Editor's Notes: What about a mini-region?

Prof. Uriel Halbreich proposes a confederation of Israel, Jordan and Palestine.

Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas (photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Netanyahu, Obama, Abbas
(photo credit: REUTERS/Jason Reed )
Uriel Halbreich, an internationally respected professor of psychiatry, has devoted much of his long career to finding ways to combat depression.
This year, after being awarded a Fulbright grant, he decided to spend some time away from his work at the State University of New York at Buffalo and return to Jerusalem, where he was born in 1943, to pursue a research program on resilience and stress-related disorders.
In the meantime, after decades of contemplation and cooperation with colleagues in Arab countries, he thinks he has come up with a way to tackle the depressing Middle East conflict.
“I have noticed in my professional contacts with Arabs and Israelis that both sides often stress the conflict rather than what they have in common,” Halbreich says in an interview. “But both sides have positive things that they can advance, and that’s what I want to bring to the table.”
His eyes sparkle as he unravels his plan.
“The first thing I’d like to put on the table is the idea of creating a ‘mini-region.’ It is an idea that has been tested in scientific cooperation, and I have just submitted to the Americans a joint project proposal for Israel, Jordan and Palestine.
“In my opinion, collaboration between the well-being or social welfare ministers of these three entities would represent a significant start.
You then focus on a joint economic forum based on coooperation that already exists.
And then you gradually move on to things like natural resources and water.
“So you don’t call it ‘peace’ from the word go, because this is a sensitive matter. But if you begin with issues of common interest, there can be a process that leads to peace.
“It should be based on the European Union model of a confederation of countries.
Jerusalem, which will remain the undivided capital of Israel, would also serve as the capital of the mini-region, with regional administrative agencies and, indeed, freedom of worship and freedom of movement.”
Halbreich says that over the years, he has developed close relationships with counterparts in the Muslim world, whom he prefers not to name to protect their identities, including in countries such as Iran, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt and Jordan.
Together, they established an organization of 22 states called PEMRN, the Psychiatric Eastern Mediterranean Research Network, which Halbreich chairs.
“We started PEMRN at the initiative of a Lebanese colleague, Fuad Anton, whom I can now talk about because he died. I was the chair and he was the coordinator, but after his death, I am now trying to revive it again, via Al- Quds University, with its headquarters in east Jerusalem.
“I have not negotiated peace with the Arabs; we have discussed only scientific cooperation, emphasizing common denominators and shared interests. But I think this is a good starting point.”
Halbreich studied medicine and psychiatry at Hadassah University Medical Center and Tel Aviv University, and served as deputy chief medical officer and chief psychiatrist in the Israel Navy.
He has lectured at top medical schools in Israel, the US and Italy, and since 1988 has been a professor of psychiatry, obstetrics and gynecology at the State University of New York at Buffalo, where he also served as founder and director of the Life Cycle Center and BioBehavioral Research.
Halbreich is a past president of the International Society of NeuroPsycho Endocrinology as well as the International Association for Women’s Mental Health. He has won prestigious prizes, including the Ben-Gurion Award (1976), the Yair Gon Award (1978), the National Research Service Award (1980) and America’s Top Psychiatrist (2008).
Halbreich is not enamored with the US’s performance in the Middle East. He believes that “with a change of attitude, and culturally sensitive, proactive, dignified and supportive interactions, the superpower may play a more productive role in the region.”
He tells the story of “a collaboration meeting” he once held with delegations from Jordanian and American universities.
“Over lunch, a Jordanian professor of forensic medicine said to me, ‘Professor Uriel, you are not a real American.
First, you are not stupid, and second, you don’t talk like Donald Duck.’ “He said this to me as a compliment, but it was really derogatory to the Americans.
I don’t think it’s a shock that the Arabs are burning down American embassies and consulates.
For them, the image of ‘the ugly American’ has not changed.
“A taxi driver in Amman once showed me a huge fortified compound that he called ‘The Devil’s Castle’ – it was the American Embassy – and then drove a few blocks and showed me a smaller building, saying ‘and this is his little assistant’ – it was the Israeli Embassy.
“You can learn a lot from taxi drivers,” the eminent psychiatrist adds, smiling.
Asked about the controversial issue of Israeli settlements in Judea and Samaria, Halbreich says Palestinian demands are unrealistic and immoral.
“When it comes to settlements, I am biased,” he says.
“The Palestinians want to create a Judenrein state in the West Bank, an area without Jews, and that’s totally unacceptable from a human rights point of view. Where in the world is there a place where Jews are forbidden to live because they are Jews? “If there really is a peace process, there is no reason in the world that Jews shouldn’t live in the territory of the state of Palestine.
“The mini-region can be modeled, as I said, on the European Union: Israelis living in Palestine will vote for the Knesset, and on the other hand, Arab Israelis, who see themselves as Palestinians, can continue to live in Israel and pay taxes in Israel, but be citizens of Palestine. This would solve many problems, including their not having to serve in the Israeli army and honoring but not having to sing the Israeli anthem.”
Halbreich believes his proposal will also resolve two other key issues: Israel’s demand to be recognized as a Jewish state, and the Palestinians’ demand for the right of return.
“Israel is a state for all its citizens,” he insists. “Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, just like some Muslim states, and Israel’s anthem is ‘Hatikva.’ But with a confederation model, Palestinian citizens may live in the State of Israel.
“This is something that a Palestinian once told me: If Abu Mazen [PA President Mahmoud Abbas] wants to return to Safed, let him return to Safed. That’s his right of return. But his children and grandchildren and greatgrandchildren are recognized as refugees, in perpetuity, even by the United Nations, and this is an international abnormality that still exists due to political interests and bureaucratic inertia.
“So Israel can then accept the principle of the right of return, but how many Palestinians over the age of 70 would actually want to exercise that right? Very few. Most ‘refugees’ should be encouraged to strengthen their roots in their current homes.”
At a later stage, Halbreich believes, the mini-region could be expanded to include others, such as the Christians in Lebanon, the Sunnis in Iraq and the Kurds.
“In my opinion, the next conflict in the Middle East will be in Kurdistan,” he says.
“The Kurds already feel that they are very independent, they are in conflict with both Turkey and Iran, and they have a lot of oil. So the way I see it, this situation will explode, sooner or later.”