A Gulf experience

While I was listening to my Bahraini friends talk about problems they face in their country, Israel’s challenges seemed so much smaller.

April 1, 2010 02:53
A Gulf experience

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I am writing from a Gulf Air flight from Bahrain to Amman after attending a conference on nuclear energy run by the Gulf Cooperation Council for Foreign Relations. Ironically, my in-flight reading is Thomas Friedman’s award-winning book The Lexus and the Olive Tree – a brilliant explanation of the meaning of globalization and its impacts on the world.

Last evening I went to dinner with two young Bahraini women who are breaking new frontiers for youth around the region through the Internet. We were connected by Eyal Raviv, a young Israeli social entrepreneur who created “mepeace.org” – the Facebook of peacemakers. Eyal met the Bahrainis and other young Arabs at a social entrepreneurs conference in London in early March.

At the nuclear energy conference, I sat with scientists from Saudi Arabia, Iraq, the Emirates, South Korea, China and even Iran. Much of the conference was dedicated to confronting the dangers of the Iranian nuclear threat as documented by a former senior official from the International Atomic Energy Agency. His words were echoed by one of the heads of the Arab Atomic Energy Agency, who spoke about the need to ensure that atomic energy in the region would be used only for peaceful purposes.

The whole experience was fascinating. The organizers of the conference knew I was Israeli but, after the Dubai affair and in the interest of my own security, made sure that no one else did. They even printed up a business card for me with a position listed as being from the European division of a local Bahraini investment company. However, I am pretty well known in the region, and met several participants who already knew where I was from. I cautioned them not to disclose my real identity to others, mainly to protect the organizers of the conference.

On my way back home to Jerusalem, I am sitting next to a Bahraini businessman en route to Amman for cancer treatment. He is sitting with his wife and speaking Persian. They are Shi’ites with roots in Iran – he told me his grandfather had fled from the Persian army and ended up in Bahrain. I heard many similar stories during my three-day visit to this very interesting and troubled Gulf state. Bahrain’s main challenge is from within – Shi’ite fundamentalists who wish to bring down the ruling Sunni royal family and become a southern province of Iran.

The organizer of the conference is also Shi’ite – he is from an intellectual family with wealth and education. He has a PhD in international relations and his wife is a medical doctor on sabbatical at Harvard.

I met human rights activists in Bahrain who are in a serious dilemma. They are activists, both Sunnis and Shi’ites, working for the rights of women, migrant workers, the unemployed and more. They obviously would like more democracy in Bahrain, but are aware that full democracy would probably bring an end to stability and prosperity. It would bring an end to the monarchy, and march Bahrain into the arms of a waiting Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

In order to survive, the Bahraini Sunni monarchy should join hands with Shi’ite intellectuals and reach an agreement for some form of power sharing. There is an urgent need to spread the wealth and focus attention on massive educational and economic reforms that will help prevent the fundamentalists from gaining popular support among the Shi’ite majority. It is better to have half of the wealth of the kingdom than to have none of it.

ALL OF this brings me to think about our small corner of the planet. While I was listening to my Bahraini friends talk about their problems, all of a sudden Israel’s problems seemed so much smaller. The main similarity in my mind is the realization that our problems are also mainly fueled by internal disputes between competing worldviews. I came away from Bahrain feeling a lot more optimistic about our potential to achieve greatness as a nation.

Our main challenge is to accept the fact that we are part of an increasingly shrinking planet at a time when our refusal to come to terms with the inevitability of peace with the Palestinians pushes us to construct higher and thicker walls. We are living in an age during which walls have come down all around us and borders between peoples and civilizations are disappearing. Our resistance to this change and our insistence on living by the mantra that “we are a people who dwells alone” is becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy.

This does not have to be our reality. We are pushing ourselves into pariah-state status. Doors all around us could be opening, but instead are closing, and soon even our closest friends around the world will recommend that we stay home.

It is time for us to be honest with ourselves. There is a possibility of making peace with our neighbors, and we all know what is required. We cannot stick our heads in the sand and believe that we can hold onto all of the territory, and that the Palestinians and Arabs will simply acquiesce to our desire for pieces rather than for peace. Yes, Ramat Shlomo and Gilo and Ramat Eshkol and French Hill will remain Israeli. The Palestinians understand that East Talpiot will never be Palestinian, but we too must understand that Jebl Mukaber and Sur Bahir, Wadi Joz and Sheikh Jarrah will never be Israeli.

We must come to terms with the fact that the Palestinians, by their own understanding of the world and their narrative, made a historic compromise when they accepted Oslo. In their mind they gave up 78 percent of Palestine between the river and the sea. They will not give up more. And we can live with this. They have accepted the principle of territorial swaps, allowing us to enable most settlers to remain under Israeli sovereignty. Palestinians will also accept that the implementation of the right of return for refugees will be only to the Palestinian state.

All this is doable and acceptable to a majority of us. The international community is more than willing to assist us in the implementation of the process, and in working with us to develop the appropriate security arrangements.

Like Bahrain, Israel’s main challenges come from within. Our own fundamentalists, who either for messianic fantasies or belief that we must always live by the sword, are leading us down the path of a futile struggle against the whole world. With our hi-tech miracle and the dynamism of our creativity and initiative. we could emerge on top of the world. Let us no longer be slaves to our fears; it is time to be a free people living in peace with ourselves and our neighbors.

The writer is co-CEO of the Israel/Palestine Center for Research and Information (www.ipcri.org), and an elected member of the leadership of the Israeli Green Movement political party.

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