THE BLOG

"We Love Obama, He is African and Loves Peace"

I recently completed my four year post as Israel's Consul for Media and Public Affairs in New York and decided to take a leave of absence in order to travel and gain new experiences. I chose Morocco as my first destination -- as it is one of the few Arab countries Israelis can visit, it's a relatively secular country, and has a rich culture that has always interested me. Since I've been dealing with the 'conflict' for such a long time, I also wanted to better understand the Arab world, even if it is initially on a more superficial level.

For the first time in 15 years, I arrived in a country without the Diplomatic passport I carry and without the sense of demonstrative pride which says "I am Israeli". Since I wanted to have as many interactions with locals as possible I had an internal debate regarding the way I should behave: to identify myself as an Israeli or to identify myself as a New Yorker.

"We love Obama, he is African and he loves peace, as opposed to his predecessor, Bush, who loved wars and supported the Israelis. We Moroccans live in peace with the entire world, but we don't like to see what's happening between Israel and the Palestinians". That was how Imad, a 20 year old Moroccan man, answered my question: "What do you think of Obama and Israel?"
I landed in Casablanca, wanting to visit the Hassan II Mosque, the third largest mosque in the Arab world.

It was evening and the streets leading to the mosque were packed with people preparing for Eid al Adha. I tried to elbow my way through the crowds, asking passersby for directions in English with no luck. For years I've been lamenting the fact that the Israeli education system did not prepare us for encounters with our neighbors in the Arab world by including Arab language as a requisite subject. In all my schooling, from elementary school through to my University education, I never studied a single hour of Arab language or Arab culture.

A young couple walking hand in hand was happy to help me and pleased to practice their basic English. "You're very welcome to join us, we're going in the same direction", they said. I took the opportunity to hear how they viewed the United States, and of course, Israel. The simplistic comment I quoted above, was the first and only political statement I heard during my visit to Morocco. I don't know if it represents the views of the entire population, what I do know is that it provides us with food for thought.

Often, we Israelis want America's support to be public, vocal, with no conditions, not taking into consideration the geopolitical situation the United States is dealing with. Perhaps it is time we understand that the Arab world around us is as interested in a "fair mediator" as we are. The Arab world, which had watched and resented the almost unconditional support given to Israel by President Bush, feels that there has been a change and there is a chance to resolve the conflict with fair parameters.

I am not refereeing to the fundamentalist Muslim world. I am not talking about countries such as Iran or Syria, who consider a dialogue as a ruse for delay while fooling the west. I am talking about moderate countries, which understand that Israel's presence in the region is an existing fact, which can help the Middle East prosper. Countries which understand that Israel truly wants peace and the only question is the price it's willing to pay. Countries which understand that progress and prosperity will come, among other things, by strengthening the relations with the West and the United States.

In retrospect, we Israelis ask ourselves repeatedly what the reason is for the failure of the peace process with the Palestinians. "We agreed to withdraw from 97% of the territories, divide Jerusalem and find a solution agreeable to both sides on the refugee issue - and still, that was not enough for the Palestinians," we often say. The answer might be simple: we do not understand our neighbors, their culture and their language. Their tradition of negotiation, for instance, the fact that when they say yes, they mean maybe, when they say maybe, they mean no, and when they say no, they don't always mean no - depending on whether it was said publicly or behind closed doors.

We need to internalize the understanding that the culture and language of the other starts at home. It starts with the Israeli school system, which unwisely didn't teach Israelis the Arab language. It continues through dialogue with the Arab Israeli minority, which, as opposed to its vocal leaders -- who represent 10% of the Israeli parliament -- can provide a bridge to understanding our neighbors. We have not yet learned to build this bridge with the Arab Israeli minority, and with each passing day we are more distant from our neighbors and from segments of Israeli society. How many Arab Israeli citizens are teachers and educators within Jewish populations in Israel? How many Arab lecturers are included amongst the academic staff at Israel's leading universities who are educating the next generation of leaders? How many Arab citizens served on the negotiating team with the Palestinians? Perhaps their presence in the negotiations would have allowed us to open a window onto how our neighbors perceive us?
During these days, when we have reached a dead end in the peace process with our neighbors, it is important to try a new approach. It is important that this new approach will include two factors which have been missing thus far: President Obama and the Arab Israeli minority. On one hand, we must take advantage of this grace period -- when President Obama has credit in the Arab world as being a fair mediator. At the same time, we must make use of the Arab Israeli minority as a bridge to understanding our neighbors' culture and way of negotiation. We have tried countless formulas so far, all of which failed. What have we got to lose from another attempt?