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(photo credit: Yisroel Pinchas/‘Pashut’ magazine)
If there is one arena where international politics is set aside to an unusual degree, it's sports. Greece and Turkey may not get along, the Soviet Union and the US may have had thousands of nuclear weapons pointed at each other, but these conflicts and others have not prevented athletes from competing against each other in international arenas.
It is in this spirit that Mushir Salem Jawher of Bahrain innocently decided to run in the Tiberias Marathon last week.
"When I decided to come I didn't know it was history for me to be here, but when I arrived [I was] told that no other athlete [from Arab countries] had competed in Israel," Jawher told this newspaper. "For me, it was no problem and I hope to come back and compete next year."
Jawher won the race with a time of just over 2 hours and 13 minutes. Not only was he happy to have won, but he said he was "very proud" to have run in Israel.
Most countries would share the pride of their national's victory in an international competition. Not so Bahrain, judging from its actions.
Two days after the race, the Bahrain Athletic Union expressed its "shock" and stated that it "deeply regrets what the athlete has done." Further, the athletic union announced that Bahrain was revoking Jawher's citizenship because he had "violated the laws of Bahrain" by visiting Israel.
This is a remarkable rebuke, especially since Jawher was not just any athlete for the kingdom, but had recently won a medal for Bahrain at a major international competition - a silver medal at the Asian Games.
Also, as Arab states go, Bahrain is thought to be among the more moderate and pro-Western. In 2004, Bahrain signed the first-ever free trade agreement between the US and an Arab state. In order to do this, Bahrain had to officially lift its boycott of Israeli goods. It October 2005, however, Bahrain's parliament passed a law to reopen the office that had monitored the boycott against Israel.
Clearly, as the reaction to Jawher's victory shows, the animus against even the slightest connection to Israel remains strong, even in Arab states widely considered to be relatively modern, moderate, and Westernized.
Some consider such anti-Israel behavior in countries that have no direct conflict with Israel to be a form of lip service to demonstrate solidarity with the Palestinian cause. If so, it is a pattern of behavior that is quite costly, not so much to Israel, as to the Arab countries in general and to the Palestinians in particular.
This is not because trade with Israel would be of great benefit in either direction. The Arab states, whose economies lag badly behind Israel, would benefit more from opening the trade gates than would Israel. Indeed, Arab economies suffer from lack of diversification and liberalization that has little to do with outdated boycotts.
Actually, the greatest economic effect of abandoning boycotts, both de facto and official, would be through the impact it would have on the image of the Arab world.
An Arab world that shows signs of opening itself to Israel, as began to happen with the opening of trade offices and at international conferences after the Oslo Accords, would begin to shed its image of being insular and threatening. Many of these countries, which claim to be partners in the war against terrorism, are not exactly perceived by their Western trading partners as a positive factor for peace and stability in the world. At best, they are considered to be threatened by the same radical forces that are attacking the West; at worst, as active sympathizers and financiers of jihad.
The issue here, of course, is not just an image problem, but that there is much truth to these negative perceptions. The question is what the "moderate" Arab states can and should be asked to do to deserve such a reputation.
The punishment of an athlete for daring to compete in Israel is a good example of what not to do. Mushir Salem Jawher should be praised and rewarded for leading the way in breaking stereotypes and contributing to peace between the Arab world and Israel. If the Palestinians object, their Arab allies should tell them the truth: You need peace more than anyone, let us help you get there by leading by example.