From Pakistan to Israel – by Saleem H. Ali

Courtesy: All voices

Israel – Tel Aviv : As a Pakistani-American, I was initially hesitant to visit Israel in this political climate, but when an invitation from Tel Aviv University beckoned to explore prospects for ecological peace-building in the region, I felt obliged to accept. One of Israel’s most liberal universities was organizing a conference on the prospects for an environmental “peace park” with Syria in the Golan Heights and they wanted me to be the keynote speaker, given my previous research on such efforts worldwide. Some “Realists” might roll their eyes on such a prospect but the concept of “peace parks” is more than an idealist’s ramblings and has shown promise in resolving territorial disputes. Warring parties can be made to realize quite pragmatically that joint conservation is economically beneficial and also a politically viable exit strategy from a conflict. The US used such a strategy in the mid 1990s to resolve a decades-old armed conflict between Ecuador and Peru in the Cordillera del Condor region. The Obama administration’s deputy envoy to the Middle East, Fred Hof, has proposed the Golan peace park effort as a means of a peace-building with Syria as well in a formal paper written for the US Institute of Peace in 2008. So the idea is one which policy-makers are considering seriously and there are even detailed maps and plans that have been prepared to consider such a solution.

Nevertheless, the trip was risky in two ways: first in Pakistan, I would be immediately marginalized for visiting a country that is still perceived by many to be illegitimate. Second, as a Muslim of Pakistani lineage traveling to the region, I would be considered with suspicion in Israel as well as back in the United States. Thus I arrived with conflicting emotions and a protracted security screening at Ben Gurion airport, only to find the country in its latest conflagration in Gaza. An early January air attack on the beleaguered region had left four Palestinians dead and an aid convoy from the UK on Gaza’s border with Egypt was being stopped by Egyptians who claimed that they were under treaty obligations with Israel to ensure proper security measures. An Egyptian soldier was also killed in the frenzied fury of the waiting game for desperately needed aid.

The airport staff were amused and alarmed to find a guy with numerous stamps from Islamabad airport on his American passport and several calls from the university and assistance from the US embassy in Tel Aviv were required to ease my way through the security screening. Despite their many differences, Pakistan and Israel have many interesting commonalities. Both countries came into existence on the basis of religious nationalism as manifest, initially, by relatively secular politicians. Jinnah and Ben Gurion were both not particularly religious but championed the cause of their Faith communities for statehood against the British empire. Both countries were also the product of a “partition” but this is where the similarities fade. While India reluctantly accepted Pakistan’s formation and even had diplomatic ties with its partitioned neighbor, the neighboring states to Israel initially rejected the formation of the state. Both Israel and Pakistan encountered huge migration flows in their early years but the origins of the migration flows were far more diffuse and more distantly connected to the land of migration than in the Pakistani case.

First, let me be unequivocal in stating that Israel has a right to exist because its people have worked and fought hard to win that right just as much as America has a right to exist because of a synthetic and often painful process of nation-building. In both cases, the struggle had some noble aspirations but also involved great suffering for the prior inhabitants of the land. Given such a path to nationhood, it is essential to appreciate that Israel’s right to exist does not preclude the rights of others who have lived on the land and have similar claims to self-determination. Furthermore, let us also keep in mind that the creation of Israel was an unprecedented experiment in rewriting the wrongs of history with an enormous temporal gap. Thus the initial reluctance of the Arab and Muslim states to accepting the outcome should also be understood in that context rather than being summarily dismissed as “anti-Semitism.” Even the founding prime minister of Israel, Ben Gurion, recognized the plight of the Arabs in this regard when he stated: “There has been anti-Semitism, the Nazis, Hitler, Auschwitz, but was that their fault (the Arabs)? They only see one thing: we have come here and stolen their country. Why should they accept that? They may perhaps forget in one or two generations’ time, but for the moment there is no chance.” Times have changed and most of these states would indeed be willing to recognize Israel, as outlined by King AbdullahKing Abdullah in his plan five years ago, if there is clear recognition of Palestinian rights as well.

Before the start of the conference, I visited the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies in the Negev that aims to bring Palestinian and Israelis together for ecological peace-building exercises, I was given some startling news. It is more difficult for the institute to recruit conservative Israelis to work with Palestinians than it is to recruit Palestinians. So far the institute has not been able to get a single ultra-orthodox Jew or anyone from the Jewish settlements to take courses with Palestinians as a peace-building measure in its decade of operations. One Jewish-American student at the institute told me that his own relatively secular brother had chided him for going to study “alongside Arabs.”

Sadly the same tone of conversations persisted throughout my visit. I often find myself defending Israel when I travel in the Muslim world but was alarmed by the apathy and dismissal towards peace-building in even relatively liberal parts of Israeli society. No doubt, there are some very well-intentioned Israeli peace-builders, such as the staff of the Porter institute for Environmental Studies and the Van Leer Institute, who hosted me and who genuinely want reconciliation with Syria. There was even a resident farmer and academic scholar from the Golan Heights whom I visited, Yigal Kipnis, who expressed a willingness to relocate if peace involved giving land back to Syria in exchange for security and joint environmental monitoring. This was particularly admirable to hear as I sipped tea in his beautiful citrus orchard on the slopes of the Golan. However, such brave peacemakers are being increasingly marginalized within Israel.

The conference began with an opening statement from the rector of Tel Aviv University, Dany Leviatan, who stated to the stunning embarrassment of the sponsors that “peace with Syria is an oxymoron.” In other conversations with leading academics I got a similar dismissal of peace. The head of the Jerusalem Institute, Yaacov Bar-Siman-Tov suggested that there was a cultural difference between the two sides and told me sardonically that I should “check back with him in 25 years” to see if they were ready for peace. Such an ossified view of culture in the Arab and Muslim world was troubling but it seemed to provide easy justification for the status quo.

Implicit in much of the commentary was the disturbing suggestion that Arab culture was somehow “primitive” and not yet mature enough to understand the virtues of democracy and freedom. I had to repeatedly remind some of these vanguards of Israeli freedom that their own socity had many imperfections in its democracy. For example, there are prohibitions on evangelism among other religious groups such as the Bahais who have their headquarters in Haifa. The Church and State are certainly not separate in Israel either. Saturdays all public transport shuts down and official marriages of Jewish citizens can only be performed by ultra-orthodox Jews. Secular Jews have to travel to Cyprus to get their non-orthodox nuptials. Israelis also tend to ignore that there are indeed many nascent democracies in the region, including Turkey and even Lebanon. Furthermore, the Palestinians themselves have shown their willingness to engage in the democratic process but without some potential resolution in sight, the democratic process will only legitimize radicalization as we saw in Gaza.

Israel’s population is also becoming radical for demographic reasons — similar to more religious Muslims, there are higher birth rates among more religious Jews. Among the relatively secular parts of the population, Russian immigrants who have joined Israel within the last two decades and are now almost 20% of the population and are also less willing to engage with Palestinians. The American “J-Street” movement of more peace-oriented Jews is not gaining much traction despite their best efforts. In their first major conference, the Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael OrenMichael Oren (who is known to be a fairly moderate academician) declined to attend as well.

The only way out of this ominous situation is for the United States to take a leadership role in resolving the Palestinian problem and include Gaza in its deliberations. Some of the Gulf States, such as Qatar, might be able to play a positive mediating role as well since they have hosted many influential clerics such as Yusuf Al-Qaradawi, who have contact with Hamas. While it might not be prudent to talk directly to Hamas, indirect interactions through such processes may be fruitful. At the end of the day, the Palestinians, particularly those in Gaza need to see some light at the end of the tunnel rather than a subterranean wall.

I left the “Holy Land” with a torrent of emotions that made me wonder how Pakistan and Israel can learn from each other in building peace with their neighbors and healing their internal fractures. What became clear to me was that absolutist and exclusionary ideologies cannot be allowed to take root in either country. Both lands have much promise and their establishment as protective havens for certain populations was understandable. However, they cannot be allowed to demonize their neighbors to cement their own nationalism. Instead, there is urgent need to consider non-conventional approaches to peace-building, such as the Golan Heights peace park between Syria and Israel or the Siachen peace park between India and Pakistan as discussed at the conference. More than sixty years have passed since both Israel and Pakistan gained independence and yet they cannot claim to be truly functional players in global affairs until they find ways to build peace with their neighbors. Both countries are now nuclear powers owing to fears of larger hostile neighbors and yet the world community has only half-heartedly attempted to build peace in both cases. It is high time that the linkages between stability in the Middle East and South Asia in terms of a settlement of various territorial disputes be considered an integral part of winning “the global war on terror.”

Saleem H. Ali is associate professor of Asian studies and Environmental Planning at the University of Vermont and the author of Islam and Education: Conflict and Conformity in Pakistan’s Madrassas (Oxford University Press, 2008)as well as the editor of Peace Parks: Conservation and Conflict Resolution (MIT Press, 2007).

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