Amid the tens of thousands who have been demonstrating in Moslem countries from Libya to Yemen and Bahrain, no anti-Israel signs could be seen on TV screens, nor have news media reported any Israel-related demands from the protesters.
One whould think, after decades of war, intifada and condemnation by governments, educators and clerics, that frustration over the Palestinian-Israeli conflict would have shown up in Tahrir square in Cairo and similar sites of protest.
In light of that reality, should not we and our governments reassess the priorities and perspectives of the protesters, particularly the young generation that was in the forefront of the demonstrations? It was dictators and their domestic policies—rigged elections, curbs on freedom of speech, high levels of unemployment, inadequacies in education that fail to prepare young people for the modern economy—that sparked and sustained the anger.
This is not to downplay concern over Israel—ranging from settlements in the West Bank to the Jewish state’s very existence. Yet this concern is foremost in the minds of Palestinians directly affected by Israeli policies. One wonders whether the near-misses of previous negotiations might not have met the needs of the people rather than their spokespeople.
There seems to be a disconnect between what people think and want and what governments and Imams and Ayatollahs say.
To be sure, the Mubarak government and the government of Jordan’s King Abdullah maintained their diplomatic relationships with Israel. But the rest of the Moslem world continues to shun Israel. But then, is it in fact the Moslem world, or simply the region’s kings, dictators and preachers?
Could hundreds of thousands feel moved to risk injury, even their lives, by demonstrating in the center of the Arab world’s largest city by calls for resistance to Israel? Even in Iran, whose government has called for “wiping the ‘Zionist invader” off the map, demonstrators have not shown up with anti-Israel placards or slogans.
Again, one has to wonder whether people yearn primarily for freedom from religious and political domination rather than for an end to the Jewish state in their neighborhood.
We should ask ourselves why our media, academicians and other “experts” have not asked the relevant questions. Perhaps it is because they, too, have listened to governments and Imams rather than people trying to ply their trade and feed their families. Even now, more than a month after the initial demonstrations in Tunis, this issue remains unexplored.
It’s unlikely that Israeli accommodation to Palestinian, U.S. and European pressure for an end to settlement construction would satisfy Arab regimes. But has the question been asked of the people directly concerned?
Would they not have said “yes” when Yasser Arafat said “no” to Bill Clinton and Ehud Barak at Camp David shortly before the end of Clinton’s second term in 2000?
The lesson seems to be that negotiations between freely elected governments on one hand, and leaders who emerge from struggles among unelected politicians on the other, are unlikely to yield results acceptable to the people on whose behalf they presume to speak.
As in Tunis, Cairo, Benghazi, Sanaa and Manama, it’s the daily lives of ordinary people, not issues far removed from their everyday needs, that give rise to their fervor and move many to risk to limb and life in opposing despotic governments.
When will fair-minded reporters be able to ask them questions in an atmosphere free from pressure of government and mosque? The answer is: when they become democracies, which is what the protesters demand most insistently.