Too Important to Lose Hope

The following is the fourth installment of 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,

Jordan's King Abdullah, whom you interviewed recently, addressed a rare joint session of the U.S. Congress earlier this month, stirring controversy that continues to reverberate in Washington. He argued that a settlement to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict was crucial to peace and stability in the entire Middle East, and called on the U.S. to use its influence with Israel to help forge a lasting peace deal this year, saying that the continuation of the conflict is a threat not only to the region, but to global security.

His speech, described as a historic landmark by Jordanians and sympathizers, was either ignored or attacked by American pundits and politicians. The New York Times covered the speech on an inside page, while the Washington Post completely ignored it. Many Congress members, political commentators and bloggers were appalled that the king would ignore Iraq and Iran and focus most of his speech on the plight of the Palestinians and how that was destabilizing the region. After all, if it were a matter of suffering, Iraqis have suffered more violent deaths in the past few months than the Palestinians and Israelis have suffered in the past five decades. Indeed, Iraqis suffered the deaths of nearly 300,000 people buried in mass graves under Saddam Hussein's rule, even before the U.S. invasion of 2003. Iran, seeking a nuclear bomb, has not only contributed to destabilizing Iraq and Lebanon, but is also playing a destructive role in the Palestinian territories by supporting Hamas against Israel and the Fatah movement. Ultimately, very few in the U.S. seem to be convinced that advancing peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians would stop Iraqi Sunnis and Shi'ites from killing each other, or Iran's and Syria's allies in Lebanon, especially Hezbollah, which instigated a war with Israel last summer, from trying to topple the democratically-elected government in Lebanon. The question, from an American perspective, remains: Why is it more important to the Middle East and the world that Israelis and Palestinians talk to each other, rather than dealing with the bigger and more widely exportable crises in Iraq and Lebanon, in which Iran is the prime culprit?

I would like to hear your views on this controversy, as it is at the heart of the regional and international geopolitical debate and policy-making. Indeed, no one denies the fact that the Palestinians and Israelis have suffered too long, and that their conflict has been more polarizing on regional and global scales than any in history. But that was before the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the ensuing violence that gave ascendancy to a theocratic regime in Iran bent on regional hegemony, with a nuclear threat to boot. The Iraq war and its repercussions have given birth to a number of little wars spreading across the region, between Sunnis and Shi'ites, moderates and radicals, not to mention creating a new breed of jihadists who make Palestinian militants look tame. This is not to belittle the huge suffering of the inhabitants of the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea, but it does raise questions as to regional and global security priorities.

Dear Akiva, in your recent interview with King Abdullah, the Jordanian monarch gave a hint of a possible breakthrough in the Palestinian-Israeli impasse. Your reporting on secret Syrian-Israeli talks, which preceded the interview, also gave hope that something may be brewing beyond what we've witnessed in the past. Are you really hopeful that a grand gesture is about to be announced toward a historic opening for Arab-Israeli peace? I'm asking because I have become skeptical and cynical of Middle East peace initiatives. We have both witnessed dozens of peace proposals and initiatives launched by various regional and international players, only to see them falter at the first genuine test. Do you foresee today an Israeli government willing to accommodate the minimum Palestinian demands under the circumstances? Do you see a Palestinian leadership capable of transcending the past and internal strife to offer Israelis a minimum sense of security and hope for the future? Do you see an American administration, embroiled in Iraq and a confrontation with Iran, willing to go the extra mile to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat? I'll tell you, dear Akiva, that at this moment, I'm not optimistic.

Despite all Ibrahim Suleiman may have told you about his conviction that the Syrians seek genuine peace with Israel, there is no indication that Damascus is willing to press Hamas to embrace the conditions set by the Quartet for relaunching peace negotiations. While Iran gave the nod to Hamas leader Khaled Mashal to endorse the Saudi-mediated Mecca agreement, we are yet to see a Palestinian unity government ready to recognize previously signed peace agreements with Israel. On the other side, it is not clear whether a very weakened Olmert government is capable of the grand gestures necessary to lead Israelis toward a compromise that could be reciprocated by the divided Palestinian leadership.

As I write you this letter, I recall my first visit to Israel in 1994, following the Jordan-Israel peace treaty. What was most striking about the nearly two-hour drive from the northern Jordanian-Israeli "Sheikh Hussein - Jordan River" border crossing toward Jerusalem was the vast territory of uninhabited land along the way. I thought to myself at the time: There is so much land for both Israelis and Palestinians to live. Why do they insist on cancelling each other? I knew things were not that simple, but I wished they were.

Dear Akiva, forgive my pessimistic outlook on prospects of peace between your people and mine. As I see fellow Arabs killing each other in Iraq, Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, I am much less hopeful that they would be prepared to make peace with the Israelis. Perhaps I'm wrong. I hope I'm wrong.

Dear Salameh,

When the good people from Search for Common Ground suggested I participate in this exchange of letters, I momentarily hesitated. I was concerned this singular task would turn into yet another battleground between Israelis and Arabs. In addition, I didn't want to be drawn into defending policies that I have openly criticized in Haaretz, in media interviews and at overseas conferences. Your letters, and particularly the last one, prove there was no basis to my concern. I have come to recognize that my pen pal is a courageous journalist, a worthy intellectual and an Arab who pursues peace and does not hesitate to point out the failings of the Arab leadership. I have found in you, dear Salameh, a faithful colleague in the professional arena, blessed with a healthy and realistic vision. I feel privileged to have gotten to know a close partner who shares my fears for the fate of our region and the future of our children.

Indeed, as you have written in your latest letter, the Arab-Israeli dispute in general and the violent conflict between us and the Palestinians in particular are no longer the greatest threat to peace and stability in the Middle East. Yes, the Bush administration's strategic mistakes on the Iraqi and Iranian fronts have given the sign for the beginning of a mad race for hegemony over the Middle East between radical Shi'ism and global jihad. Both Israeli and Palestinian fundamentalists are taking part in this race, whose end, as you have written, is likely to result in total destruction. Even if their role is not central, the tensions, the violence and the atmosphere of despair that they disseminate turn "our" conflict into a key cause for "their" conflict.

There are two ways of relating to the link between the local Israeli-Arab conflict and the regional Muslim-Muslim one. One path is to disconnect this link and to convince ourselves that a just and agreed solution to the battle over borders and the refugee problem will not influence the Sunni-Shi'ite enmity and will not contribute much to Middle East stability. The second path is to renew, with even greater urgency, the Arab-Israeli political process and to make Arab-Israeli peace a model for regional peace. Widening the circle of peace by adding the Palestinians, Syria and Lebanon to Egypt and Jordan, which already signed peace treaties with Israel, will drive out and supplant destructive forces like Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Al Qaeda's leader, Osama Bin Laden − all those who flourish in the swamps of poverty, distress and hatred. On the other hand, an atmosphere of peace that allows for the diversion of resources from the arms race to infrastructures and industries is the most effective fertilizer for economic growth and for attracting investors and tourists.

Unfortunately, Salameh, I learn from your letter that despair pushes even good and wise people like you along the first path, a way that leads, in my opinion, directly to the abyss. I also don't have illusions that an agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, including a compromise on Jerusalem's holy sites, will bring an end to bloodshed in Iraq. I don't believe that flying the Israeli flag in Damascus will persuade Iran to give up its nuclear program and its expansionist ambitions in the region. But I do believe that if Al Jazeera, instead of broadcasting pictures of bleeding Palestinian children to hundreds of millions of Muslim homes, would broadcast a soccer match between the premier youth divisions of Israel and Palestine, Hassan Nasrallah's ratings would fall exponentially.

Dear Salameh, as you have written with great sorrow, the international community is not adequately estimating the extent of the threat hovering over it as a result of the Iraqi chaos and the occupation of Palestinian territory. The world is not giving the weight it deserves to the words of Jordanian King Abdullah, who has warned repeatedly that this chaos will result in the collapse of the pragmatic regimes in the region. The international community does not know how to evaluate the importance of the Saudi King Abdullah's initiative, which pushed Hamas and Fatah to the Mecca agreement. This agreement paved the way to a national unity government, and from there to the Arab summit in Riyadh, which will revivify the Arab Initiative of March 2002.

You are right, dear Salameh. The Olmert-Peretz government is lacking the courage to embrace the Arab Initiative and doesn't enjoy anywhere near the public support required for a political process built on this historic opportunity. It's true that the man sitting in the White House is not displaying readiness to use the power of the world's only super power to take this important opportunity and fulfill his vision − a vision of two states for two peoples. But the future of our region is too important to leave in the hands of politicians who come and go. Peace is too precious for you and me to surrender to despair. Cheer up, my friend.

This exchange was commissioned by the Common Ground News Service (