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 July  9, 2002

The Arab-Israeli Conflict

Between Reason and Hysteria



 Tarek Heggy 

There are those in the Arab world today who do not recognize Israel’s right to exist in the first place,  and whose ultimate aim is its destruction. Despite our complete rejection of their logic and the premises from which they proceed, and our conviction that they have set themselves a goal that is not only unattainable but one that will bring about unimaginable loss and destruction, we will content ourselves here with  merely expressing our profound disagreement with their viewpoint, without resorting to the mud-slinging tactics they do not hesitate to use against whoever disagrees with them. We want to state for the record that, on the one hand, their logic is seriously flawed and that, on the other, they are, thankfully, in the minority. The vast majority in the Arab world, at the grass roots level and at the level of political movements and organizations, favours a settlement along the lines of the Arab initiative endorsed by the latest Arab summit in Beirut. Initially launched by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia, it was previously known as the Saudi initiative. In other words, the majority of Arabs would like to see a final settlement based, either in absolute or relative terms, on the following five points"

  1. The creation of a Palestinian state on all or most of the territory occupied by Israel in June, 1967.

  2. The establishment of a capital for the Palestinian state in Arab Jerusalem, and an end to Israeli control over important Muslim and Christian holy places.

  3. A unanimous Arab recognition of Israel, an end to the state of hostility and the establishment of normal political, economic and cultural relations between the Arabs and Israel.

  4. Removing all Jewish settlements from the Palestinian state, which are a tinder-box waiting for a spark.

  5. Solving the issue of Palestinian return in a manner acceptable to both parties, not on the basis of the absolute right of return but on the basis of a set of compromise solutions (and indemnity agreements) agreeable to both parties.

It is to this majority that the present article is addressed. If the vision  outlined above is acceptable, it follows that political negotiations conducted around an agenda made up of the five points proposed as the basis for a settlement  are the only way to end this bloody conflict. It also follows that if the Israelis are not ready to conduct peaceful negotiations, the Palestinians are entitled to resort to armed struggle to bring an end to the occupation and achieve their national aspirations. However, I believe the right to armed struggle is subject to limitations, the most important being that it be directed against the occupation forces, a limitation that was strictly observed in the first Palestinian intifada. Overstepping the limits and focusing on suicide operations against civilians inevitably swells the ranks of Israeli refuseniks opposed to a peaceful settlement; it also erodes international sympathy for the Palestinian cause and alienates global players who might otherwise have played a more forceful role.   As I write this article, the BBC has just broadcast a statement by a group of prominent Palestinian intellectuals, including Hanan Ashrawi, condemning the suicide attacks in principle, and accusing them not only of not serving the Palestinian struggle but of provoking a backlash detrimental to the Palestinians. This viewpoint is shared by most of the Palestinian intelligentsia, whether those in the Diaspora or those who did not leave their towns and villages since 1948, who are now known as Israeli Arabs.

In my opinion, and notwithstanding the unforgivable excesses and atrocities committed by the Israeli side, the Arab side  urgently needs to make a sober reappraisal of its positions and policies and to realize that years of allowing itself to be driven by passion, years during which it suspended its critical faculties and turned its back on reason and common sense, has sucked it into a vortex of tragic losses and missed opportunities. For example, if reason had prevailed in 1947, the Arabs would have accepted the Partition Plan; if it had prevailed in 1948, they would not have been led into a war by  leaders who knew, or should have known, that the outcome of a military confrontation would not be in their favour.  Similarly, creating a climate that led to the 1967 war was far from rational. We are still reeling from the devastating effects of that war,  still  scrambling  to recover part of what the Arab side lost in less than one fateful week in June 1967. Lack of reasoned judgement, of the ability to make a sober assessment of political imperatives, manifested itself once again with the stand taken by most of the Arab world against Anwar Sadat in the late nineteen seventies. It was also evident in Yasser Arafat’s  decision to abort the efforts made in Taba in early 2001 to work out an acceptable and balanced framework for a final settlement, when common sense dictated that he accept what was on offer in principle while announcing that a number of issues remained unresolved

This aversion to allowing considerations of rationality and wisdom to prevail is one of the main reasons why Sharon and his like-minded cohorts were able to come to power in Israel in February 2001, running on a platform that defies all modern political norms.  For they represent a political ideology predicated on theological considerations running counter to all that humanity has achieved, invoking what they call ‘religious rights’ and others see as beliefs rooted in mythology and legend to pursue what is clearly a political agenda.

 In focusing on Arab mistakes and miscalculations, I am in no way absolving the Israelis of blame for missed opportunities. A great deal can be said about the number of times Israel has slammed the window of opportunity shut, the way it has seized every chance it could to abort any settlement, starting with Ben Gurion in the early fifties up to Sharon half a century later. But our concern here is with our own mistakes; for it is only by correcting those mistakes that we can hope to move forward.

To that end, we must first review the file of how the Arabs have been dealing with the Arab-Israeli conflict from the nineteen forties to the present day in order to avoid repeating the same mistakes. An objective and neutral person looking through the file will discover that the position adopted by the Arab communist parties in 1947 (as well as by a number of prominent Egyptian politicians like Ismail Sidki and Hussein Heikal, even by Mahmoud Fahmy el Nokrashy before he too succumbed to the war fever, and by the renowned thinker and writer Taha Hussein as defined in his literary review, “The Egyptian Writer”) was the most rational and sensible position, even though we  all attacked it in the past. A review of the file will also lead to the inescapable conclusion that the Palestinians are in dire need of a new  leadership that is very different in terms of background and educational and cultural formation from the cadre that came back from Tunisia after Oslo. Not only does the current leadership have a dismal record of missed opportunities, but  it has been instrumental in reinforcing the status of the Israeli right.  To watch the members of the current leadership spouting the resounding slogans of which they are so enamoured is to realize that they are fossils from  another age, exactly like the representatives of the extreme right in Israel, some of whom are even more out of step with the times.     

It is essential for the countries sharing common borders with Israel-Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Egypt- to realize that ending the Arab-Israeli conflict is the gateway through which they need to go before overcoming the many other problems they are facing, the only way they can embark on a process of democratic reform, economic development and social peace and not fall prey to forces opposed to education, civilization and modernity, indeed, to the values of  progress in general. Long before the conflict attained its present unmanageable proportions, that is precisely what the Egyptian Marxists were advocating in 1947 and 1948. We condemned them for their stand, but we now know that theirs was the voice of reason. As we see the predictions they made at the time turning into reality before our eyes, we can only admit that they were among the few whose  vision was rational and far-sighted.   

The time has come to translate this vision into reality. This can only come about if Arab public opinion is made to see that the five points outlined at the beginning of this article, which are the essence of the initiative endorsed by the Arab summit in Beirut, are a matter of life or death for the region. The Arab public must be made to realize the dangers of blindly following the school of ‘big talk’ which has cost the countries and peoples of the region dearly and which is capable of costing them even more if they continue to follow slogans which, though apparently nationalistic or religious, are in essence an invitation to remain in thrall to a conflict  that is destroying the very fabric of our societies.

To that end, we need to focus on forming new generations driven by reason rather than by volcanic passions fuelled by voices which give themselves the right to speak in the name of religion or nationalism. It is a task that is rendered all the more difficult by the victim mentality that has developed in our part of the world, where a deep conviction  has built up over the last few decades in the minds of many  that everything negative in their lives is the result of conspiracies hatched against them by the outside world. True, conflict and competition are facts of life, and the annals of history are rife with conspiracies. But what is certain is that our responsibility for the negative aspects of our life is far greater than that of anyone else. What is also certain is that the world is not made up exclusively of wolves waiting to pounce on us. Here we must have the courage to ask ourselves an important question: Four decades ago, India, China, Japan and Russia (the Soviet Union at the time) supported us on many issues, including the Arab-Israeli conflict. Today, these countries are not only no longer as close to us as they once were, but have moved closer to Israel than ever before.  Why is that?   The answer to that question holds the key to a solution of many of our problems.  Most societies are concerned today with improving their lot by optimizing their potential in all areas: industry, construction, services, economic life and social welfare. We, for our part, are locked in a time warp. We alone continue to talk in the language of the Cold War, not realizing that no-one today can remain in a cave isolated from the rest of the world. We must wake up from the dream that any country can be important outside its own borders  without  first ensuring that it is internally strong, stable and solid and without contributing to the march of history. Any country that is weak on the domestic front can only be weak on the international front; there can be no exceptions to this rule.

It is all too easy to get caught up in the big talk syndrome, to succumb to the resounding slogans and impossible,  not to say illogical, demands made by those who pass themselves off as warriors battling against impossible odds, when in fact they are nothing but false prophets drawing the gullible into a net of false hopes and dreams. The worst of it is that it is not they who bear the consequences of their irresponsible talk, but the destitute denizens of the refugee camps. What is more difficult is to adopt a position based on reason, common sense and a realistic assessment of the situation, and which does not involve making enemies of influential parties capable of affecting the course of events. Big talk deals with impressions and generalities, common sense with facts and specifics. The record of the former is abysmal; the latter can be the way to a brighter future.

I am well aware that in writing this article I am inviting trouble. The self-appointed knights in shining armour riding on their steeds of big words and empty slogans will rush to fire their arrows of insults against my person and accusations against my integrity.  For personal defamation is the fate of all who dare to cross them, regardless of whether their proposals have any merit. This will not deter me, however, from calling on Arab public opinion and on those responsible for shaping it to turn their backs on meaningless slogans in favour of reason and common sense. It is all too easy to play to the gallery, to tell people what they want to hear. But  the task of any intellectual who is consistent with himself is not to pander to his readers but to write what he believes can contribute to creating a future better than the dark days our region has lived through for over half a century by suspending its critical faculties and allowing meaningless slogans  rather than rationality to shape its destiny.  

This text is the original English version of an article published in Ha'aretz newspaper in Hebrew on July 5, 2002.

Dr. Tarek Heggy combines academic, cultural and economic dimensions.  He is the author of 17 books, a visiting professor at Princeton, Columbia and the University of California Berkeley. One of the world's top petroleum strategists, he was the Chairman of a major international oil company for ten years until July, 1996. Tarek Heggy's books advocate the values of progress as a human product, modernity, acceptance of the other, cultural tolerance, universality of science/knowledge, democracy and civil society. Beside his major areas of interest: the intellectual domain and modern management, he is the member of the board of some 30 prominent organizations, faculties and universities.. Selected works are online at http://www.heggy.org.


Copyright 2002, by the author.

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