The age of terror, it seems, has sprouted an era of dialogue. A host of conferences designed to bring together East and West are cropping up everywhere.
Never before, perhaps, have so many talked so optimistically about so serious a problem. But behind all the words is one unspoken disagreement that may imperil any chance for progress.
My direct encounter with this optimism took place at a high-profile get-together, the U.S.-Islamic World Forum in Doha, Qatar, in mid-April. Organized by the Qatar government and the Brookings Institution, the conference was packed with more than 150 scholars and leaders from all sides who diligently discussed both the needs and the means for achieving democracy, reforms and renaissance in the Muslim world. Strikingly, there was hardly a Muslim speaker who did not tie the implementation of such reforms to progress toward settling the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
From the emir of Qatar, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, to Palestinian Civil Affairs Minister Mohammed Dahla to Rami Khouri, editor of The Daily Star in Lebanon, almost every speaker ended his or her speech with a reminder that American credibility hinges critically on progress toward resolving the Palestinian problem.
This critical connection also livened up discussions at the World Economic Forum in Jordan in mid-May. According to The Economist, Amr Moussa, secretary-general of the Arab League, "barked: Palestine!" every time Liz Cheney, an assistant secretary in the U.S. State Department, mentioned the vision of an "Arab democratic spring."
"There will be no spring or autumn or winter or summer without solving the problem," he thundered.
But the distinctive and refreshing feature of the Doha conference was the civility with which this issue was discussed. The word "occupation" was hardly mentioned, and the usual accusatory terms "brutal," "colonial," "racist," "apartheid," etc., were pleasantly absent from the main discourse; all claims and grievances were neatly encapsulated into a modest call for "progress toward a solution."
This stood in sharp contrast to another East-West conference earlier in April in Putrajaya, Malaysia, in which the Malaysian prime minister reportedly stated that Israel should cease to be "an exclusively Jewish racist state," and where the overwhelming majority of participants, representing 34 countries, demanded that Israel be dismantled.
Enticed by the aura of civility in Doha, and as a representative of an organization committed to East-West dialogue, I was curious to find out what speakers had in mind when they pressed for "progress on the Palestine issue" -- progress toward what?
Deep in my heart, I had hoped that the elite delegates in Doha would be more accommodating than those in Putrajaya, and that, safe in the protection of private discussions, I would find progressive Muslims who are genuinely behind the so called "two-state solution" and the "road map" leading to it. If this were not the case, I thought, then we are in big trouble again -- Muslims might be nourishing a utopian dream that the West cannot accept, and sooner or later, the whole dialogue process, and all the good will and reforms that depend on it, would blow up in the same conflagration that consumed the Oslo process.
I was not the only American concerned with such gloomy scenarios. Richard Holbrook, America's former ambassador to the United Nations, urged the Arab world to contribute its fair share toward meaningful movement of the peace process. He reminded the audience that by now, two and a half generations of Arabs have been brought up on textbooks that do not show Israel on any map, and that such continued denial, on a grass-roots level, is a major hindrance to any peaceful settlement.
I had a friendly conversation on this issue with one of Dahlan's aides, who confessed that "we, Palestinians, do not believe in a two-state solution, for we do not agree to the notion of 'Jewish state.' Judaism is a religion," he added "and religions should not have states."
When I pointed out that Israeli society is 70 percent secular, bonded by history, not religion, and that by "Jewish state," Israelis mean "national Jewish state," he replied: "Still, the area of Palestine is too small for two states."
This I found somewhat disappointing, given the official Palestinian Authority endorsement of the road map plan.
"Road map to what?" I thought, "to a Middle East without Israel?" Arafat's death has presumably put an end to such fantasies.
I discussed my disappointment with an Egyptian scholar renowned as "a champion of liberalism." His answer was even more blunt:
"The Jews should build themselves a Vatican, a spiritual center somewhere near Jerusalem. But there is no place for a Jewish state in Palestine, not even a national Jewish state. The Jews were driven out of Palestine 2,000 years ago, and that should be final, similar to the expulsion of the Moors from Spain 500 years ago."
These views brought to mind my friends in the Israeli peace camp who place all their hopes on the two-state dream, and for whom the terms "one-state solution" and "Jewish Vatican" are synonymous to genocidal death threats. My puzzled thoughts also went to all the Europeans and Americans who believe to have found an inkling of flexibility on Israel's legitimacy in the progressive Muslim camp.
But if my experience in Doha was merely a glimpse at how Muslim elites conceptualize the Middle East "solution," it was soon topped by a May visit to the University of California at Irvine, where the Muslim Student Union organized a meeting titled, "A World Without Israel" -- cut and dry.
And if that was not enough, there came a colorful radio confession by the editor of the Egyptian newspaper, Al-Arabi (May 29, 2005), Abd Al-Halim Qandil:
"Those who signed the Camp David agreement ... can simply piss on it and drink their own urine, because the Egyptian people will never recognize the legitimacy of the Israeli entity."
Putting aside troubling reports about Arab textbooks, television programs and mosque sermons, Qandil's bold statement drove home a very sobering realization: In 2005, I still cannot name a single Muslim leader (or journalist or intellectual) who has publicly acknowledged the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a dispute between two legitimate national movements.
One side dreams of a world without Israel; the other sees Israel as a major player in the democratization and economic development of the region -- will this clash of expectations burst into another round of bloodshed?"
But, looking ahead at the plentiful attempts to build bridges to the Muslim world, one wonders whether this outpouring of energy and good will should not first be channeled toward hammering out basic common goals, followed by educational programs and media campaigns that promote them, rather than glossing over a fundamental disagreement of such importance. Failure to address uncomfortable differences has a terrible way of extracting higher costs later on.
Judea Pearl is president of the Daniel Pearl Foundation, an organization that promotes cross-cultural understanding, named after his son, a Wall Street Journal reporter brutally murdered in Pakistan in 2002.