The environment is probably the most important challenge of mankind today. It is the air we breathe and the water we drink. The most important environment, though, is the one between people. If filled with hate and hostility, it leads to violence and war.

Such pollution is the greatest killer of people, throughout history and today. The biggest enemy of the human being is himself. It is a riddle why people kill each other, often in many millions, as was the case in the two world wars and the genocides in Rwanda, Yugoslavia and Darfur. Thousands were killed in our immediate region in the last century.

There are many reasons, no justification. Hate and violence are generally moved by extreme nationalism and fundamentalist religious beliefs. Political leaders often poison the minds and hearts of their people, demonize their neighbors, recruit to war and sacrifice the young out of the inability to solve conflict by peaceful means, and often out of petty political self-interest.

It is this environment of ultra-nationalism, religious superiority, hate, racism and rejection of the other that we must alter to ensure the most basic human right: the right to life.

In today’s Middle East, there is a dichotomy between moderate pragmatism and fundamentalist, nationalistic extremism. The immediate region has not known all-out war since 1973. Yet with the overall hostility in the air, the unresolved core issue of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the fundamentalist and nationalistic trends in parts of the Arab world, the extremist right-wing nationalism of the settlers in Israel, and the vast arsenal of weapons on all sides, an all-out war is not out of the question.

The Middle East and North Africa is probably today the most unstable region in the world, and therefore also economically backward. The Arabs are wrong in thinking that they can move the region toward growth and prosperity without peace in the region.

Israel is wrong in believing that it can maintain and develop wealth in a sea of poverty and conflict. Economies are more regional than national today – they depend on regional development and cooperation, especially in trade and the link of infrastructures.

Conflict breeds poverty, and poverty breeds nationalism, fanaticism and violence. Twenty years ago when Shimon Peres posited a new Middle East of peace and cooperation, he was ridiculed by the nationalists on all sides. Yet his aim was right and this is the vision that Israel must aspire to in dialogue and new relations with its neighbors.

The region is in need of profound change, from extremist nationalism and conflict to moderate pragmatism, coexistence and cooperation. This can only stem from a shared sense of responsibility for the region’s future: a new climate that will get rid of the pollution of conflict. Today the air of the region is polluted by hate, racism, repression, rejection of the other and gunpowder. Hate – in the Middle East we love to hate – Arabs hate Jews, Jews hate Arabs, Palestinians hate Israelis who hate them in return, Shi’ites hate Sunnis, religious Jews hate secular Jews, some hate America, some hate Iran.

Hate is a sort of blame; when someone in Israel says “I hate Arabs,” he immediately puts the onus for all his misfortunes on the Arabs – there remains no need for self-reliance and responsibility. Hate pollutes the hater and poisons his soul.

Haters are delusional, blinded to reality, rather than taking care of their own good and that of their countries, they waste their potential on venting destructive energies. Haters have a distorted value system because of their lack of respect and compassion for the other. Socially, hate is a prescription for chaos and violence.

There may be more hate per square mile in the Middle East than anywhere else in the world. People, Arabs and Israelis, don’t admit to it, as each side feels like the hated one. Yet most people here hate each other, which has tragically led to racism.

Racism is a plague on both our houses – Arabs and Israelis. Nothing is more alarming than hearing Israeli schoolchildren talking derogatorily about Arabs, or fanatics chanting “Death to the Arabs”; the same is true for Palestinian schoolchildren reciting jihadist chants of “Death to the Jews.”

This is cancerous.

This mutual dehumanization can ultimately lead to mutual self-destruction.

This racism is sanctioned and often even encouraged by the governments that speak in latent racist language. It is obvious every time Binyamin Netanyahu speaks condescendingly of “the Arabs,” or Abu Mazen (Mahmoud Abbas) of “the Jews.” The air is so polluted with such views that both sides are blind to the simple and basic fact that on both sides live people, regular people, not so different from each other.

Racism is a revolting dehumanization of the other, accompanied by a delusion of superiority. It is a license to kill. From feeling superior to another race, religion, nationality and seeing in them inferior human beings, to killing them, the road is short. History is full of proof and warnings.

To feel superior conflicts not only with the Ten Commandments, but also with the basic need to coexist. The results of the Six Day War have trapped Israel into a reality of superiority, making it an occupying power running the daily lives and destinies of millions of Palestinians. This may be the ultimate pollution of life. To become occupied is traumatic to life and infringes on every basic human right. It is the worst sort of humiliation when foreigners dictate your daily life, impinging on your free movement and free expression, infringing on your privacy, threatening your children and making you feel second class. It is unforgivable.

The repercussions on the occupier are even worse.

To become a master of another human being, of another people, corrupts your very being. In the beginning you find justification and excuses for it.

Later it becomes routine or second nature. Some, even many, Israelis are enamored with it. We should have learned better from our own historical experience.

The Arab rejection of Israel predates the occupation.

It was master-minded by the Arab dictators with the establishment of the state. It served as a smokescreen against their own failures and as dangerous, nationalistic opium. Gamal Abdel Nasser called for throwing the Jews into the sea. Today he has many successors, mainly among the fundamentalists. The rejection of Israel isolated it in the region and gained support mainly in the developing world. It has led to an anti-Israeli majority at the United Nations. Yet this rejection of Israel and Jews is more dangerous to the Arabs themselves. It is still used as a smokescreen against failure and self-reliance. It pollutes the minds and hearts of young people who are often guided to extreme nationalism rather than to self-interest and well-being.

The more modern version of this rejection – the BDS and anti-normalization movements – is also more harmful to the Arabs than to Israel. While one can understand the hesitancy to establish full diplomatic relations with Israel before the end of the occupation, the attack on any dialogue and cooperation with Israel is short-sighted and harmful to the Palestinians.

It is they who must convince Israel of possible coexistence, as did Anwar Sadat and King Hussein.

All this hatred, racism, repression and rejection create an air of extreme suspicion bordering on paranoia.

People become both aggressive and anxious.

The result is a total disregard for the outside world, a xenophobic attitude in Israel and Arabia, also fueled by experience.

This is a serious obstacle to viewing reality and establishing good international relations, all too necessary in the era of globalization. In the end, within this polluted air, government and people in this region, Israelis and Arabs, feel alone, hated, hateful and victimized, perpetual victims, “from one generation to another.”

This is the heaviest cost of conflict, the personal one and the interpersonal one. We must clear the poisonous air in which we live – putting an end to the political conflict, and not less important, educating ourselves to relations of equality, mutual respect and cooperation.

Time is of the essence as the pollution of our environment sets a cloud over our future.

The writer is honorary president of the Peres Center for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.


Barbara Hurwitz edited this column.

Please LIKE our Facebook page - it makes us stronger