With Barak Obama in the oval office, the White House seems more than ever ready to push the peace initiative, started and aborted routinely, towards its completion. It may sound paradoxical that I should say towards its completion and not towards initiation. It is an initiation; that is what it is. Yet Obama, and his new administration, is serious about achieving some kind of resolution to this long-standing and bloody conflict. Obama, in other words, has already acted and began delivering his promises. Obama’s seriousness is translated in immediate action. He is the first US president ever to take the Israeli-Palestine conflict utterly seriously. Actions, if not always at least sometimes, speak louder than words.
The very first week in office Obama sends an envoy headed by the former senator George Mitchel to the Middle East. This means that Obama and his administration, contrary to all previous administrations, consider the Israeli-Palestine conflict of utmost importance not only for achieving peace in the Middle East but also for the implications and the consequences that the status quo has for the world at large and the Western world in particular. Middle East has been, for a considerable time now, not only an isolated zone of conflict but also the origin of the so-called Islamic terrorism spreading like bird-flu across the globe carrying with it the seeds of destruction and putting on risk the lives of thousands of civilians.
Obama administration has understood that if they are serious about winning the war against terrorism they have to address its causes and, at least, some of the grievances of the people of the Middle East and the Palestinians in particular. Being a hugely popular president across the globe, there is hope that Obama can, using, if necessary, a carrot and stick policy, put considerable pressure on all sides of the conflict in the Middle East to achieve a viable and enduring peace. He certainly cannot do it without the support of the International community. That is why all those who are serious about terrorism and its negative effects – the curtailment, erosion even, of the freedoms guaranteed by our western constitutions – should more than ever rally behind the Obama administration.
Bringing peace to the Middle East, stabilising the relations between Israel and its neighbours is as important for fighting terrorism worldwide as is the armed struggle against its members. Terrorists with Muslim background have found a convenient alibi and skilfully employ the plight of the Palestinians to commit unspeakable crimes against ordinary citizens. No less skilfully employed is Israeli rhetoric to justify its aggression against the Palestinians. The recent aggression against Hamas in Gaza has served to remind us how fragile the situation is, how easily it can escalate into a full blown war and how it puts us, the people of the developed world, in an extremely paralysed and morally embarrassing position. We are reduced to moral impotence. We raise our voices but not too high so as not to aggravate even more the situation. The most difficult situation is to remain neutral if such neutrality is possible.
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and coming with a certain peaceful resolution, however tentative and fragile, does not mean that terrorism would disappear. It would, however, deprive Muslim terrorists of one of their most important and major pillars for the justification of their terrorist actions. This may bring about a radical transformation in the Muslim populations at large of their perception and the silent moral support they accord to such groups. We are all too familiar with the expression “we are against terrorism, nonetheless we must try to understand its causes…”. Fair enough. We now have a president who has shown willingness to do just that. It would send a positive signal to the people of the Middle East that they are not forgotten and that their plight is being seriously considered. The US must again establish itself as a friend of all Middle Eastern people. Viewed upon as a friend, instead of as an enemy who must be fought, the US administration has much more success in winning over the Muslim masses to its side.
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would have another major consequence for the authoritarian and dictatorial regimes prevalent in the Arab world. Arab regimes have conveniently used the Palestinian plight to intimidate and force into silence the progressive and democratic voices and oppositions in their own countries. These regimes, unfortunately, have been supported by the Western democracies. This has added another dimension of frustration to the already frustrated people of the Middle East. Their aspirations for freedom, democracy and human rights were rarely recognized as legitimate. The imagery, which sustained the Western’s governments support for these authoritarian regimes, was one of distrust towards the Muslims people. The idea being that they cannot be trusted to chose their own representatives democratically. The case of Algeria and more recently that of Hamas are but two examples of how democratic voices have been silenced and suppressed. Their legitimate victories in elections have not been recognised. Democracy is, after all, more than mere elections. It is a civilization as the Israeli president, Shimon Peres, reminded us recently in Davos.
Resolving the question of Palestine or, at least, investing heavily politically towards its resolution, is the first step towards gaining the trust of the Arab and Muslim people in the Middle East. Terrorism cannot be fought without the active participation of the Muslim people, and Muslims cannot be won over if they are viewed suspiciously and distrustfully. Democracy cannot be forced, ala Bush, onto the people of the Middle East. It can, however, be recognized as a universal and legitimate aspiration emerging from the internal struggles of the people of the region. Where but in democratic countries can there be counterforces which curtail the excessive use of power against its own or other people. Creating the conditions for the rise of democracy in the Middle East and building strong democratic institutions – and this means that the Western governments should support not the dictatorial regimes but the democratic voices – would be the best protection against the temptations of certain radical islamist groups from carrying on their anti-democratic programmes. We have to trust the democratic processes and the democratization of institutions and culture in the Middle East. This is the sine qua non condition for a stable, peaceful and democratic Middle East. Democracy is its own best protection.
A third consequence of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has to do with how the conflict translates in the West. The recent aggression in Gaza has shown that the Western people are not indifferent to what goes on in Palestine. The reaction of people in some cases has been, unfortunately, couched in a language of anti-Semitism and in other cases of islamophobia. We should not jump into premature conclusion and naturalise the reaction that some people are anti-Semite and other islamophobe. They are not born anti-Semite or islamophobes. The roots of these two recent maladies are in the Middle East. The conflict for some has taken mythical proportions and it is becoming very difficult to disentangle and address these expressions from what is going on in the Middle East.
Addressing the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and bringing certain peaceful closure to it will remove one of the causes, and possibly the disintegration, of the three maladies inflicting the contemporary world: terrorism, authoritarian Middle Eastern regimes and anti-Semitism and islamophobia. They are all related, in one way or another, to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. This is one of the most serious issues concerning all of us wherever we live. Let us hope that Obama is serious enough in his pursuit of peace in the Middle East and that he succeeds in bringing certain closure to it. But he cannot do it without our support, governments and people. Particularly, Hamas should mobilize all its resources and open itself for an internal reform of their policies: recognizing unconditionally the right of Israel to exist, severe ties with Iran and create space for the democratic aspiration of the Palestinian people living under its rule.