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Jewish Journal

Freedom Is at Root of Mideast Peace

by Rep. Howard Berman

April 8, 2004 | 8:00 pm

I'm fond of saying my identity as a Jew formed well before my identity as a Democrat. And I have always believed that a significant part of my mission and role in Congress is to weigh in and provide leadership on issues of critical concern to the Jewish community here and in Israel.

To a great extent, these issues are obvious -- the U.S.-Israel relationship, combating anti-Semitism, fighting off erosion in First Amendment protections of religious exercise, scraping for resources and laws that maximize the ability of Jews living under tyranny to immigrate to Israel or the United States and ensuring the social safety net doesn't forget Jews in trouble.

But my Jewish identity colors how I view larger issues as well....In so many ways my positions on issues, while not Jewish community positions, are forged by my status as a Jew in a country that has allowed us to thrive and prosper in so many ways.

As a 21-year veteran of the House International Relations Committee, I have a front-row seat to the dramas played out in the Middle East. Too many of the region's autocrats use the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an excuse -- as a pretext -- for their refusal to make substantial reforms in their own societies.

And for too long, I'm sad to say that the U.S. and Europe have bought these sorry excuses. We've operated under the assumption that once the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets worked out, peace will come to the Middle East as part of a domino effect. But that's not just wrong, it's backward.

....In the wake of Sept. 11, it's clearer than ever that our principles and values do matter. Our enemies are waging an existential struggle against freedom, pluralism and modernity.

In 2002, a group of Arab intellectuals rocked the Mideast by publishing a document that dramatically took stock of the state of the Arab world. The U.N.'s Arab Development report was prepared by Arabs and partially funded by the Arab League, so there was no way the region's leaders could whitewash its findings. Among the report's conclusions were:

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• That science and technology are comatose in the Arab world.

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• That half of all Arab women are illiterate.

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• Fewer than 2 percent of Arabs have Internet access.

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• The entire gross domestic product in all Arab countries combined in 1999 was less than that of Spain's, which is a single, midsized European country.

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• Productivity is declining.

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• Per capita income growth has shrunk over the past 20 years, while everywhere else, it's been rising.

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• And one of the most revealing indicators of the Arab world's stagnation is the fact that only 330 books are translated into Arabic per year in the whole region. In an area encompassing 22 countries and 280 million people, fewer books have been translated in the past 1,000 years than Israel has translated since last year's Warschaw lecture!

To state my point in another way: Israel and America won't have stable, long-term, peaceful relations with the Palestinian Authority or Egypt, for example, until they're across the negotiating table from a truly democratic Palestine or Egypt.

So ... can America help to reform and democratize the Arab world or to help those budding forces in the Middle East who understand that imperative, without looking like imperialist colonizers? In light of everything I've said, is there any reason for optimism?

The answer to these questions, I believe, is: maybe. But one thing is for sure: We must at least try to help the region's reformers facilitate change.

....Back in the United States, I think American leaders have gotten the message since Sept. 11 that the days of looking the other way, while despotic regimes trample human rights and then gloss them over by feeding their people a steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Western hatred, are over.

Accordingly, there's a new program at the State Department called the Middle East Partnership Initiative [MEPI] that's starting to see positive results. MEPI's director says that "across the region, internal voices are beginning to speak up for change, political pluralism, the rule of law and free speech in a manner that hasn't been seen before."

MEPI's job description is to support economic, political and educational goals in the region, as well as work on the empowerment of women.

This summer, President Bush is scheduled to make a significant contribution to the cause by announcing a new Middle East initiative at the June summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. The architects of the new U.S. policy say it aims to encourage democratic and economic reform in Arab and Muslim countries. Sounds like something everyone can agree on, right?

Wrong. Egypt -- who receives $1 billion in annual U.S. assistance -- is spearheading a massive effort to undercut the plan....

In Paris, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak played the Israel card. He said that only an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would allow a strengthening of popular support for reforms in the Arab world.

Already, there are reports that the Bush administration is backing down from the initiative. But we must carry on with it. We must not let Mubarak and other leaders get away with this perennial excuse for delaying the reforms their people deserve.

And let's recognize that real peace is possible when you reverse Mubarak's rhetoric. Democratize the region, and you'll solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict permanently. Not the other way around.

This lofty goal, of course, doesn't mean we should abandon the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. Of course not ... but whether Israel can find a measure of security unilaterally or in the framework of an agreement, I say again that it would be only a short-term solution.

The only real guarantor for long-term peace and security for Israel and America is freedom. Freedom from oppression for the peoples of the Middle East. Freedom to elect their leaders. Freedom for women to do basic things like drive and go to school. Freedom to access knowledge.

Passover is called 'zman cheiruteinu,' the 'time of our freedom,' because it is the time when the Jewish people were freed from Egyptian slavery. Perhaps this year, it's time to begin to free the Egyptians, so-to-speak, from slavery and grant them the freedom we as American Jews can celebrate openly.

This Passover, I pray for the freedom of the whole Middle East and the continued rebuilding of Jerusalem.  



This is an excerpt of a speech delivered by Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) on March 28 at the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC.  

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