Khaled Abu Toameh, a Muslim Arab Israeli, is one of the most insightful and fearless writers on the Middle East. It was, therefore, a privilege, to hear him speak to a full hall at the Central Synagogue on 10th May.
His talk was fascinating .. here are some personal impressions (not direct quotations) of what he said. When provocatively asked “When did you become an Arab Zionist” he parries that he is a Journalist who is pro the news and pro being free to write. He is both pro Israel and pro Palestinian. He finds it much easier to be free to write in Israel than in the West Bank or other Arab countries. He noted that the Arab politicians have never boycotted Israeli media, and indeed find that the best way to reach Israeli audiences is through their media; he could interview Arafat and Hamas leaders despite his position in the Jerusalem Post. Paradoxically, he found that some of the most aggressive audiences were on University campuses in U.S. and Canada.
Toameh was critical of the direction of the peace process since Oslo 1993, feeling that while the concept was good, the implementation was not. The result was a one-man show ie Arafat, with the international community throwing billions at him, and not demanding any accountability. Corruption was the result. In the “good old days” before Oslo, the West Bank Palestinians had been exposed to the principles of democracy and free speech from 1967. The high expectations from Arafat were quickly dashed as he assumed more the role of an Arab country dictator. Indeed one of Arafat’s glaring acts was to build a casino directly opposite a refugee camp.
The Western press also failed to hold Arafat and his cronies responsible for the corruption. When Toameh tried to point this out to his journalist colleagues, their response was not to investigate further but instead to ask “Are you being paid by the Jewish lobby!”. Another excuse for journalist inaction was that their editors were not interested in printing any articles that didn’t fit their preferred narrative of “Israel/Jews are oppressors and bad; Arabs, Palestinians are victims and good, and don’t confuse us with the facts”. An additional response was “we’re reluctant to print the truth about the corruption or other negative things about the Palestinian authority , because we have to return to Ramallah and need to be safe.” Toameh’s reply was that “if you are so scared and intimidated by one side, why are you here to cover a conflict? And you are letting down your U.S. or European taxpayers, who are footing the Palestinian authority bill.”
When the U.S. and European countries gave money for a TV station, Arafat used it to incite against the very U.S., Western countries provding the funding, as well as Israel. It was always useful for Arafat and other Arab leaders to blame Israel and the Jews, rather than being held accountable for their own actions. A paradoxical consequence of the anti-Israel and anti-West incitement from Arafat was the rise of the rejectionist and anti-Arafat Hamas.
Regarding the 2-state solution, Toameh quipped that the Palestinians already have 2 states – Gaza and the West Bank. He cautioned that the only things keeping Mahmoud Abbas afloat were U.S. money and Israeli security, and warned that if Israel was to withdraw now from the West Bank, people visiting Israel would have to fly into Cairo and take buses up to Jerusalem – because Hamas would be firing rockets from the hills overlooking Ben Gurion airport!
Indeed, when Toameh is asked about to how move the peace process forward, his heart sinks, because currently Israel does not have a partner for peace; Hamas is certainly not a partner, since despite what one might read in Canadian (and Australian) press about Hamas moderates, the moderate idea of peace is the demolishing of Israel.. and to give Hamas credit, their message has remained clear. Also, Fatah cannot deliver.
Rather than worrying about the peace process, the current goal should be for the Palestinians to build up credible good governance, and sort out the Fatah Hamas divide. Conflict management rather than conflict resolution is relevant, since the time is not yet ripe for the latter. Focus should be on separation rather than a 2-state solution. Also, the one-state solution is definitely not a starter since most Israelis and Palestinians don’t want it. In a post talk question, he also didn’t feel Jordan was a potential player, since they had divorced from the West Bank Palestinians.
Toameh is worried about the current proximity talks pushed by Pres Obama, because he fears that if and when they break down, (since the gap between the 2 sides on the key issues is so wide), the PA will blame Israel, and there will the danger of further violence like the Intifada of 2000.
In response to an audience question regarding the press, Toameh felt there was improved press awareness of what Israel was dealing with, including questioning why there had been rocket barrages on Israel after its withdrawal from Gaza. To a question about what Israel itself needs to do, Toameh highlighted the need to address and improve the lot of the Israeli Arabs, who are for the most part loyal Israelis but often discriminated against…and often expressing the sentiment that “our state is at war with our people”. The Arab Israelis could be the bridge to solving the conflict, including potentially bringing back Gilad Shalit.
In summary, Toameh certainly lived up to his billing as an insightful excellent speaker, a Muslim Arab who is loyal to the state of Israel. While Toameh didn’t leave us with undue or false optimism that a good solution was imminent, he provided direction as to how positive development can be achieved.
Toameh has written a very informative article about his experiences on U.S. campuses here exposing the attitudes of the so-called pro-Palestinians whose real agenda is a hatred of Israel. Some further useful links related to Toameh are here, here, here and here.