Thursday, May 19, 2011

On Arab Springs, Israel and the possibility of peace

My old friend Steve asked me (via text) what my thoughts were on the Arab Spring, and today, with President Obama's speech on engagement with the Middle East (and Prime Minister Netanyahu's semi-rebuttal) , as well as George Mitchell's resignation last week and the upcoming AIPAC conference, seems to indicate that it might be worth talking about.

As it happens, Rabbi Eric Yoffie addressed the issue of the Peace Process (and why pretty much everyone blew it) pretty coherently; that is, the doves are always waiting for rationality to dominate both the Palestinian community as well as the world in a post-Holocaust era, and be able to see the difference between terroristic actions and self-defense, and the right assumes that we can ignore world opinion and leave unanswered questions ambiguous forever and assume that would have no negative effect on the polity of Israel, the American Jewish community or the world. (I'm summarizing pretty heavily here--go read his article if you want the real thing).

It seems to me, however, that these attitudes are correct when it comes to the Arab spring as well. Who can't feel inspired by young people peaceably (at least initially) protesting intensely chauvinistic and suppressive autocratic regimes, who seek democracy for themselves and an economic improvement for their nation? Who among us doesn't hold their breath, marveling at the people of Libya or Syria (or Bahrain, or Yemen) who daily take their lives into their hands fighting against murderous dictators? Who among us wasn't relieved at hearing that our forces had slain Osama Bin Laden, ending years of manhunt and disrupting Al Qaeda in a significant way, possibly changing the landscape of the war with Afghanistan and our relationship with Pakistan? Now all we have to do is promote democracy in the region, pull out of the Hindu Kush and all will be well again, right?

Well, of course anyone who believes that is hopelessly naive. Already the peaceful protests of Egypt--where nary an American or Israeli (or PLO) flag was to be seen--have given way to more of what we had seen before: defamatory protests against Israel, and calling for long-held peace treaties to be reexamined. Worse, the Assad regime seemed happy on the so-called Nakbha Day to incite border incidents--either to distract his own people or world attention from his own destructive behaviors. And even worse, the Western World seems happy to enforce the idea that Israel's creation should be commemorated with a 'Catastrophe Day', and allow for the rewriting of history, such as in this op-ed by Mahmoud Abbas. How soon before some of these same individuals are rewriting the histories of Tunisia, Egypt and other places, transformed into mythologies that suit the needs of those emerging into power.

One might surmise from this that I'm a pessimist. Not at all. I think there's real potential right now, real energy, toward making a positive difference in Israel's neighborhood. I think America is trying to reassert its place as clear-eyed supporter of Israel, as a friend who's willing to rebuke when necessary. I think there's reason to hope. But hope is not enough to make something happen (nor, as Senator Mitchell discovered, is it enough to just wait for people to get tired). There has to be a willingness to hear each other, to learn each others' stories for real, to stop trying to reassert easy narratives for the sake of legacy building or to prove the other side wrong. And it's going to take a willingness on the part of leadership to see beyond immediate needs (including their need to maintain authority) and set some long term goals.

So where will the Arab Spring go? Who knows. But we should neither rush to romanticize nor denigrate and fear what's in progress. Whatever happens, it'll take a lot of work, energy and trust to make it right.

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