Commentary: Time for Israel to reach out

Special to McClatchy NewspapersMay 18, 2011 

It's time for Israel to join the Middle East revolutionary spirit.

For five months Israel has followed the wisest path available to it — silence — while millions of Arabs stormed the bastions of power from Morocco to Yemen to Syria — shaking the floors underneath the despots of the Middle East.

Silence was wise for obvious reasons:

— The Arab revolutions posed no direct threat to Israel, not even citing Israel as the Arab enemy — that tactic used to serve the dictators as an excuse for repression.

— The passion for freedom was hard to oppose — these were the good Arabs seeking democracy and an end to corrupt dictators.

— If Israel backed anyone — rulers or rebels — it would be seen as the kiss of death, tainting those who Israel praised as lackeys of the Zionists.

— The rebel movements already had generated enough power to inspire their people, persuade the military to remain neutral and bring vast crowds into the public squares. Israeli endorsement was unnecessary and likely counterproductive.

But now it is time to act. Tunisia and Egypt are creating new systems to choose their leaders. The Muslim Brotherhood is jockeying for power. The spirit of the young democracy activists risks to wither away under old pressures of corruption, poverty and rule of the young thugs spreading in Egypt.

Israel needs to come forward with a new plan and a new spirit that reaches above the terrible history of war and hatred.

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is due to speak to the U.S. Congress on May 24, and it is a moment to offer a hand of friendship to the emerging Middle East. Without taking sides in the family feud among rebels, the Brotherhood, the royal families, the business elites, the old repressive powers and the emerging candidates for leadership, Israel can and must end the stagnation of recent years.

Mubarak of Egypt is gone but the forces that he led remain largely intact — the business elites and the military. These are the same people Israel has dealt with during 30 years of peace since the 1979 Camp David Accords.

Tunisia's Ben Ali is also gone but the reins of power remain in known leaders who served Ben Ali and the Tunisian state for decades.

However, the winds of change continue to blow and they are fanning violence in Syria, Yemen and Libya.

Meanwhile, Saudi Arabia is leading a counter revolutionary push to protect the Arab monarchies in Bahrain, Morocco and elsewhere, and to support the old status quo elites in Egypt and Tunisia.

So what can Israel do just now with the battles still undecided in Syria, Yemen and Libya?

I recall meeting with Arabs in El Arish in the Northern Sinai in 1982, a few months after Israel returned it to Egyptian control following 15 years of Israeli occupation. Local people told me they were happy to be back in Egypt and their policemen were “our own people” once more. But they missed the high-paying jobs in Israel’s construction and other industries. Wages fell from $45 per day in Israel to $6 in Sinai.

When I asked people how they got along with Israelis, one woman said: "Israelis are like everyone else. Some are good and some are bad. The Israeli is a human being."

She spoke in halting Hebrew using the term "Ben Adam," or son of Adam.

Moments and meetings like that over the years gave me hope that ultimately Israelis and Arabs could make peace and create a more prosperous and less militarized Middle East.

Israelis are themselves deeply divided. Many support peace, and recently more than 100 intellectuals and activists urged the Netanyahu government to make steps towards peace. Instead, the government has chosen to expand Jewish settlement construction in the West Bank, a step certain to poke a finger in Arab eyes and derail the peace process.

What can Netanyahu do when he speaks to the U.S. Congress?

— He should hold out a genuine hand in peace towards all Palestinians willing to live peacefully with Israel.

— While noting that Israel is prepared to defend its citizens, he must offer Gaza's citizens a chance for improved trade, movement between the West Banka and Gaza and help exporting vegetables to Europe.

— Netanyahu must state that he is the leader of all Israelis, not just the eight percent who live in the West Bank, and openly state that many of those settlers will have to relocate back inside Israel for the good of the entire nation.

— He must offer to share responsibility over Jerusalem’s Old city and its holy places, inviting a multi-religious council to form which would help resolve differences and keep the area open to tourism and worship.

— He should call for a meeting of Israeli and Arab leaders, thinkers, journalists, and religious leaders — in nearby Cyprus or Malta — aimed at transcending the legacy of conflict and hatred. This conference would aim to promote exchange visits by all sides run by universities.

What often sours things in the region is that Israelis and Arabs speak different languages. Israelis say business and logic and improving living standards must be paramount while Arabs say dignity and honor cannot be compromised.

When Israeli Prime Minister Golda Meir spoke at the UN after the 1967 war, she blundered in tone as she offered Israeli expertise and scientists to help Arab neighbors combat illiteracy, ignorance, disease and malnutrition. Her tone said "you pathetic people, we can help you." Of course it rankled Arab pride and honor.

Netanyahu should know better. Any outreach he makes here in Washington must strike a tone of brothers or close friends, meeting after many years, who do not judge each other. They simply note that after all those years and separate paths and occasional conflict, they share a common history and many common values.

Since 1948 one of the great tragedies of the Arab-Israeli relations is that about 700,000 Jews had to flee from Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and other Arab states. Arabs and Israelis no longer greet each other in the markets and the job sites — as they do inside Israel where one million Israeli Arabs are Israeli citizens. Sponsoring exchange visits is a way to restore the legacy of Arab-Jewish understanding that lasted through the ages.

Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said recently in Washington that his job is to reach out with one hand in peace but keep the other with his finger on the trigger.

This is a moment to stress the hand of peace.


Ben Barber has written about the developing world since 1980 for Newsday, the London Observer, the Christian Science Monitor,, Foreign Affairs, the Washington Times and USA TODAY. From 2003 to August, 2010, he was senior writer at the U.S. foreign aid agency. His photojournalism book — GROUNDTRUTH: The Third World at Work at play and at war — is to be published in 2011 by He can be reached at

McClatchy Newspapers did not subsidize the writing of this column; the opinions are those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of McClatchy Newspapers or its editors.

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