NEW YORK — As the son of a Lebanese immigrant to Argentina, I feel a strong connection to what is happening in the Middle East, and at the futile attempts at reaching a peaceful solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict in that region. To me, the way my father conducted his life — and attempted to bridge the gap between Arabs and Jews — is an example of how a harmonious relationship between these two groups can be established and maintained.
My father was cofounder of a well-known cultural organization named after the famous Lebanese writer Gibran Khalil Gibran. Lectures at this organization attracted dozens of intellectual Jews, whose presence in the Syrian-Lebanese Society, where the organization was located, didn’t have a precedent. Even though many members of that society strongly objected to having non-Arabs — particularly Jews — attend the cultural lectures, my father was able to prevail and attract a multinational, multiethnic audience.
He did it not only through the force of his personality, but also by his practical example of somebody whom both sides could turn to for constructive and balanced advice.
My father — a strong pacifist — would had been dismayed at the level of violence now raging between Palestinians and Jews. The hardened positions of both sides beg the question whether peace is actually possible in the Middle East. Unlike other conflicts, where reason seems to favor one of the sides, in this one both Israelis and Palestinians have just claims to land and peace. Thus both sides have reasonable claims and both can be blamed for the increasing occurence of criminal actions that are feeding the maelstrom.
The obvious question is how to break this vicious circle of violence. One thing is certain: the military options have failed. Terror on one side has been answered by terror on the other, and the main losers of this circle of violence have been innocent civilians caught in the crossfire. Is it possible to break this circle and create a minimal level of trust toward each other?
Although far from ideal, there is a significant precedent for peace. Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s 1978 visit to Jerusalem, and the ensuing state of no-war (rather than real peace) between Egypt and Israel, was a watershed in the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Even though no other country followed suit, Sadat’s heroic action was able to break a psychological barrier that until then had seemed insurmountable. An equally courageous decision is needed now that would transform a place of war into a place of peace.
Nobody doubts the tremendous military superiority of Israel vis-a-vis the Palestinians. However, that superiority has neither been translated into a quelling of Palestinians demands nor into a cessation of their acts of violence against Israel.
If anything, assaults on Palestinians enclaves and the violent responses by the Palestinians have produced the opposite effect. Rather than leading to a situation of no-war, they have institutionalized the conflict. The result is that both sides have been affected by a siege mentality that paralyzed their thinking and prevented the emergence of feasible policy alternatives that could result in peace.
A way out the impasse would be a specific proposal by the U.N. Security Council for the establishment of a Palestinian state. Rather than an unilateral declaration of statehood, which conveys the danger of establishing an enemy state on Israel’s borders, this should be the result of an American initiative, which would make it particularly significant given Washington’s involvment in efforts to resolve the conflict.
Recognition of a Palestinian state has already been proposed by no other than Israel’s Foreign Affairs Minister Shimon Peres, one of the leading figures for peace in the region. According to Peres, for Israel to remain a Jewish state, both morally and geographically, it needs the establishment of a Palestinian state. This would allow a real reconciliation process to take place with the Palestinians, says Perez.
“. . . it is in our own best interests to complete the historic revolution which we have begun: to see in our neighbors — our good neighbors — the opportunity to forge new relations and bring enduring peace to the Middle East, for the good of the whole world.”
The alternative is a continuing state of war and hopelessness. Perhaps now more than ever we should remember George Santayana’s words, “To delight in war is a merit in the soldier, a dangerous quality in the captain and a positive crime in the statesman.”
It is time that destructive rhetoric and actions leading to war be replaced by positive efforts to construct a lasting peace in the region.