VIENNA – For many generations of Arab youth, mine included, studying and working in the United States was a coveted opportunity to experience freedoms, possibilities and the sense of egalitarianism that the American way of life embodied.
It was a doubly enriching experience for those of us raised in authoritarian or conservative societies. It was thrilling to be able to think and act independently, without societal pressure. I was excited to take home some of the lessons I learned from a functioning democracy, not least the vital role of freedom of expression, the importance of civil society and the exceptional benefits of empowering people.
Of course, I was also aware of the U.S. system’s failings, and in particular, the perpetuation of racism and inequality. I remember the Jim Crow laws enforcing racial segregation in the former Confederate states and the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who articulated African-Americans’ dreams of equality and human decency.
But I was hopeful that America’s democratic system had the tools it needs for self-correction. I remain so, based on the major transformations in values, laws and mindsets that I witnessed.
What shocked me most was how the U.S., a country that prides itself on its love of freedom and justice, could all too often pursue a hegemonic and repressive foreign policy, from its appalling wars in Vietnam and Iraq to its support of ruthless dictators.
Regardless of its cause, the disconnect between America’s self-image and its foreign policy fueled a confused perception of the country in the Arab world and elsewhere. While many young Arabs wanted to become U.S. citizens, almost all of them loathed U.S. foreign policy.
Arabs and Muslims saw the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as Exhibit A in the case against America. They found it difficult to grasp why a sense of empathy for the Jewish people — which was fully justified, given the horrible atrocities committed against them — should somehow translate into injustice against the Palestinians.
This U.S. bias in favor of Israel has become, over time, a matter of consensus in American politics; for many lawmakers, support for Israel is synonymous with the fight against anti-Semitism.
Even more dangerous was the conflict’s religious dimension, which added to a creeping schism between the Muslim and Western worlds. Relations soured further as a result of U.S.-led wars in the Middle East and hit rock bottom with President Donald Trump’s Muslim travel ban and his “Deal of the Century” to secure peace in the region — an offering to the Palestinians that deepened mistrust by being far worse than any that had come before.
The latest outbreak of Israeli-Palestinian violence again brought to the surface the deep-seated sense of humiliation and rage harbored not only by Palestinians in the occupied territories, but also among Israeli Arabs and across the Arab and Muslim world. For the first time in a long time, there was overwhelming popular support around the world — especially among young people — for Palestinian rights.
It was widely hoped that U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration would make the promotion of democracy and human rights central to its foreign policy. But this hope quickly dissipated when the U.S. government simply repeated the familiar mantra that “Israel has the right to defend itself” without mentioning the elephant in the room: Israel’s crawling expansion of settlements in occupied Palestinian territory, its policy of discrimination and its denial of the Palestinians’ right to an independent state.
On a personal level, this was profoundly disheartening. Over five decades, I have seen how the U.S. approach to upholding Palestinians’ rights has become almost apologetic. Today, I contemplate in disbelief how the Jewish people, who suffered so much for so long, are capable of inflicting on another people some of the same atrocities previously committed against them.
Meanwhile, the U.S. is throwing money around in an attempt to prevent further violence in Gaza, without making any effort to address its root causes. There is increasing fervor in the Arab and Muslim world for militancy against Israel’s occupation, and extremism is on the rise. As I think of all this and of the 67 children who lost their lives in the most recent violence, I cannot help but feel almost overcome with despair.
But I still sense a glimmer of hope, and a widespread acknowledgment that a return to the status quo ante and the hellish cycle of violence is not viable. I also sense the beginning of some soul-searching inside Israel, among the Palestinians and across the Arab world to find new ways forward based on coexistence and mutual acceptance.
I have worked closely with Israelis and Palestinians, and have seen how all sides grossly mismanaged the Middle East conflict for decades. Nonetheless, I still hope that the U.S. will seize this opportunity and put its weight behind applying the rule of law that America holds sacred — and whose cardinal importance I learned as a student at New York University School of Law — equally to Palestinians and Israelis.
A more evenhanded U.S. approach would help the Palestinians, Israel, the region and the world. If Biden can manage the necessary shift in U.S. foreign policy, then America truly will be back.
Mohamed ElBaradei, director general emeritus of the International Atomic Energy Agency, is a Nobel Peace Prize laureate. ©Project Syndicate, 2021
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