Reaching across the divide (V)

by Salameh Nematt
Dear Akiva,

It is very hard to ignore the bloody events of the last few days in the Middle East - from Palestine and Iraq, to Lebanon. But one particular and very unique event caught my attention the most, although it was not the usual violent type: On Monday, Ghaleb Majadele, a member of the Knesset, was sworn in as the first Palestinian Arab minister in Israeli history!

While the situation in Palestine appeared to be deteriorating towards a civil war, similar in many ways to the sectarian violence in Iraq, the developments in Lebanon were also ominous in terms of sectarian divisions threatening a violent confrontation. But amidst the growing religious and ethnic intolerance throughout the region, an Israeli prime minister decided it was a good idea to appoint a Palestinian Arab Israeli as a member of his cabinet, regardless of the obvious controversy and the opposition such a step may have engendered from either side.

As I read your account of a secret Israeli-Syrian channel in Ha'aretz [Israeli newspaper] to explore a possible resumption of bilateral negotiations, I remembered a story I had not been able to publish in my newspaper at the time. Back in 2000, a senior Arab official visited Damascus for a meeting with President Hafez Assad, hoping to convince him of the benefits of making peace with Israel, just as Jordan and Egypt did earlier. The meeting took place soon after Assad's failed summit meeting in Geneva with U.S. President Bill Clinton. This is how part of the conversation reportedly went:

Arab official: Mr President, you are making a big issue out of Syrian claims of access to the Tiberias lake (Sea of Galilee), but don't you see that the strategic benefits of making peace with Israel far outweigh a few hundred meters you insist on reclaiming? (Assad at the time was said to have insisted on having the right to swim in the lake).

Assad: What strategic benefits are you talking about?

Arab official: Mr President, the more the Israelis feel safe with their Arab neighbours, the more they're flexible with the Palestinians and their claims.

Assad: What do you mean?

Arab official: The Israeli Knesset has Muslim, Christian and Communist Arab MKs.

Assad: So?

Arab official: Mr President, there are more Palestinian members of the Israeli Knesset than there are Palestinians in the Jordanian Parliament!

Assad: And?

Arab official: If you make peace with Israel, they will feel more relaxed about giving rights to the Palestinians and the broader requirements of peace in the region.

Assad: That's nonsense. I would never ever shake hands with an Israeli.

Arab official: You don't have to do it yourself. We could always find someone else to do it on your behalf.

Assad: Forget it!

Thus ended an interesting attempt by a senior Arab envoy to convince the late Syrian president that it was in the interest of the Syrians, the Palestinians and all Arabs to make peace with Israel, simply because that would change the dynamics and help both Israelis and Palestinians to bridge the gap. I happen to believe that the Arab peace plan of Saudi King Abdullah, which is conditional on Israeli withdrawal from occupied Arab territories, aims to achieve the same goal. Perhaps this is why Israel has not really embraced it. The bottom line, in my view, dear Akiva, is that Israel has two options for peace with the Palestinians and its neighbours: Either make peace with the peripheral Arab states to force Palestinians to come through with an acceptable compromise, or make peace with the Palestinians so that peripheral states no longer have an excuse to be in a state of war with Israel. I would certainly like to hear your opinion on this suggestion. It seems to me that Israel finds it easier to seek a peace with neighbouring states than with the Palestinians closer to home and under its control, which is quite bewildering to me. How come a powerful and prosperous state such as Israel fails to make peace with its immediate suffering neighbours, the Palestinians, after all these years? Surely, it is partly a Palestinian and Arab failure, but what about Israel's responsibility?

As I write this, I am pained by the murder of three innocent Israelis killed by a Palestinian suicide bomber in Eilat, almost at the same time that Ghaleb Majadele was sworn in as minister in the Israeli cabinet. I am as pained and outraged by the suffering of innocent Israelis as I am pained and outraged by the suffering of innocent Palestinians in this vicious cycle of violence. But despite all the pain, I see the appointment of an Arab MK in the Israeli cabinet as a candle being lit in a region dominated by darkness. We need a partner to light a candle on the other side, rather than just curse the darkness. Perhaps Jordan's King Abdullah, whom you interviewed last week, will finally make this trip to Israel, as he promised you, carrying a powerful message of peace and a promise of sanity in a region that seems to have gone mad.

I wish you all the best.

Salameh Nematt


* Salameh Nematt is a political analyst writing for Al Hayat International Arab newspaper ( This article is distributed by the Common Ground News Service (CGNews) and can be accessed at

Source: Common Ground News Service (CGNews), 1 February 2007,
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A plea for peace from a bereaved Palestinian father
When will it all end?
Reaching across the divide (I)
Reaching across the divide (II)
Reaching across the divide (III)
Reaching across the divide (IV)
Reaching across the divide (VI)
Reaching across the divide (VII)
Reaching across the divide (VIII)
Reaching across the divide (IX)
Reaching across the divide (X)
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Other articles in this series

A plea for peace from a bereaved Palestinian father by Bassam Aramin
When will it all end? by Gershon Baskin
Reaching across the divide (I) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (II) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (III) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (IV) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (VI) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (VII) by Salameh Nematt
Reaching across the divide (VIII) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (IX) by Akiva Eldar
Reaching across the divide (X) by Salameh Nematt