Friday, December 17, 2004

Israeli Report from Arab Strategy Forum (David Kimche)

Have you ever offered a devout Jew or Muslim a ham sandwich? The person who sat opposite me had never, ever met with or spoken to an Israeli, and as he entered the room and shook my hand, his whole demeanor suggested that I was that sandwich.

We met in his sumptuous villa just off the main road leading from Abu Dhabi to Dubai. He was one of the most influential persons in the United Arab Emirates, a former minister, very close to the new ruler. My friend from Abu Dhabi, who had brought me there, had thought it was high time that the ex-minister be exposed to an Israeli.

The atmosphere soon changed as we entered into an animated discussion on the rights and wrongs of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and by the time I left, late at night, we had become good friends.

There had been no hatred, not even animosity, just a profound ignorance, a complete lack of understanding of the Israeli story, a refusal to believe that we really do want to live in peace with our Arab neighbors.

At the same time, Gulf Arabs are curious about Israel. They want to know our secret, how a small nation had succeeded in winning war after war against the Arab armies and become such a thriving and wealthy state despite the lack of oil reserves. Above all, they want to know how we managed to 'fool' the United States into giving us its full backing, despite the damage it has created for the US in the Muslim world.

'It won't last forever, you know,' I was told. 'Sooner or later the Americans will come to their senses and realize where their true interests lie.'

The American angle featured prominently in the Arab Strategy Forum, a conference that took place in Dubai last week attended by Bill Clinton, Madeleine Albright, and a host of Arab leaders.

Peace in our region can only be achieved when the Americans stop supporting Israel unreservedly, was a theme developed particularly by Prince Turki al Faisal, the Saudi ambassador in London.

Yet the Israeli-Palestinian conflict did not take pride of place in this important conference. Indeed, in the opening speech by the conference chairman, UAE defense minister and Dubai Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammad Bin Rashid, Israel was mentioned only in passing.

His main theme, and indeed that of the conference, was the need for the Arab world to change. 'I say to my fellow Arabs in power: 'If you do not change, you will be changed.''

Later, he spoke of the need 'for the people in the region to live in peace and harmony, irrespective of their religion, race, or sectarian inclination.'

The most malicious anti-Israeli statement at the conference was not made by an Arab but by an American professor of international law who described Israel as 'a genocidal apartheid regime.'