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The Common Ground News Service (CGNews) aims to promote constructive perspectives and dialogue on a broad range of issues affecting Arab-Israeli & Muslim-Western relations. CGNews is available in Arabic, English, French, Hebrew, Indonesian and Urdu. To subscribe, click here. For an archive of past CGNews articles, please visit our website at www.commongroundnews.org.
Inside this edition  
25 February - 03 March 2010
Learning from the Sadat Years
by Khaled Diab
Comparing Anwar el-Sadat's peace overtures thirty years ago to today's Saudi peace plan, Khaled Diab writes, "Today's Arab leaders could do well to learn that, faced with a powerful opponent who nevertheless fears them, a standoffish offer of peace, no matter how attractive, means little when it comes from a great distance. It needs to be delivered in person wrapped in olive branches."
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews) 25 February 2010)
Palestinian civil society in search of an identity
by Maher Issa
Maher Issa explains the unique situation of Palestinian civil society and examines its challenges and important responsibilities.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 February 2010)
Washington's rapprochement with Syria is welcomed but not enough
by Rawhi Afaghani
Rawhi Afaghani sees US overtures toward Syria as positive, but cautions that they cannot come at the expense of the Palestinian-Israeli track.
(Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 February 2010)
Training our boys to be bullies
by Larry Derfner
Larry Derfner laments what he sees as a change for the worse in the Israeli military's culture.
(Source: The Jerusalem Post, 17 February 2010)
Pro-MidEast in America: Getting past "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestine"
by Bradley Burston
Bradley Burston argues that Americans must get beyond the zero-sum game of strictly aligning themselves with one side but rather label their stance as "pro-MidEast" in order to sideline the vocal extremists who argue for the exclusivity of each side.
(Source: Ha'aretz, 17 February 2010)
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Learning from the Sadat Years
Khaled Diab
BRUSSELS - Nearly three decades after his death, the former Egyptian president, Anwar el-Sadat, remains a controversial figure. In Israel and many parts of the West, he is best remembered for his daring trip to Jerusalem, where he became the first and only Arab head of state to address the Israeli Knesset, and his deadlock-breaking peace accord with Israel.

In Egypt and the Arab world, he is celebrated for the victories he scored in the early parts of the 1973 war, the first time an Arab power had shown the titan of Israel's military might to be vulnerable and so soon after the crushing defeat in 1967. However, Sadat's subsequent peace deal with Israel was far more controversial. Although many Arab leaders privately accepted that peace with Israel was necessary and inevitable-including Sadat's predecessor Gamal Abdel-Nasser who conducted promising secret peace contacts with then Israeli Prime Minister Moshe Sharett-none at the time were bold enough to say it publicly. Rather than working with Sadat to create a unified Arab position for negotiations, they turned on him instead.

In Egypt, opinion was and remains divided, with many viewing the Camp David Accords as a betrayal. However, most Egyptians, tired of what is widely viewed as the Arab desire to defend the Palestinian cause to "the very last Egyptian", grudgingly accept the benefits of a cold peace.

Today, with a general Arab consensus on the need for a settlement with Israel, as embodied in the Saudi peace plan, criticism of Sadat has become more muted and nuanced: his vision is accepted, though his unilateral tactics are still widely questioned.

Now, with the Israeli-Palestinian conflict looking as dire and insoluble as ever, what lessons can be learnt from the Sadat experiment?

One important lesson is the importance of symbolism and gesture politics in helping prospective peacemakers scale the walls of paranoia and distrust that separate Israelis and Arabs.

On both sides, many will say that the obstacles to peace-an ultranationalist, right-wing government in Israel, the rise of ultra-conservative Hamas in Gaza, the deadly Israeli siege of the Strip and the disarray and infighting among the Palestinian factions-are insurmountable. But things didn't look particularly rosy back in the mid-1970s either, when war seemed to be the only show in town.

Then, as now, Israel was led by an ideologically rigid right-wing prime minister who, though he talked of the need for peace, was reluctant to negotiate with the Arabs or give up an inch of the dream of creating Eretz Yisrael. By going to Jerusalem and appealing to the Israeli people directly, Sadat forced Menachem Begin's hand with a deft masterstroke.

Today's Arab leaders could do well to learn that, faced with a powerful opponent who nevertheless fears them, a standoffish offer of peace, no matter how attractive, means little when it comes from a great distance. It needs to be delivered in person wrapped in olive branches.

In fact, the need for direct contact and negotiations between politicians from Israel and the frontline Arab states, not to mention the Arab and Israeli peoples, is greater than ever, given the level of mutual dehumanisation and distrust. That does not mean that economic and political ties should be immediately normalised-that will be one of the fruits of eventual peace-but there should be a broad and sincere dialogue and cultural exchange between those on both sides who wish to build an enduring peace.

Israel could also draw similar lessons about the value of direct contact. Separated as they are behind physical and ideological walls, ordinary Israelis have negligible contact with their Palestinian neighbours, the people they most need to understand and coexist with. Israel needs to learn the language of its neighbourhood and start dealing with the Palestinians and Arabs in a way that will win them over-a good start would be to end its destructive and counterproductive blockade of Gaza.

In addition, both Israelis and Palestinians need to learn that violence has failed to resolve the conflict and will continue to do so. Israel needs to learn that its gung-ho "deterrent policy" deters little but the prospect for peace, while the Palestinian factions who advocate and employ violence need to realise that it achieves little beyond provoking the wrath of their powerful neighbour. Both sides would do well to learn from the tactics employed by their non-violent peace movements.

In the end, pragmatism is the only solution. As Sadat said in a 1978 speech in Cairo: "Peace is much more precious than a piece of land… let there be no more wars."


* Egyptian by birth, Khaled Diab is a Brussels-based journalist and writer. He writes on a wide range of subjects, including the EU, the Middle East, Islam and secularism, multiculturalism and human rights. His website is www.chronikler.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Palestinian civil society in search of an identity
Maher Issa
GAZA CITY - The changing political situation creates a need for Palestinian civil society to continually reflect on its true identity. It must decide how to approach crucial questions such as its function, relations with government, strategies and tactics, all the while not losing sight of its main raison d'être of serving the Palestinian community.

The challenge is not simple. Civil society has to tread a fine line in order to avoid the Hamas-Fateh rivalry. Moreover, it has to subsist in an environment where the occupation-and resulting counter-violence-have rendered the language of dialogue and understanding almost non-existent. Yet, a healthy and well functioning civil society is vital for the building of a strong and independent Palestine.

Civil society organisations in the Palestinian territories play a variety of important roles, which make them even more indispensable for Palestinians. Not only do they function as service providers for the population in areas such as psychosocial support for vulnerable groups, re-employment and job creation, capacity building and training, and offering forums for free thinking and free expression, they also serve as watchdogs over government and other official institutions.

Palestinian civil society organisations face internal and external challenges imposed by the unique reality in which Palestinians live. They are required to respond to difficult questions such as: What is their position on the occupation? How can they play an effective role in supporting the steadfastness and perseverance of the Palestinian people without being involved in activities that may be classified as terrorist or violent actions, which negate the innate pacifism for which civil society should in principle stand? What is the position of independent civil society organisations regarding national issues that require them to express a political or legal opinion? How can theydo so without being perceived as aligning themselves with either Hamas or Fateh, which would inevitably create a backlash from the sidelined party?

The internal tensions within Palestinian society are no less challenging than the external ones as decisions carry the risk of undermining the perceived objectivity and the image of civil society organisations. This is particularly true for a community where the political situation is so divisive that stereotyping and rumours abound and often inform consequential decisions.

This situation forces civil society organisations to think twice before carrying out any action that could possibly be seen as unacceptable by the conflicted parties or which is liable to be misunderstood. The resulting choice is either to remain inactive and carry out safe alternatives that would essentially be meaningless or take the risk that a given action would displease certain parties or individuals.

The external circumstances on the ground, imposed by Israel and the international community, present yet another dilemma. If civil society organisations do decide to become involved in anti-occupation activities as their role presumably requires-such as demonstrations against settlements, home demolitions and daily mass arrests and invasions-the risk that they would be branded as terrorist or dangerous organisations could, no doubt, jeopardise their movement and compromise their ability to raise funds, both of which are critical factors for the functioning of these organisations. Reflection on these issues is crucial to gaining community support and popularity amongst Palestinians.

Meanwhile, Palestinian civil society is further impeded by the increasing division between the Islamic and non-Islamic sectors, particularly on issues of women and youth. This division makes it difficult for civil society organisations to unite various segments of Palestinian society around these causes and threatens the cooperation necessary for making progress on political reform and human rights issues.

Facing these dilemmas, civil society organisations can either assume positions in line with their mission to keep up the struggle for the benefit of the community and potentially pay a price for their activities, or decide to remain neutral and thereby accept their fate as an extension of other ineffective components of the regime.

A series of probing debates among civil society organisations is required. Civil society must review and define its role despite the circumstances. Ultimately, we must create a forum that brings together civil society representatives from Gaza and the West Bank with American and European donors. Civil Society must present its agenda both internally as well as to the international community and reach a common understanding about its roles and duties before it can decide what it can or cannot hope to achieve.


* Maher Issa is civil society activist in Gaza and a graduate of political studies. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Washington's rapprochement with Syria is welcomed but not enough
Rawhi Afaghani
WASHINGTON, DC - President Barack Obama nominated diplomat Robert Ford to become the first US ambassador to Syria since 2005. The step is a clear indication of a thawing US-Syrian relationship, and is also seen as a reward to Syria for recent cooperation in Lebanon and Iraq. Growing diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Damascus comes as part of the ongoing White House effort to loosen Damascus' ties with Tehran. Supporters of closer US-Syrian relations argue that Syria can play an important role in quelling extremists in the region such as Hizbullah and Hamas.

Syria has been pursuing two different approaches with regards to its regional policy, including the peace process. On the one hand, it is encouraging the United States to support Turkish efforts to mediate between Syria and Israel, as attested by Syrian President Bashar Al Assad's request last week from US Under Secretary for Political Affairs, William Burns. On the other hand, it is also maintaining strong ties with Iran, Hizbullah and Hamas. If the United States is going to achieve a comprehensive peace, it must do more than merely support the Turkish role.

The "soft policy" approach that President Barack Obama utilised in the region during his first year in office might have greatly benefited Syria as it got closer with the United States. But this does not appear to have encouraged Damascus to resolve its standoff with Israel. It has not been translated into the "flip" that the US wants.

Moreover, the recent diplomatic crisis and worsening relations between Israel and Turkey suggest that the latter has lost its credibility as an impartial mediator in the Syrian-Israeli talks. Increasingly more friendly relations between Turkey and hardliners in the region, including Syria, Iran and Hamas, could also be an indication that Turkey does not have what it takes to advance the peace process. While Syria had managed to extricate itself out of its international isolation and mend its relationship with Turkey, Tel Aviv and Ankara have drifted apart.

The recent Turkish shift away from Israel and the West, toward Syria and Iran, is troublesome both for US strategic interests and for peace-making in the region. During the last few years, Turkey has experienced a fundamental transformation with the Islamist Justice and Development party (AKP) at its helm. The new face of Turkey appears to be less committed to Europe and the West than in the past.
Syria sees a bright opportunity to deepen its relationship with Turkey in order to influence regional alliances and enhance its significance in regional politics, while also gaining a strong negotiating position vis-à-vis Washington.
However, Turkey's growing relationship with Tehran could undermine Washington's potential efforts in moving forward the peace process and put Ankara's relationship with the West on a backburner.

Apart from the problematic nature of Turkish mediation, additional obstacles remain for Israeli-Syrian relations. For Syria, any peace negotiation with the Jewish State requires Israel to give up the Golan Heights. It is an issue on which Syria is unwilling to compromise. Nonetheless, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu has made it clear that Israel will not withdraw from the occupied Golan Heights and the Israeli public appears united on this issue.

For Israel, peace requires the Jewish State to reach agreements with all its neighbours, including the Palestinians, a process that has long been stalled. Syrian-Israeli talks should run parallel to a Palestinian-Israeli track as part of a regional comprehensive peace agreement. If Syria and Israel reached a peace plan prior to a regional settlement, the Palestinians would become the weakest link. In this context, the Syrians will be rendered no longer an influential party in the negotiation process. Moreover, the Palestinians would have no cards left vis-à-vis the Israelis should they go at it alone.

A regional process would give the Palestinians a stronger negotiating position with the Israelis, similar to the one they had during the 1991 Madrid process. For Israel, a comprehensive agreement with all its neighbours-perhaps as the Arab Peace Initiative suggests-could reap greater benefits. Mainly, by normalising its relations with the Arab and Muslim world, Israel would be accepted in the region.

On Washington's part, comprehensive peace requires Damascus to compromise on its relations with hardliners in the region and commit to participating in the peace process. The Obama administration is on the right track in pulling Syria out of the Iranian orbit. However, it seems that there is a missing link in Washington's efforts: It must not neglect the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is the cornerstone of regional unrest.


* Rawhi Afaghani is a conflict analysis, resolution specialist and media analyst. The author grew up in a Palestinian refugee camp in the West Bank and now lives and works in Washington, DC. He can be reached by email at rafaghani@gmail.com. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service (CGNews).

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 25 February 2010, www.commongroundnews.org
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Training our boys to be bullies
Larry Derfner
JERUSALEM - The main thing that drew me to Israel was that here, you put your life on the line in a great political struggle, unlike in the West, where political struggle is something you talk about from a safe distance.

The political struggle for Israelis, as far as I'm concerned, is to find a way to live in a rough neighbourhood without acting like bullies on the one hand, or like pushovers on the other. To be strong enough to deter attack, but not to pick fights. To stand up for your rights, but to know where your rights end and the neighbour's begins. It's not easy, but that's the challenge-to live with both a backbone and a conscience. In short, to be (if I may apply this term to both genders) a mensch.

For Israelis who aren't pacifists, part of being a mensch is serving in the "citizen's army". I was glad for the chance to serve, and I want and expect my sons to do so as well. It's part of this whole idea of not living a sheltered life, of not letting others fight your battles, of doing your part to protect your country.

But I'm afraid that today, the idea of going into the army is not about becoming a mensch, or about learning to stand up for yourself without pushing others around, but mainly about pushing others around.

In this ultra-nationalistic atmosphere, way too many teenagers see the army as an opportunity to take revenge on the country's enemies, to show the Arabs and the whole hostile, hypocritical world how strong we are, how fearless, how much greater than any other nation we are.

In Friday's Ha'aretz there was a story about "Footsteps of the Fighters", a motivational camp in the Golan Heights for 12th graders being run by Avigdor Kahalani, a Yom Kippur War hero and former "Labor hawk" in the Knesset. Since he started the programme five years ago, some 180,000 12th graders have come to "tour battle sites, meet combat soldiers, watch a live-fire exercise" and listen to Kahalani's stock motivational lecture.

"I was an MK, I met with Arafat, I hosted Abu Mazen in my home, I did a lot of things for peace. I tell you, the hatred for us cannot be bridged. Peace can be made if tomorrow we all move to New York. Nobody will take us in there anyhow. We can't stop protecting ourselves. We have no other country," Kahalani told the young crowd, according to someone there who quoted him back to Ha'aretz, which in turn confirmed the quotes with Kahalani.

He poured out his bile on Israeli draft-dodgers, saying gruffly how he could have "killed" one celebrity who got out of the army and how he would "deal personally" with others who tried.

"Those who don't serve won't pay taxes, they'll bring crime, drugs-don't accept them! Cast them out!" he said.

But that wasn't all-he even ridiculed soldiers who ask to do their service close to home, calling them the equivalent of "mama's boys". For the big emotional climax, Kahalani held up a large Israeli flag and said, "I want to give you a gift. I want to give you this flag. The whole world has flags. But they're ugly. Red, black, green. Who has a flag with a Star of David on it? Who has one that is blue and white?"

The note-taker reported that the 12th graders responded to Kahalani's speech with "stormy applause". Some 180,000 youngsters have been put through this indoctrination, just before they go into the army. In the last five years, that means a huge proportion of IDF recruits. And if they're anything like those in the Ha'aretz story, they ate it up.

I don't blame the 12th graders, of course; "Footsteps of the Fighters" just reflects the times they're growing up in: There's no chance for peace, the Arabs hate us, always have, always will. We have no other country because no other country wants us, and besides, they're all ugly anyway; only our country is beautiful-blue and white. Listen up, everybody-it's us against the world. Now go get 'em.

I remember when there was an Israeli type called the "soldier for peace", when it was believed entirely possible, when it was considered no contradiction at all, to be a dedicated IDF soldier and a dedicated opponent of war and conquest. Until this last rotten decade, Israel's military class, as far as I know, was the world's only military class that tended to the left side of its country's political spectrum-that was a voice for peace.

No more. Now the voice of the military establishment comes from the retired generals showing up in the TV newsrooms urging us to war, congratulating the IDF, Shin Bet or Mossad for every reckless bombing and assassination they pull off.

There's no balance anymore, no tempering of the soldier's spirit with an urgency to prevent killing and dying. There's no more attempt to see if we can simply stand up straight and survive-no, it's either swagger or cringe, and we prefer swagger.

In 21st century Israel, this is what it means to be a man. But it's nobody's idea of what it means to be a mensch.


* Larry Derfner writes for The Jerusalem Post. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from The Jerusalem Post.

Source: The Jerusalem Post, 17 February 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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Pro-MidEast in America: Getting past "pro-Israel" and "pro-Palestine"
Bradley Burston
JERUSALEM - Let's face it. Viewed from North America, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is a dismal read.

Seen in full context, the confrontation is suffocatingly complex. As literature, it is paralytic, sullenly wordy. The plot, for all its spasms and blood, goes nowhere. As drama, the Israel-Palestine morass is the geopolitical equivalent of James Cameron's 1997 film "Titanic": interminable, exorbitant, unwieldy, dumb without just cause. Titanic-like, it tempts the observer to bail out in mid-course, seething under the breath "Sink, already! Just #*%&-ing sink!"

This may explain why it often seems that the only participants left standing-that is to say, still interested-in the debate over the future of Israel and Palestine, are extremists. These are the evangelists of the zero-sum. They are the activists for the One State Solution, that is, One State for My Side Alone. They are the misers of spirit who believe that this land cannot be big enough for the both of us.

The full text of this article can be found at: http://www.haaretz.com/hasen/spages/1150311.html


* Bradley Burnston writes for Ha'aretz. This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) with permission from Ha'aretz.

Source: Ha'artz, 17 February 2010,
Copyright permission is granted for publication.

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