western involvement in the region and the corrupt and oppressive regimes left behind to rule.

But this alone could not have created the type of terrorism we witness today. For why do Muslims kill fellow Muslims in Iraq and elsewhere more than they target alien, Western invaders?

One must question whether the politics of despair are responsible for the kind of violence we have been witnessing in the last few years. Is the absence of hope for Palestinians a recipe for further violence against Israel and among Palestinians themselves? This is a question that needs to be answered if we are to understand what drives these extremist and fanatical groups to wreak havoc in the Middle East and beyond.

It is naive to think that religion is responsible for the violence in the Middle East, even if it is often used as a convenient excuse for achieving political goals. Violence is the product of weak and desperate people suffering unaddressed grievances, real and imagined. The failure of states in the region to provide peaceful means for political change through a democratic process has largely contributed to the growing phenomenon. Threats to regional and global security are the product of current realities in the Middle East that must change before we can hope that the cradle of civilization can once again become a beacon of light upon nations.

But how do we change these realities, dear Akiva?

You know how much influence Israel, the superpower of the Middle East, can exercise over America, the world's superpower. And you know that Israel's continuing occupation of Palestinian and Arab lands has been a key factor in igniting and perpetuating a regional conflict that has spread beyond the region and is now drawing us into a clash of civilizations. You know very well that Israel, in defiance of international law, has deliberately and consistently worked to undermine and abort every local, regional or international peace plan that has ever been tabled. The aborting of these plans was also achieved with the help of Palestinian and Arab militants, but isn't it Israel's policies that have undermined Palestinian and Arab moderates?

This "jihad" business was first championed by Arabs seeking the liberation of Palestinian and Arab lands, before it became an international phenomenon plaguing the entire world, overtaken by their more violent Islamic successors. Don't you agree that Israel's occupation inspired the secular, PLO jihadists before they were overtaken by their more violent Islamic successors? Is it conceivable that nobody knows, including the Israelis, where the borders of Israel are, or where they should be?

What will it take, dear Akiva, for Israel to realize that it has to do the right thing before it can claim the higher moral ground? What would it take for Israel to realize that force alone does not bring legitimacy?

I have no doubts, dear Akiva, that a solution will not come from Washington, London or Paris. It has to come from where everything seems to have started, from the region, perhaps from Israel. Light Comes from the East.

Dear Salameh,

Thank you so much for your trust. I truly appreciate your effort to start this dialogue with an Israeli colleague while our people, instead of negotiating peace, are killing each other.

Our peoples are at a critical juncture, and we cannot afford to dwell on the wounds of our past. You will surely agree with me, my dear Salameh, that in light of the threats looming over our area and affecting peace in the entire world, the peace camp and the pragmatic forces must focus on searching for a cure for the severe malady which assails us from all directions - the malady of fanaticism and violence.

Nevertheless, in order for this dialogue to lead us to common ground, allow me to disagree with a few of your comments, mainly those pertaining to the festering Israeli-Palestinian conflict. First of all, I was glad you mentioned the terror attacks led by the right-wing Jewish resistance against Arab civilians before 1948. To these I may add the vile attack by Baruch Goldstein, who murdered 29 believers at prayer in a Hebron mosque, as well as the harassment of Palestinians by settlers.

My friends and I at Haaretz and other Israeli media outlets incessantly report the sins of occupation. The Haganah [the mainstream Jewish resistance against the British mandate] and David Ben-Gurion's government fought the Jewish terror organizations and excluded them from their camp. Four hundred thousand Jews, myself included, demonstrated against the Begin-Sharon government during the first Lebanon War, until it was forced to create a formal commission of inquiry - all this because our army was in control of the area while Christian criminals massacred Muslims at the Sabra and Chatila refugee camps.

Dear Salameh, I remember the day, in the early summer of 1994, when King Hussein of Jordan and Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin signed the peace treaty between both our countries. A Jordanian newspaper editor who was introduced to me in Washington refused to shake my hand and respond to my excited congratulations on this historic occasion. Several years later, the Jordanian Press Association expelled a group of journalists who had visited the Haaretz offices in Tel Aviv. Most leading Egyptian intellectuals also boycott Israel and avoid contact with even the most moderate elements of Israeli society. The reason, or excuse, is always the Israeli occupation.

As you noted in your article, dear Salameh, and as you found out during our joint lecture in Washington in early November, I do not hide my severe criticism of the Israeli government's policy in the territories. But I do believe that the highlighting of failures and the allocation of blame are not the sole, or even the main, role of those who shape public opinion. Our main challenge is constantly to sound the alarm regarding the dangers of extremism and the threat of war looming over our area, while showing the benefits of reconciliation and the fruits of peace. A necessary condition for our success is finding the common ground between the Israeli peace camp and the Arab peace camp.

As you noted, Israeli governments have been indifferent, or even hostile, to peace programs based on UN resolutions, the Clinton parameters, the "road map," or the Arab League's Beirut resolution. Our politicians cynically use the terror attacks and the propaganda led by Arab fanatics as a black smokescreen. The role of our colleagues in the Arab media and elites is to help us lift this thick screen and show our readership that behind it are millions of people who long for a secure and peaceful life.

The Jewish minority that calls for the expulsion of Palestinians from their land and steals their olives is my enemy. I will do everything legally possible to protect my Arab neighbors from the obnoxious attacks of this racist minority. But Israelis need to know that Arabs who call for the expulsion of Jews from their land, and deliberately murder their children, are enemies of yours, and that there are many among you willing to defend my family against those who deny my right to a secure existence in my own country.

Your claim that Israeli occupation inspired the first Arab terrorists as well as international terrorism is far from accurate (unless the definition of "occupation" applies to Haifa and Tel Aviv as well). The PLO first recognized Israel and UN Security Council resolutions 242 and 338 and renounced terrorism only as late as 1988. The covenant of the Palestine Liberation Organization, which called for the destruction of the Zionist entity, was amended only following the Oslo Accords, which were signed five years later. Unfortunately, the light that shone over Oslo is dwindling, in great part because of our leaders, who missed countless opportunities, but also because of indolent Palestinian leaders.

As your letter shows, the hurts of the past and subjective narratives are in the way, even when it comes to such true lovers of peace as yourself. Our peoples are handicapped. Unless our friends in the West offer us crutches immediately, we shall fall headlong. And when the East falls, it will not fall alone. Unfortunately, dear Salameh, the light will start shimmering in the East only if the West will awaken and help the peace forces in our area to turn back the forces of darkness.