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Translation of an article to be published
in Ma'ariv on April 17, 2000

Welcome to the Semitic Region:

by Uri Avnery

"We don't live in Scandinavia or Switzerland, we live in the Middle East!" exclaimed the spokesmen of our security establishment, when the Supreme Court ordered last week to release the Lebanese held in prison as potential "bargaining chips" for the release of Israeli soldiers missing in Lebanon.

This means that Israel, surrounded by gangs, should behave like a gang. But the Supreme Court has decided that Israel must behave like a civilized state, according to the norms of the Western democracies.

However, the reaction has a deeper significance. It concerns the basic attitude towards the Arab world. The spokesmen see it as a wild area, devoid of culture and law. As Ehud Barak, the chief spokesman, has said several times: "Israel is a villa in the middle of a jungle." Meaning: We are civilized, all our neighbors are savages.

Many Israelis will be surprised to hear that out of all persons, the most unpopular Israeli in the Arab world today is Shimon Peres, he of the "New Middle East". Throughout the region, writers mention again and again a statement made by Peres at an international conference on ecology: that Israel is an island of cleanliness in a polluted region. (The very term "Middle East" is, of course, of British-colonial coinage. East from where? East for whom? Some 54 years ago I proposed to adopt the term "Semitic Region".)

Once I asked a well-known cartoonist to draw a map with a long arm coming out of Greece and extracting Palestine from its location, so as to place it in Europe. That seems to reflect the hidden desire of many Israelis.

Lest we conclude that this attitude is the result of a hundred years of war, let us remember that before it all started, the founder of modern Zionism, Theodore Herzl, wrote in his booklet "Der Judenstaat" (1896): "For Europe we would be (in Palestine) a part of the protective wall against Asia, we would serve as the vanguard of culture against barbarism." ("Barbarism" presumably includes Eastern Jewry too.)

Israelis wonder why nearly all the Arab intelligentsia, from Iraq to Morocco, furiously refuses to have anything to do with Israel. After peace agreements have already been signed and contacts established with several Arab countries, this attitude of Arab intellectuals, writers, journalists and scientists becomes more and more extreme.

There may be a number of reasons for this, such as the widening gulf between the Arab regimes and the intelligentsia, guilt feelings about the betrayal of the Palestinians, a sense of failure because of the inability of the Arab world to cope with the modern economy. But above everything else, it is a reaction to the insufferable arrogance of Israel, this Western-colonial villa in the middle of the jungle.

Many in the Arab world are keenly conscious of the many conspicuous faults in some parts of Islamic-Arabic society, such as public executions, the amputation of limbs, the terrorism of fanatic groups. They find solace in the torture, hostage taking, occupation and expulsion taking place in the Israeli villa. And among Arabs, as among Israeli, the struggle for human rights in growing.

With the ascent of Ehud Barak, it seems that Israeli arrogance has reached a climax. When he came to power, he resolutely put forward plans for peace with Syria and the Palestinians, fixing in advance terms and time-tables. Arab attitudes did not interest him a bit. He believed that everything will be settled between him, Assad and Arafat. He did not understand that Arab leaders, too, must take into account public opinion in their countries. Because of this, his plans collapsed.

For example: Barak did not understand the deep spiritual significance of the Jerusalem question, and even less the profound feelings evoked by the refugee problem. He was convinced that Arafat would give all of this up for a few percent of West Bank territory. As most of Barak's advisors understand even less than him (and, anyhow, he takes advice from no one), it was not difficult for him to convince himself. Now he faces complete failure.

In order to save what can be saved, I would advise him to get rid of the whole bunch of overbearing counselors surrounding him and to turn peace-making over to people who do not believe that Arabs are jungle-dwellers. It would be worthwhile for him to read some good books about his interlocutors. He could do worse than start with Fuad Ajami's book, "The Dream Palace of the Arabs". (Even more so as the author is a Shi'ite born in the present "security zone".)

An old joke has it that Moses was not only "hard of tongue", as the Bible tells us, but also hard of hearing. When God told him "Take my people to Canada," he understood "Take my people to Canaan." And so, instead of being a Western people in the land of snow, we live in the land of Hamseen. On the eve of Passover, let's reconcile ourselves to this fact. We cannot live inside the region and pretend to be outside. We cannot voice on every occasion an utter contempt for the peoples of this region and make peace with them - not if we mean real peace and not just a temporary cease-fire.

Gush Shalom
[Visit the Settlement Special]


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