Changing the Middle East can become quite frustrating to say the least. Suppose you believe deeply that change is in order. You rally the troops. You take to the streets. You dodge a bullet or two, if you're lucky. And when it's all said and done, new elections are held, the old guard may even be ousted from power, or so you think, and in come a new crop of leaders who leave you guessing as to whether the change that they have in mind is in sync with the change you were hoping for.
What's wrong with this picture?
People are putting their lives on the line, and so far at least, there remain strong doubts as to what it will all mean. There seems to be a dis-connect between the aspirations of the people on the one hand, and the kind of change that is likely to come about on the other.
What do the people on the street want? It's hard to say for sure. Maybe they don't even know. But there are hints. Mohamed Bouazizi, who started it all in Tunisia, wascollege educated and without a job. His was the story of many in the Middle East. He sold fruits and vegetables to support his mother and sister. When the police harassed him, and confiscated his cart, he set himself on fire, and set the Middle East ablaze. What was he telling us in that final act of despair? My guess is that he was saying that he needed a way to support his family, and he needed as well the freedom to live his life as he saw fit.
So it could be said that at the heart of the Arab Spring is a yearning for good paying jobs, and personal freedom.
And yet, as clear as this may be, there is still a gap between the change that people want, and the change that is likely to come about. So how do you bride this gap?
You can't depend on slogans. Slogans come and go, and are subject to the whims and fancies of those who set out to exploit them. You can't depend on violence. Violence begets violence, and you end up with leaders who assume power because it is in their nature to be even more violent than anyone else. You can't just hope that things will work out. Most times, power vacuums are filled in a grab for power, by leaders who are not inclined to listen to their people.
So what can you do to get your voice heard, and to bring about the kind of change you can only imagine? You build a model, a model that inspires a sense of hope, and that delivers on that promise with jobs, with dignity, and with personal freedom. We're not talking about a make-believe model. We're talking about a real model that you can see and touch, a model that will shine as beacon of light, for all to see, and for all to follow.
Want an example? Build a Green Industrial Zone in the most unlikely of places, in Rafah, Gaza, and use it as a new model for the Middle East. Make it an Arab initiative, to be funded by wealthy Arab investors. And let this model resonate with hope on as many levels as possible. If you believe in empowering women, then finance female entrepreneurs so that they can start their own businesses. If you believe in educating young people, then include a vocational school to teach needed skills. If you believe in sustaining the environment, then use state-of-the-art research and technology to address some of the environmental issues endemic to the region, such as: clean water, food production, healthcare and green energy. Imagine Jews, Christians and Muslims showing up to work, on a daily basis, and building a new Middle East.
If you believe in the rich legacy of Arab dignity and pride, then reclaim it with a new model for the Middle East, one that can be replicated in a bid to revitalize the entire region with jobs, and with the personal freedom to which we are all entitled by virtue of our common humanity. A model of this sort will make very clear what we are fighting for, and how to get there.
The following conversation took place between me, myself and I; three people I happen to know quite well:
What is your answer for the Middle East?
I would use Arab and Western capital and knowhow to build a Green Industrial Zone in Rafah, Gaza; where Gaza, Egypt and Israel converge, and where 300,000 Jews, Christians and Muslims would show up to work on a daily basis.
Why Rafah in particular? Isn't that a tough neighborhood, to say the least?
Rafah is the "wild west" of the Middle East. But because it's such a tough place, is why you want to build it there. Like Frank Sinatra sang about New York City, "If I can make it there, I'll make it anywhere..."
Why a Green Industrial Zone? Why not a plain old, run-of-the-mill industrial zone?
Because we're not just building an industrial zone. We're building a new model for the Middle East, a model for positive change in that troubled region. We want to inspire a sense of hope, and deliver on that promise with jobs: jobs which grow our economies, jobs which protect the environment, and jobs which help weaken the hold of extremist thinking. By focusing the project on the environment, and by working to improve the human condition, on issues such as clean water, food production, healthcare and green energy, we are more likely to garner worldwide attention and additional investment dollars. As such, we could replicate the project throughout the Middle East, in a bid to revitalize the entire region with jobs. What begins as a single solitary project could well blossom into a movement for change.
How about Hamas? Wouldn't they just blow up the place?
Even Hamas needs to create jobs. It's one thing to get elected. It's quite another to govern. As Hamas, or the Muslim Brotherhood, undertake to govern, and as they take note of what is happening on the Arab street even as we speak, they may come to the realization that job creation is in their interest as they attempt to consolidate political power. Therefore, while they may not agree to peace, they may agree to protect our Green Industrial Zone, as a way of inspiring the man on the street, and delivering on that promise with jobs.
What makes you think that wealthy Arabs and Westerners would likely invest in such a venture?
For the first time, in a long time, Arab, Israeli and Western leaders are facing some very common existential threats, namely, the prospect of a nuclear Iran, and the fury of the man on the street. These common existential threats, what we call a mosaic of mutual self-interest, could be leveraged into a strategic/economic alliance between the Arab states, Israel, the U.S., and Europe, with two purposes in mind: to provide security in the region, and to use Arab and Western capital and knowhow to revitalize the region with jobs. Millions of Western jobs could also be created in the process as we open up a new market for our goods and services.
Where would you get the green technology to run a Green Industrial Zone?
As it happens, counties like Israel offer quite a bit in this regard. My friend in the Technion, for example, just invented a way of engineering fruits and vegetables that are draught resistant and that use 70% less water. Imagine the possibilities for feeding people in places like the Middle East and Africa. And Israel would likely cooperate because she would much prefer to see positive change occurring in the Middle East, so that an already tough neighborhood does not become even more so.
Where would you find the workers with the necessary skills to handle green jobs?
We would build a vocational school, as part of our Green Industrial Zone, to train young workers, and to equip them with the necessary skills. We would also invest in female entrepreneurs and promote women's rights.
Why women in particular?
Empower Muslim women in ways that they deem appropriate, and you will have changed the face of the Middle East. Who are women? They are the givers of life and the caretakers of life, and as such are uniquely qualified to reconstitute their societies consistent with a Vision of Hope.
Do you really believe that a new model of this sort is even possible?
Maybe, maybe not. However, some of the key players in the Middle East are quickly running out of good options. They may choose to join in, not because they necessarily love one another, or because they want peace, or because they want a better world for their children. No, none of that crap. They may join in because they're running out of options, as the old model that has been put in place is falling apart. The writing is on the wall for all the business and political leaders in the Middle East. We see the energy in the hearts and minds of young people. We either find a way to marshal that energy and point it in a positive direction, or it will all explode in our collective faces.
How long will it all take?
A new Middle East may take generations to pull off. However, the plans for the industrial zone in Rafah already exist. A wealthy industrialist in Israel, Stef Wertheimer, already drew them up, and was ready to break ground, when the second Intifada broke out in the year 2000, and the plans were scrapped. We could use those plans, put some serious capital behind them, and launch the project immediately with Caterpillar tractors showing up to clear the land. Even this first step would inspire a sense of hope, and would buy us time to effectuate positive chance gradually, as opposed to dealing with revolutionary change on our doorsteps.
A Green Industrial Zone in a wild and crazy place like Rafah will resonate with hope, and will deliver on that promise with jobs. It will be the model which answers the three greatest questions of our time: How do we grow our economies? How do we protect the environment? And how do we weaken the hold of extremist thinking? As such, it will capture the world's imagination and be replicated in a bid to revitalize the entire region with jobs and personal freedoms. It will restore the rich legacy of Arab pride and dignity. It will bring stability where chaos now reigns. And it will point to a place where, for a change, everybody wins.
Some of the strongmen of the Middle East are no longer in the picture, but who, and what, will come to replace them?
Yesterday's parliamentary elections in Egypt is a case in point. Certainly, there was a sense of hope written on the faces of Egyptians who voted, as perhaps a first step in reclaiming their country. But who did they vote for? Undoubtedly, the Muslim Brotherhood will garner a strong position in the new government. But does that necessarily mean an end to democracy even before it starts?
It came as a surprise to some to find out that in recent months, the Muslim Brotherhood has advocated strongly on behalf of foreign investment in Egypt, and on behalf of job creation. Even though there are fears in the air that women's rights are in danger, and that a return to religious fundamentalism is in the offing, still, the Brotherhood, at least for now, doesn't seem to dwell on such things, but focuses its rhetoric on jobs. Is this just a ploy to win elections, or is it the real deal?
There is no doubt that ordinary people on the streets of Cairo, and throughout the region, yearn for many of the same things that are sought after the world over, like freedom, dignity and economic security. It would seem to make sense, therefore, that these causes should be at the heart of any successful political campaign, even campaigns conducted by those with leanings toward religious fundamentalism. In other words, to the extent that the people on the street are deeply committed to such things as freedom, democracy and jobs, then to that extent, any political party, regardless of its ideological inclinations, will have no choice but to speak about, and deliver on, the causes which are most important to the people, in order to win elections, and most importantly, to win hearts and minds.
That, at least, is the hope for the revolution that some call the Arab Awakening.
Of course, there are no guarantees, especially when you're talking about political revolutions. In fact, most times things go badly, before getting any better. But there are things, three things in particular, that may help to move a revolution in the right direction, in a direction that is in line with the aspirations of the people.
The first thing that can help bring success to a revolution is to embrace a vision, a vision of hope, that calls for change which is positive, realistic and attainable. For example, if it is freedom and jobs you want, then advocate on behalf of these, because they are within the realm of possibility. And in fact, personal freedom and job creation go hand in hand. Any regime which strives for economic growth and job creation in this globalized world of ours, will have no choice but to allow some measure of freedom, as a way of instilling a sense of trust among prospective investors. These freedoms may be limited somewhat, as in the case of China, but greater openness is indispensable to economic growth.
The second factor that helps to bring success to a revolution is to bring life to a vision of hope using the right tactics, and this involves a strategy of non-violence. You don't want to demonize certain individuals, or certain groups, because this will cause such groups to retreat into their own corners, in preparation for civil war. You want to be inclusive of all people, and advocate on behalf of a vision which is welcoming to all, and which inspires everyone to come together in common purpose. And you want your voice to be heard throughout the land, while shying away from violence, even in the face of violent attacks by the opposition, which for the most part has been the case in places like Egypt and Tunisia. Syria is another matter, but the violence there by the government is so overwhelming, that some violent resistance is inevitable.
The third, and perhaps paramount aspect of a successful revolution is to pick leaders in the mold of visionaries like Gandhi, King and Mandela, who inspired their people, and who used non-violence to give substance to the aspirations of the people. They were not motivated by revenge. Gandhi could have turned the people against the British, but he didn't. King had reason to turn against his country, but he didn't. And Mandela could have launched a campaign to turn against the whites, and confiscate their property, but he didn't. Instead, these leaders chose a different path: to advocate on behalf a vision of hope, to give substance to their vision using non-violent means, to be all-inclusive in their approach, and to deliver on promises made so as to give hope for a better future.
The Arab Awakening is at a crossroads. We can become entrenched ideologically, and consolidate political power by demonizing one another. Or we can choose instead to embrace a vision of hope, and deliver on that promise with real change, change that capture hearts and minds, and that gives life to the aspirations of the people. The choice is ours and everything we love and hold dear hangs in the balance.
A friend of mine, Sagi Melamed, wrote this article. As you read it, ask yourself this: What do you do, to promote the cause of peace, when both sides of a conflict believe they're "right?" Perhaps part of the answer is to put on a shelf somewhere, at least for a while, the issue of who is right and who is wrong. Let everyone think they're right. And in the meantime, create new realities on the ground, which speak louder than words, and which point to the possibility of peace. Why not build a Green Industrial Zone in places like Gaza, and see 300,000 Jews, Christians and Muslims working together to support themselves, to grow their economies, and to solve the environmental issues endemic to the region, such as clean water, healthy care, green energy and food production? After a while, when people begin making money together, they may finally find a way to get along. They will humanize one another in each other's eye. And little by little, the contentious issues that kept them apart may not seem as insurmountable as they once were. It's just a thought.
You're Also Right
There is a well-known story about a rabbi who was called upon to settle a dispute between two of his followers. The first man poured out his complaints to the rabbi, and when he finished, the rabbi said, "You're right." Then it was the second one's turn. When he finished, the rabbi said, "You're also right." The rabbi's wife, who had been listening to the conversation, said incredulously to her husband, "What do you mean, ‘You're also right'? They can't both be right!" The rabbi thought for a few moments, and then replied, "You know, my dear, you're also right."
If an alien were to land in our general vicinity, his response to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would probably be like that of the rabbi in the story: You're both right.
The Palestinian people are right when they expect and demand independence. The Palestinian father is right to long for a life in which he can sleep safe at home without fearing a midnight pounding on his door. The Palestinian woman is right to want to go from place to place without having to go through security checkpoints or risk arrest.
The Jewish people were also right when they returned to their homeland after a 2,000 year exile, establishing their own national home. Jews are right to fear hatred and persecution, right to believe that only by relying on their own resources, can they prevent the nightmare of another Holocaust. Jews are right to state that they entitled to all they have achieved through their own efforts. The Jewish people are correct when they point out that the world has totally unreasonable expectations of them, expectations that are never imposed on any other people. And they are also right to fear that if they give away some of their land today, then tomorrow the Palestinians might demand it all.
Friends and neighbors may say, "Why do you, the grandson of a refugee from Germany, offspring of kibbutz founders, army officer, and member of a religious community in the Galilee, feel the need to justify the position of our enemies?" I reply, "I don't have to justify anything, but I do have to understand." It is not hard to find untruths, gross exaggerations and significant holes in the Palestinian version of the conflict. But even the most extreme among us cannot deny that Palestinians lack freedom, live in very difficult conditions, declare themselves to be a people and are hungry for independence.
In the 90s I believed, along with many others, that we could find a way to live side-by-side. We had the feeling that it was beginning to happen, that it would come to pass soon. I remember that I was even somewhat concerned, during my MA studies in Boston, that peace would break out before I could return to Israel. What would we only give to be able to have such concerns nowadays!
The speeches of Binyamin Netanyahu and Mahmoud Abbas at the UN General Assembly might have been the last nails in the coffin of the dream of living side-by-side - if not actually in peace, then at least living without war. But this does not seem possible any time in the foreseeable future. Both speeches focused on why I am right/fearful/angry/threatened and why the other side is threatening/thieving/untrustworthy. From their own perspectives, they were both right. And with "right" like that, who needs "wrong"?
Sagi Melamed lives with his family in the community of Hoshaya in the Galilee. He serves as Vice President of External Affairs at the Max Stern Yezreel Valley College, and as Chief Instructor (4th Dan) of the Hoshaya Karate Club. Sagi received his Masters degree from Harvard University in Middle Eastern Studies with a specialty in Conflict Resolution. He can be contacted at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
In this increasingly hostile world of ours, it is only natural to search for even the slightest hint that peace may be possible. As I watched the news last night, two such hints came into sharp focus right before my eyes. The first is Iran's recent attempt to assassinate the Saudi Ambassador to the U.S. And the second is the imminent, God willing, release by Hamas of Gilad Shalit, a captive Israeli soldier, in exchange for the release of approximately 1000 Palestinian prisoners being held in Israeli jails.
You may well ask: Why do these seemingly two unrelated news items point to the possibility of peace?
Iran's assassination attempt underscores the threat that the current regime poses to the Sunni Arab world, and for that matter, to the world at large. It is seemingly inconceivable, in light of the threats that confront Iran's leadership, that they would even attempt such a bold and brazen attack, against a Saudi diplomat, on U.S. soil no less. Who in their right mind would do such a thing? And yet, as the last few years clearly demonstrate, Iran's leaders have not hesitated to finance and carry out terrorist attacks of all shapes and sizes, including the bombing of a Jewish synagogue in Argentina, with over 100 killed, as well as the murder of over 100 dissidents throughout Europe.
And as we all know, Iran makes no secret of her desire to develop nuclear weapons, and to use that umbrella, and her proxies, such as Hamas and Hezbollah, to wield an even greater influence throughout the entire region. There is no doubt that at least some of Iran's leaders wish to remake the Middle East in their image. Even if it turns out that this plot was perpetrated by a rogue faction, still: Would you want a rogue faction to have its finger on a nuclear trigger? Is that a risk we can afford to take?
It would be natural, therefore, for Saudi officials to be quite worried about Iranian intentions, especially considering the historical enmity between Shiites and Sunnis, the acts of terrorism sponsored by Iran, the attempt to become a nuclear power, and the recent attempted assassination of the Saudi Ambassador. Taken as a whole, the assassination attempt is just further confirmation of Iran's intent to take charge, and of her willingness to use extra-ordinary means to do so.
So why does this point to the possibility of peace? Because as Saudi looks around, and searches for a way to keep Iranian designs in check, she may have no choice but to look to Israel and the U.S., because only they have the wherewithal to accomplish such a mission, and the self-interest to do so. And therefore, a strategic alliance between Saudi, the Sunni Arabs, Israel and the U.S. may soon be in the offing. And what will be the price for such an arrangement? That is easy enough to fathom; assistance in closing the deal on peace between Israel and Palestine, and leveraging that into an overall understanding between Israel and the Arab world.
The second hint that peace may be in the offing is Hamas' apparent willingness to release Gilad Shalit in exchange for Israel's release of over 1000 Palestinian prisoners, 300 of whom are serving life sentences. Why does this prisoner swap bode well for peace, you may well ask. And the answer is quite simple. Because it shows, in a rather perverse way, that Israel and Hamas can cut a deal, even though both are sworn to each other's destruction, and have vowed never to negotiate with one another. Still, somehow, a deal was cut, and if that deal could be cut, it follows that other deals could be cut as well.
Ask yourself a simple question: Why did Hamas cut this deal? Because it wants to look good in the eyes of the people, and bringing home 1000 Palestinian prisoners looks good. Well, what if the people begin demanding jobs and a greater measure of freedom, which they are? What then? Is it just possible that if Hamas needs to deliver on jobs and freedom, that it too will look to Israel and the U.S. to help in this regard, because in reality, they are best able to do so? And if that is the case, what will be the price that Hamas has to pay? Well, that too is easy to fathom...peace! Nothing more, and nothing less.
So in the end, when push comes to shove, peace may be possible, not because people love one another, God forbid, or because they want a better world for their children, or because they believe in the sanctity of life. No, none of that crap. Peace may come one day because as we face some very common existential threats, we may finally come to realize that we actually need one another, for a change, to stave off these threats, and to save our very own necks.