THE BLOG

Peace In Arabic

It's not that I get tired of listening to Jewish speakers. More often than not, they motivate and inspire me. Whether I agree with them or not, there's a familiarity, a connection. I learn from my people and I embrace their diversity.

But no matter how diverse, it's still the same Jewish tent.

That's why it was so fascinating the other night to listen to someone who describes himself as an Israeli-Arab-Muslim-Palestinian. His look, his dress, his accent and body language all felt different. His mother's "large clan," he said, lives in Ramallah, where he visits almost every day from his home in Jerusalem. I could easily imagine him drinking tea and eating hummus with them.

The man was Arab journalist Khaled Abu Toameh, and he spoke at the home of Steve and Rita Emerson in Westwood.

Toameh has been reporting on Arab affairs for close to 30 years, for both Jewish and Arabic media. There's a quiet nonchalance about him, an old-school Middle Eastern dignity. Even when he says something familiar, it sounds different coming from him.

Toameh is in the middle of a U.S. tour sponsored by StandWithUs and was in Los Angeles for their annual "Israel in Focus" weekend conference, which gathers student activists from around the world. Of course, he wouldn't have been chosen if his views toward the Jewish state weren't sympathetic.

But when Toameh spoke, what stood out was not that he is pro-Israel, but that he is pro-Palestine.

For example, he spoke about the virulent anti-Israel atmosphere he is seeing on U.S. college campuses, about which, he observed, "there is sometimes more sympathy for Hamas than I see in Ramallah."

When he asked these students, "What makes you pro-Palestinian?" the answers were usually the same: "Israel is an apartheid state, Israel is a violent occupier, etc."
"But that's anti-Israel," he challenged them. "That's not pro-Palestine. I'm pro-Palestine. What makes you pro-Palestine?

"If you're really pro-Palestine, come help us instead of just spewing poison about Israel. Come teach my people democracy. Instead of Israel Apartheid Week, why don't you have Palestine Democracy Week?"

There was something authentic and disarming about him. His words didn't smell like propaganda or activism. He spoke for moderate Palestinians like himself, and he spoke from his heart, not from talking points.

He brought up a private meeting he'd had with President Obama a couple of years ago, while Obama was still a U.S. senator. Toameh told Obama that the key obstacle to peace is the hatred and incitement to violence that prevails throughout Palestinian society -- in schools, the media and mosques -- and is endorsed by the Palestinian leadership.

Commenting on the charge of incitement, Obama asked: "Is it true?" and later asked: "What can we do about it?"

Toameh suggested that the United States and other donor countries should predicate aid to the Palestinians on their stopping the incitement, to which Obama responded, "Isn't this political extortion?"

Toameh clearly thinks not. He thinks it is in the interest of the Palestinians to stop incitement, and he shared an Arab perspective on the subject.

"Look at the language that is now flying back and forth between Hamas and Fatah," he said. "It's the same poison you hear about the Jews: sons of pigs, infidels, etc. Incitement has spread and backfired on the Palestinians."

This incitement has also hurt the Palestinians' ability to make peace: "How do you tell people to make peace with the people you've called monsters and sons of pigs?"

Toameh sees no hope in the "top down" approach to peace. The soil is too rotten, he says. The Arab moderates have been undermined. "If I go to Ramallah and talk about Palestinian concessions on the right of return, I'll get shot in five minutes."

He says the Palestinians "already got their two-state solution -- Gaza and the West Bank," and if it weren't for the Israeli presence in the West Bank, "Hamas would take over and Mahmoud Abbas would be lynched."

But lest you think there was no ray of hope in this Arab gentleman, he closed by discussing the people who he believes hold the key to an eventual peace between Jews and Arabs.

The Arab citizens of Israel.

"They are the ones who can build a bridge between Jews and Arabs," Toameh said. "They know what democracy is. They know about a free press and about freedom of religion. They know both sides."

He acknowledged the many obstacles - mutual mistrust, dual loyalties, Muslim radicalization, etc. -- but he says Israel has no choice. If it wants a peaceful future, it must do a better job of embracing its Arab citizens.

The fact that some of them are becoming more radical is an even bigger incentive to embrace the moderates and preempt further radicalization.

It's true, he said, that Arabs have it better in Israel than anywhere else in the Middle East. But that's not the point. Israel must see its Arab minority not as a threatening nuisance that must be tolerated and contained, but as potential allies who can eventually help bring peace to the Holy Land.

From your mouth to Allah's ears, Mr. Toameh.