Organization site - Fall 2001
Sidebar: Personal Lessons
By Arlene Scadron, Pima Community College
Without fluency in Hebrew and Arabic, it is presumptuous for me to claim anything more than a superficial understanding of the players and the issues in the fratricide that engulfs the region. This lack, however, didn't deter a host of American diplomats and presidents, nor did it stop me from trying to make sense of the mess.
My Israeli friends are right—we don´t really understand the stakes; they think we´re terribly naive and impatient. The compromises the U.S. and the UN are requesting and the Palestinians are demanding could be fatal to the future of Israel. "Right of return," the end of settlements or the demolition of Israeli settlements, for example. Or Palestinian control over holy sites. I watched our liberal friends become conservative. Bottom line for all of them is security and the sovereignty of the Jewish state. They believe we Americans, despite foreign aid that runs to $3 billion each year, have no right to dictate or pressure them into a settlement.
Media bias, particularly of American journalism, is a hot topic among Israelis, who don´t think they get a fair shake from the world's media. The Israelis engage in a substantial amount of self-flagellation over their poor public relations. But neither do the Palestinians think they are fairly treated. During our stay from September through early January, the Palestinians seemed to be winning the war of world public opinion. One of the best sites for a discussion of this issue is: www.mideastinsight.org/1-01/begleiter.htm. Another is: http://HonestReporting.com which has an Israeli bias. And The Jerusalem Post and Ha´aretz Web sites provide links to Arab and Palestinian sites. Also useful is www.membri.org the Middle East Media Research Institute that examines press coverage of the area and has useful maps of the region on its site.
The rise and expansion of Islam, is something you´re more aware of in the region than in the U.S., but this is a fundamental force that overrides all of these issues and requires at least a master's degree to comprehend.
Daily life goes on in Israel and the Palestinian Territory but it is permeated by tension, pessimism, anger despair that erodes the quality of every one´s lives. Were all the inhabitants of the region capable of turning their attention to creating a Silicon Valley, for example (Israel has made a good start), their stake in economic success would overtake personal hatred. Prior to the Intifada, enterprising businessmen were launching joint business ventures between Israel and Jordan, for example. Now, these efforts are on hold, and the Palestinian economy has been flattened.
The media tend to focus like a laser beam on violence. This is understandable given traditional definitions of news, but it also ignores the fact that for the majority of people, even in Israel and much of the Middle East, daily life proceeds without incident. While this might appear to be a contradiction to what has been written, it is the way people survive wars and conflicts.
Just when you think a bolt of lightening has brought clarity to your conceptions of what is going on here, think again. This region is truly more difficult to comprehend and resolve than "rocket science."
Don´t assume any of the principles of American politics apply and that on the basis of understanding your own country's worst bloodletting—the Civil war of 1860-1865--you will understand the Arab-Israeli conflict;
Most Israelis feel beleaguered, unloved, unwanted, hated, despised and surrounded by enemies--a residue of the history of Jews in Europe, the holocaust, and the history of the Middle East region at least since Israeli nationhood in 1948. They do not believe for one moment that Yasser Arafat and other Arab leaders will rest until the Jews are "forced into the sea." Consequently, ensuring secure, defensible borders in a truly Jewish state is the sine qua non of all Israeli politicians.
Many Israelis think the Palestinians care less about human life and the quality of their children´s lives than they themselves do—a patronizing, even arrogant view, surprising because the Jews suffered irreparably when ideas that dehumanized them were perpetuated by the Nazis and other European anti-Semites.
Most Palestinians believe they have been oppressed by the Israelis to such an extent that the Intifada is fully justified despite the greater loss of life and injuries suffered by their own people, especially their children.
Deep-seated hatred by Palestinians for Israelis is increasingly reciprocated by a growing number of Jews, and not only Jewish settlers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip who have always been more militant. As these feelings prevail among multiple generations on both sides, they may become impossible to undo and a lasting peace may be unattainable.
Former president Bill Clinton did the right thing in trying everything he could to bring the parties together before he left office Jan. 20, 2001—even if the last few weeks of his presidency suggest a crazed gambler trying to recover his losses or a tarnished leader trying to burnish his legacy. That he failed reflects the incredibly complex, intractable positions of both sides and the lack of visionary but effective political leadership among Israelis and the Palestinians.
Ehud Barak, defeated as prime minister, possessed the vision to propose the most far-reaching concessions to the Palestinians of any recent Israeli prime minister. But in the face of Intifada 2 and Arafat´s apparent unwillingness or inability to halt the violence, Barak´s political support (at 60 percent of the electorate when he defeated Likud leader Benjamin Netanyahu on May 5,1999) vanished. Sharon, the current prime minister, won in a landslide on Feb. 6, 2001, claiming he could provide security and an end to the violence. He didn't and he has not.