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Open Letter to Avraham Burg
… It is all in your hands! - Avraham Burg, Forward Forum, 26 September2003

9 October   |   2003   |   Subject  Middle East & North Africa (MENA)

Dear Avraham Burg

Let me first condemn the dastardly suicide terror bomb that affronted humanity, defied the law of war and claimed the lives of Israeli men, women and children at the Maxim restaurant in Haifa last weekend. Once more, I grieve for all the families who lost their beloved ones - not least the Zer-Aviv family who lost sister and brother Noya and Liran, mother and father Keren and B’tzalel, and grandmother Bruriya. No words could provide adequate solace to the survivors at this moment in their pain, and I am angry that violence has become the exclusive language with which Israelis and Palestinians address each other these days. As someone who has eaten at Maxim in the past with his erstwhile partner, I can easily imagine that I could have died in that attack and my family would be grieving for me too. In the name of my faith-centred beliefs, and as one human being to another, I offer the bereaved families my heartfelt condolences.

Hope battling with despair, and pessimism alternating with optimism, I read your moving letter to your Palestinian friends. Throughout my own ecumenical engagements both during and after the Oslo years, I learnt to listen to your views. To me, you are par excellence a religious Jew who appreciates the ‘other’ and works for peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Whether from the pulpit of the Knesset as Speaker, or through other avenues of persuasion and influence, you have been a voice for reason, moderation and compromise. So it pains me when you admit in your letter that you are ‘mad with anger’ as you witness your dreams and the dreams of your Jewish and Arab friends consumed in the flame of extremism.

I too am angry! In fact, I am livid at the way things have shifted since the heyday of hope a mere decade ago. I am deeply angry and profoundly sad at the way in which Palestinians have at times shot themselves in the foot and hijacked their own agenda, and how Arab regimes have left Palestinians to their own devices whilst claiming to support them. No wonder the rage seething within Palestinian society! Rampant cronyism, unsettling corruption and creeping radicalism from within Palestine, highbrow sophistry and eloquent guile from without, and an Israeli invasive let alone insidious occupation that has haemorrhaged Palestinian hopes, colonised their lands and almost decimated the foundations of Palestinian life as a result of 36 years of unrelenting as much as malevolent occupation!

As an Armenian Christian from the holy city of Jerusalem, I endorse the paragraph in your letter focusing on the need for a compromise that transcends territory and assumes a spiritual dimension lying between a nation and itself, between the citizens of a nation and their dream. And whilst you have exercised with difficulty that option for compromise, I believe that many Palestinians - whether Christian or Muslim - have also compromised with their dream. Your dream that the entire Land of Israel belongs to you has warranted painful compromises. Conversely, the Palestinian dream for the mandated territories - or at least the whole of the post- 1967territories - has also been compromised time and again. Two sets of dreams, and two sets of compromises, that have failed to meet two peoples’ nationalist yearnings for a two-state solution!

You ask about the future of a Palestinian State - when it eventually grips the hallowed land of prophets. I for one - alongside scores of others in East Jerusalem, the West Bank and the Gaza Strip - would wish for a future democratic, secular and inclusive Palestine that becomes a model for the other Arab neighbouring states. Be sure that there will be many ‘cries of joy’ when statehood finally dawns upon a beleaguered and drained people who have withstood the test of time. As Dr Bernard Sabella, Executive Secretary of the Department for Service to Palestine Refugees wrote this week in a reflection entitled Of Pilots, Suicide Bombings and Leadership, the Palestinian cause is a clear one. It requires that the occupation should end and a Palestinian state should rise. However, and as Sabella also suggested, such an end to occupation should take place in ‘a framework that would ensure the moral and humane dimensions of the struggle’.

The penultimate paragraph in your letter addresses the future. It again encourages Israel to give up the dream of the Greater Land of Israel, to dismantle the settlements, leave the territories and live in peace alongside a Palestinian state, to fight corruption and direct all its energies inward toward Israeli society. You then encourage Palestinians similarly to give up the fantasy of driving Israeli Jews away from their land and returning to villages that mostly no longer exist. You counsel them to fight the corruption that is destroying them from within and to direct all their talents and resources toward building an exemplary Arab society - a Palestinian model that would revolutionise the Arab world, bring Muslim democracy to the region and transform the people into a living bridge between East and West.

I accept your vision: I do not believe we have any divergence of opinion on the need for real peace to visit this embattled region. And like you, I too would wish to see democracy, pluralism and freedom become the buzzwords for both Israel and a future Palestine. But visions also exact steep prices, and so allow me to quibble with you over one fundamental issue.

I am confident you agree with me that real peace needs a priori a resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, that in turn cannot happen unless the undignified occupation of Palestinian lands by Israel is over! Imprecise ‘roadmaps’ or soundbite-conscious mnemonics that are at times meant to placate the collective conscience of the international community cannot alone deliver peace. Were there not many years following the Declaration of Principles [and the Oslo process] prior to the Al-Aqsa Intifada when not a single bullet was shot from Palestinian guns and when not a single Palestinian suicide bomber undertook a terrorist attack in Israel? What was the outcome of this hiatus in Israeli-Palestinian relations? The outcome was a series of ever-foundering and ever-floundering stalemates. This was due in large part to Israeli political intransigence. Such self-defeating intransigence was also aided and abetted by a worldwide complicity of silence, and the concomitant absence of too many religious leaders from all three monotheistic traditions willing to probe the moral issues that underlay occupation and impeded freedom and dignity. As the late Professor Edward Saïd wrote once, the Palestinian people have for far too long been ‘excluded, denied the right to have a history of their own’.

I realise that we might differ somewhat in our chronology of events, but I do not believe I am placing the cart before the horse. I judge that we need first and foremost to secure an end to occupation. Otherwise, the scourge of terrorism cannot be quarantined or extirpated - nor, for that matter, would the other issues in the Middle East find their closure. As you noted once when reflecting upon Israeli current policies, ‘We are indifferent to the fate of Palestinian children, hungry and humiliated; so why are we surprised when they blow us up in our restaurants? Even if we killed 1000 terrorists a day, it would change nothing’. Despite your dire warnings, many Palestinians today still resist wholesale violence mutatis mutandis. As Dr Sabella wrote pointedly, ‘If I argue that all Israelis are alike, and they all carry the ugly face of military occupation, am I better than those Israelis who argue that all Palestinians are terrorists and hence without a human face?’

HRH Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan remains one of the intellectual titans of the Arab world. In an interview with James Naughtie on the BBC Radio 4 Today programme this week, he indicated that stability could not be enforced through military might, but rather ‘in building security through foreign policies that address the political roots of terrorism’. Positing with sadness the possibility that the whole region might well be ‘on a runaway train towards a potential new war’, he also admitted that ‘desperate men are doing desperate things’. His Royal Highness added that ‘the swamps of terror cannot be dried by bomb craters, but by changing the environment and creating a situation susceptible to sustainable human development and dignity’. No wonder the Prince has been endlessly calling for the convening of an international Madrid or Versailles type conference that would address the development of a code of conduct for the region as a whole and would further make progress on a regional poverty alleviation programme. In this sense, are both his recurrent calls and your recent letter not attempts toward reflective understanding - perhaps even clarion calls for common sense?

It is hard to talk about peace when people are being killed almost daily. Indeed, as Hicham Ben Abdallah El Alaoui from Princeton University wrote in Le Monde Diplomatique this month, the ‘roadmap’ has died already. And if my own reading is at all realistic, there are very few Israelis or Palestinians willing to listen to peace! The blood is ‘boiling’ on both sides of a separation wall, and reason has been well nigh abandoned - either wilfully and maliciously or naively and obtusely!

Yet, this is where real leadership comes into play, and I regret that it is almost absent from most of the Middle East - including certainly from within the ranks of both the Israeli political establishment and the Palestinian Authority today. In La révolution sioniste est morte in Le Monde on 11 September 2003, you admitted that the idyllic Zionist dream is now in tatters. You wrote, ‘After two thousand years of struggle for survival, the reality of Israel is a colonial state, run by a corrupt clique which scorns and mocks law and civic morality’. Conversely, the Palestinian struggle has also gone off the rails and lost its moral compass. So people like you assume a prophetic responsibility in convincing their public opinion that progress can only be achieved through a genuine dialogue that addresses the end of occupation as a sine qua non for peace. Surely it is not easy to talk about peace when Palestinians remain dispossessed, caged in their ghettoes, bereft of dignity, human rights or liberty, and when they are made to feel subservient to Israelis every day!

The Rt Revd Riah Abu El-Assal, Anglican Bishop of Jerusalem, gauges well the pulse of his people. He stated this week, ‘We have had enough statements. We are fed up with statements. We have to do something that is seen and felt and not just heard’. In an emotional appeal to the world, he also echoed the metastasising frustration of a whole people when he added, ‘What is happening in the occupied territories is worse than apartheid in South Africa. Why should people wait until the Palestinian people turn black so that they will rush to help them the way we helped the people of South Africa?’

The sad irony remains that you could match me argument for argument if you chose to highlight your own perspective on the pain and trauma of Israelis today. So what I deem we need is a breakthrough in our collective thinking. Once good faith and good will seep into the mechanics of peacemaking, and once we admit that military might is not always morally right, we will have scored a major victory for decent peace. I would then agree wholeheartedly with the sage saying that it is in our hands to choose life over death, hope over despair and respect over hatred. For only at that moment would Palestinians become empowered to define the character of their nascent state and play their legitimate part in the symphony of nations.

But I so need your help and support to make sure that we do not lose our nerve - and our hope - altogether!

© Dr Harry Hagopian   |   2003   |   9 October


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