Two Sides of the Abyss, and Far Too Many Purviews


The age of terror, it seems, has sprouted an era of dialogue. A host of conferences meant to bring together East and West have been cropping up. There was World Economic Forum's recent Middle East regional summit in Jordan. A few weeks before the star-studded Mideast "Davos" conference, I had the opportunity to attend the similarly high level U.S.-Islamic World Forum, held in Doha, Qatar.

The Doha conference was packed with hundreds of progressive pundits and activists from all sides, who diligently discussed both the needs and the means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. As expected, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not stress the pivotal importance of seeing progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Indeed, almost every speaker ended his or her speech by arguing that American credibility hinged on resolving the Palestine issue.

Enticed by the aura of civility in Doha, I was curious to find out what the participants had in mind when they pressed for "progress" on the Palestine issue: progress toward what?

Deep in my heart, I had hoped to find the Doha participants more accommodating of the so-called "two-state solution" and the road map leading to it.

If Muslims were nourishing a utopian dream that the United States cannot deliver then, sooner or later, the whole dialogue process, and all the goodwill and reforms that depend on it, would blow up in the same conflagration that consumed the Oslo process.

I had a friendly conversation on this issue with one of Palestinian Authority Civil Affairs Minister Muhammad Dahlan's aides, who confessed that "we Palestinians do not believe in a two-state solution, for we can't agree to the notion of a 'Jewish state.'

"Judaism is a religion," he added, "and religions should not have states."

When I pointed out that Israeli society is 70 percent secular, bonded by history, not religion, and that by "Jewish state" Israelis mean (for lack of a better term) a "national-Jewish state," he replied: "Still, Palestine is too small for two states."

This was somewhat disappointing, given the official P.A. endorsement of the road map. "Road map to what?" I thought. "To a Middle East without Israel?"

I discussed my disappointment with an Egyptian scholar renowned as a champion of liberalism in the Arab context. His answer was even more blunt: "The Jews should build themselves a Vatican," he said, "a spiritual center somewhere near Jerusalem. But there is no place for a Jewish state in Palestine, not even a national-Jewish state. The Jews were driven out 2,000 years ago, and that should be final, similar to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain 500 years ago."

The problem with Muslim elites could be seen again when in May came a colorful radio confession by the editor of the Egyptian newspaper Al-Arabi Abd al-Halim Qandil: "Those who signed the Camp David agreement … can … drink their own urine, because the Egyptian people will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli entity."

Qandil's bald statement drove home a very sobering realization: In 2005, I still cannot name a single Muslim leader (or journalist or intellectual) who has publicly acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two legitimate national movements.

Israelis, Europeans and Americans see Israel as a major player in the democratization and economic development of the region. The other side dreams of a world without Israel. Will this clash of expectations burst into another round of bloodshed?

My heart goes out to Europeans and Americans who believe they've found a spark of flexibility on Israel's legitimacy in the progressive Muslim camp.

But looking ahead at the plentiful attempts to build bridges to the Muslim world, you have to wonder whether this outpouring of goodwill should not first be harnessed toward hammering out basic common goals and educational campaigns to promote them, rather than glossing over oceans of disagreement.

Failure to address uncomfortable differences has a terrible way of extracting higher costs later on.

Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter murdered by terrorists in Pakistan in 2002.



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