U.S. Must Return to the Table
Only the West can bring peace to the Mideast
November 16, 2003
The bodies keep piling
up in the Middle East. The cries of the victims, the keening of the mourners
and the wail of the sirens have turned the Middle Eastern symphony into
a terrible, hopeless saber dance. Once again despair has conquered hope.
Once again the petty details have banished the great dream.
And there in the background,
fading off into the horizon, is the president of the United States, carrying
in his backpack the road map that was supposed to bring us out of our
hell into the light of peace.
I don't blame him.
I'm merely begging him to come back. And I feel obligated to explain some
basic facts. So that when the United States does come back, things can
It is a common but
terrible mistake to reduce the conflict between the Palestinians and the
Israelis, between them and us, to a game of chicken between two bored
drivers somewhere in the Middle Eastern desert. This is a war between
two refugee nations that dreamed of a great land that each might have
to itself, only to wake up and discover that somebody else was there,
the dream was compromised and the day-to-day reality was turning into
Now, each of these
nations has come to represent an entire civilization standing behind it.
One half of the globe, the Arab-Muslim civilization, seems pitted against
the other Judeo-Christian half. But that is not the way it looks from
>From here, it
looks like this: For years now, they have been killing us without pity,
and we have been humiliating them without regard.
When they kill us,
they are continuing the experience of the Holocaust in our eyes. We cannot
free ourselves from this. In the deepest consciousness of many Israelis,
Yasser Arafat is an unshaven Hitler, the suicide bombers are Nazis and
their supporters are savages.
And when we respond
by killing them we are reviving the humiliation of colonialism, the wrong
inflicted by the First World, the Christian West in its arrogant encounter
with the Third World. White skin versus dark, rich versus poor, technology
And in this dialogue
of blood, this dance of sabers that pairs the fact of the Holocaust and
the fact of colonialism, it is difficult to create stable understandings,
to build a bridge of compassion and forgiveness. It is nearly impossible
to speak of a win-win reality after so many years of losses.
We try, and we fail.
We do it in Hebrew and in Arabic and find we can't do it alone, because
these two ancient languages are not enough. Therefore we need you to mediate
in the language of the Western world, the world that has learned to solve
its disputes without war (even if it does not always heed the lesson),
the world that may have a key to peace.
You must allow democracy
to rise from the bottom up among the Palestinians, who have absorbed its
values and methods from us during 35 years of occupation. (It can happen
long before American democracy can be forced from the top down in Iraq,
which is unprepared for it after generations of dictatorship and tyranny.)
You must still the
winds of bullying unilateralism that are blowing through the corridors
of Washington, urging a bottom line without a process, "solutions"
in simple primary colors that lack the nuance and subtlety of Middle Eastern
You must still the
drums of a religious crusade. A war against terrorism, yes. A struggle
for the ideal of democracy and the values of tolerance, certainly. But
a religious war, a new crusade? No thanks, we have entirely too much God
already in the Middle East.
When President Bush
comes back, he must come alone, without the baggage of fundamentalist
clerics and would-be world redeemers, Christian evangelists pushing the
rest of us toward Armageddon. It wasn't for this that my people returned
to the stage of history.
And you must take
your own advice. For years you have been preaching to us. "Swallow
your pride," you said, "and compromise with the Palestinians."
And for years you have been pressuring the Palestinians to swallow their
own pride and compromise with the Israelis. The time has come, United
States, for you too to swallow your pride. Speak with Europe. Involve
the main Arab states. Without a coordinated international diplomatic effort,
peace hasn't got a chance.
Develop a policy for
the entire region, from Iraq to North Africa, a bold plan that will open
up the Middle East to all peoples and nations. Present us with a plausible
future: a full and comprehensive peace. A framework in which the Arab
states obligate themselves to Israel's existence and security and take
responsibility for the stability and demilitarization of a Palestinian
state. And in return, Israelis and Palestinians sign a permanent, final
In other words, encircle
the evil with goodness - until it is transformed. Defeat the suicidal
pessimism around us with democratic, peace-loving optimism.
And most important,
don't run off to Texas the moment things get tough.
Right now we need
you more than ever.
Avraham Burg is
a Labor Party member of Israel's Knesset and served as speaker of the
Knesset from 1999 to 2003. This essay was translated by J.J. Goldberg.