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Vision for Peace in the Middle East

Dr. Munther S. Dajani, Professor

Dean, Faculty of Arts, Al Quds University, Jerusalem

Keynote Speech for the 28th World Federation Japanese Religionists Conference for World Peace in Tokyo (at Kokugakuin University, Novermber 29, 2006)

Excellencies, Distinguished Guests,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

On behalf of Al-Quds University, Jerusalem, Palestine, I wish to thank you for being here and to extend my deepest gratitude to my hosts for inviting me to this prestigious event to be among such distinguished guests.

Distinguished Guests,

We could not meet at a more critical time in the long history of the Arab Israeli conflict. There is no doubt in my mind that these days are very crucial in the history of the region and if we are not wise and rational enough to check the forces of extremism and bigotry, we may enter into another vicious cycle of violence.


Dr. Munther S. Dajani, Professor
Dean, Faculty of Arts, Al Quds University, Jerusalem
Director, Sartawi Center for Advancement of Peace and Democracy
Founder and former Chairman, Political Science
and Diplomatic Studies, Al Quds University.
Professor of Middle East Politics, American Government
and US Foreign Policy, Al Quds University, Jerusalem

On a personal note, this is my first trip to Japan though my family had always had very good contacts with Japan. My uncle His Excellency Haj Ali Taher Dajani was the honorary representative of Japan to Amman, Jordan, for a long time before the Japanese Government opened an embassy there and we were very proud of that honor.

To tell you about myself, I was born in 1951 in the Old City of Jerusalem, to be specific in the Grand Bazaar in my great grandfather’s house, after my family, like many other Arab Jerusalemites, left their homes in West Jerusalem to East Jerusalem during the 1948 war.

I attended an American Quaker School, where I learnt religious tolerance and acceptance of the other, and upon graduation from St Georges High School in Jerusalem, I attended Birzeit Colege. I also attended Victoria College in Maadi-Cairo.

At the time, it was fashionable for Jerusalemite families to send their children to preparatory schools away from home or send them overseas for a couple of years during their formative years to get an opportunity for a better education. I completed my studies in the United States where I earned a Bachelor of Science, two master degrees and a doctorate.

Living in the United States for twelve years left its impact on my life and way of thinking in several ways. One can not live in the USA without feeling and knowing that he has gone through quite some serious changes.

For example, I learnt the value of time and the importance of being punctual. Another is being objective in your evaluations leaving behind subjective and emotional judgments just to mention a few.

Living in America helped me to look at myself from outside the forest. It gave me a good perspective to develop my inner emotions and feelings.

On the national front, as a young man, I was influenced by the call of President Nasser of Egypt for Arab Unity as a way to liberate Palestine and the Arab world: To liberate Palestine from Zionism and the Arab world from colonialism.

In 1968, I joined the Palestinian Liberation Movement, but since then my experience and education led me politically speaking from left to center; from “either us or them” (zero-sum game), to “us and them” (Co-existence, win-win situation).

Our Center carries the name of Dr. Issam Sartawi. It was established in memory of Dr. Sartawi, a medical doctor and a neurologist by training. He was the recipient of Kriesky Award for Peace in 1979.

Dr. Sartawi was assassinated by a radical Palestinian group in 1983 while meeting with the former Israeli Prime Minister Mr. Simon Peres in Lisbon, Portugal, at the Socialist Convention. Dr Sartawi is considered among the pioneers of peace in the Palestinian movement who were searching for ways to achieve a comprehensive and just peace. He was among the first Palestinian personalities to initiate contacts with Israelis.

As Director of The Sartawi Center for the Advancement of Peace and Democracy, we organize and implement peace activities sponsored by Al Quds University for the promotion of peace, tolerance, and coexistence.

Al Quds University is the only academic institution in Palestine that provides an umbrella for academicians that has joint cooperation programs with Israeli academic institutions as well as International institutions and universities.

On the academic level, the Center's activities involve tailoring special joint educational programs that fit several universities curricula in order to involve students together with other universities.

We embarked last year on a graduate program (Joint Palestinian-Israeli-Italian Project) leading to a Master degree program sponsored by UNESCO. In this program, we teach twenty Israeli students and twenty Palestinian students half of the Program at local universities and the other half at the Italian Partner University of Rome-La Sapienza where they will be joined by Italian students. The first group of students graduated last month.

On the social level, we are also involved in community services programs involving people from both sides of the conflict such as training, organizing awareness workshops, political dissemination of concepts involving political socialization and leadership programs.

Some of these programs are somewhat controversial and taboo in our society, especially in regards to gender empowerment issues. This is due to the fact that some of these involve some concepts that clash with our own traditional way of upbringing and value system.

(Historical background to the Arab Israeli Conflict)

Ladies and gentlemen,

Let me give you a quick review of the present conflict. The roots of the Arab Israeli Conflict began with the British Balfour Declaration of 1917 by which the British Foreign Minister Lord Balfour, on behalf of the British government, promised the land of others, Palestine, to a people who were alien to the region, the Zionists of Europe.

This is the essence of the Palestinian Dilemma rooted in a promise summarized in 114 words put in a letter to the Zionist movement on November 2nd, 1917.

The British and the French Governments, having signed the Sykes - Picot Agreement a year earlier in 1916, had to devise ways to fulfill the British promise.

Mr. Sykes was the British Foreign Minister and Mr. Picot was the French Foreign Minister. They began to hold secret meetings as early as 1916 with the presence of the Russian Foreign Minister to divide the territories of the Ottoman Empire.

British and the French saw the opportunity with the establishment of the League of Nations after the First World War as a result of the Versailles Peace Treaty. These territories known today as Iraq, Jordan, Palestine and Israel came under the British Mandate while Syria and Lebanon came under the French Mandate. Russia was left out as a new revolutionary government replaced the Czar.

In the 1920’s, Jewish immigration to Palestine accelerated, ushering in unrest and political instability. This was followed by Palestinian riots and the great strike of 1936-39. Between 1939 and 1945, during World War II, the Zionists established a Jewish Force to assist the Allies. By the end of the war, they were demanding the reward or the pay-off.

They started to arm themselves and manufacture weapons in the agricultural units known as the Kibbutz and the Moshav, which they settled in upon arrival in Palestine. They were embarking on a military training program preparing for the day when they would establish and declare the State of Israel.

(The beginning of the Conflict)

The British government, unable to resolve the simmering conflict between the Palestinians and the Jews, referred the matter to the United Nations which in 1947 took a resolution to divide Palestine, which was rejected by the Palestinians.

As a result, Britain declared that it would withdraw from Palestine on May 15, 1948. Having been preparing for this day, the Zionist Jews saw the opportunity to declare their state on May 15, 1948 and in the aftermath they call their War of Independence and what the Palestinians call the Nakbah or the Catastrophe.

The result was that the Zionists were able to establish the State of Israel defeating three ill-equipped and badly trained Arab armies. As a result, more than 700,000 Palestinian refugees were dislodged from their homes, villages and towns. The Gaza Strip became an Egyptian protectorate and the West Bank opted to be united with Jordan.

In June 1967, the Six Day War brought Sinai, the Golan Heights, the West Bank and Gaza Strip under Israeli occupation. The Israeli Forces within the first twenty four hours were able to paralyze the Arab Air Forces on the ground resulting in the defeat of the armies of Egypt, Syria and Jordan.

The 1973 October War changed the status quo. The victory achieved by the Egyptian army in taking over the Israeli fortifications (known as Bar Lev Lines) on the West Bank of the Suez Canal changed the myth of the superiority and invincibility of the Israeli soldier that dominated the Media after the 1967 war.

(The beginning of the Peace processes)

In 1977, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat took his historic visit to Jerusalem leading to the Egyptian Israeli peace negotiations which culminated two years later with the signing of the first Arab-Israeli Peace Treaty, known as The Camp David Agreement of 1979.

The continued Israeli occupation initiated in 1987 the outbreak of the first Palestinian Intifada (uprising). The Gulf War of 1990 ushered the Madrid Peace Conference held in Madrid, Spain, in 1991.

This peace initiative to resolve the Arab Israeli Conflict was launched on the basis of “Land for Peace,” meaning Israeli withdrawal from all occupied land in 1967 in return for Arab recognition of the State of Israel and for normalization of the diplomatic relations.

While the negotiations were taking place in Washington, D.C., another secret channel of negotiations in the Norwegian capital Oslo was taking place between the Palestinians and Israelis that gave fruit to what became known as the Oslo Declaration of Principles of 1993.

The whole world watched on television as Israeli Prime Minister Ishaaq Rabin when he hesitantly shook the extended hand of PLO Chairman Yasser Arafat with President Bill Clinton standing in the middle on the Lawn of the White House. A year later Jordan followed suit by signing a Peace Treaty with Israel in Wadi Araba in 1994.

The Syrian-Israeli negotiations broke down due to the insistence of Syria on complete and full Israeli withdrawal of the Golan Heights, which Israel was not willing to do for what they labeled as strategic security reasons.

In 1995, the Israeli-Palestinian Oslo Accords began to shatter. The Palestinians were hoping that the Israelis would finally withdraw in order for them to declare their state, while the Israelis declared that there are “no holy dates,” and they began to drag their feet.

The anti-Oslo radicals on both sides worked hard to derail the peace process.

The Palestinian Hamas started to send suicide bombers to Israel and the Israeli right assassinated Israeli Prime Minister Rabin in 1995. The undeclared war between the two parties became a vicious cycle of violence and terror.

The failure of the Camp David Summit in 2000 sparked the second Palestinian Intifada (Uprising), which destroyed the last hopes for a negotiated settlement of the conflict.

(Where do we go from here and what needs to be done?)

Personally, I have been involved for the last fifteen years with what is known now as second track diplomacy, trying to help out both sides to find points of commonalities in order to prepare for a better milieu for peace. The idea was to get academicians to discuss and reach consensus on points officials were not able to discuss formally.

So far, all the Peace initiatives failed. Why?

In my personal point of view, each government believed it could improve its bargaining position at the expense of the other. Neither party was concerned with the achievement of peace. They were suspicious of each other and did not trust each other.

No serious measures were taken to build confidence and trust. The economic prosperity that the peace process was hoped to usher in never materialized.

The Oslo Peace Treaty was based on two pillars.

Freedom of movement of people and goods.

Confidence Building measures.

Neither ever materialized for the Palestinians, and with the passage of time they were replaced with movement restrictions, land confiscation, establishment of more Israeli settlements and expanding existing ones, building walls, fences and barriers, resulting in continuous antagonism on both sides, bloody attacks on civilian population, bombings, closures, demolition of houses and more detainees in Israeli prisons.

When the Palestinians lost hope, and began to think that they are in an impasse, they retaliated in 2006 by electing the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) to the Legislative Council.

Many reasons were behind the victory of Hamas and the defeat of Fatah in the elections. To mention some, Fatah took the peoples’ support for granted and corruption and nepotism were widespread.

A key question raised in the aftermath of the victory of the Islamic Resistance Movement (Hamas) in the Palestinian Legislative Council (PLC) elections of January 2006, is how to interpret such a victory in free and democratic elections?

Could it be interpreted as a Palestinian shift towards religious fundamentalism? Have the Palestinians turned their back on secularism and religious moderation to embrace instead religious radicalism? Or could it be that the Palestinian people in their search for identity have decided to opt for religious rather than national identity?

Hamas took power through a democratic process. However, it failed to deliver public services to the people by shouldering the responsibility for their welfare and well being.

The international community, isolating them and prohibiting transfer of funds, expected that Hamas would buckle under and accept the demands of the International community. Hamas is not able to provide the basic needs of the population such as security, medical services, create jobs, and even pay salaries for the existing Civil Servants who are not able to buy food.

The international community thought that these pressures would lead the people to pressure Hamas and would eventually lead Hamas in the direction of meeting the requirements of the international community, namely, recognizing Israel’s right to exist, denouncing terrorism and recognizing agreements signed by the previous Fatah led government.

(Proposing an alternative option)

The present dilemma prompted some of us to embark on forming an Islamic Wasatiya Party to present a new option that may appeal to the young Moslems all over but with a wasat position. “Wasatiyeh” is an expression taken from the Holy Quran meaning justice and middle of the road.

The idea is to present the people with a religious alternative to radicalism. The unique characteristic of wasatiya is that it is a concept extracted from the Text of the Holy Quran and it can be applicable as an option to Radical Islam all over the world. It is to be in harmony with oneself that comes from within, internally and from religion externally.

So far the reaction has been very positive but it is also too early to judge how the existing parties would react.

The West failed to communicate with the Moslem world because it was using western terms and ideologies rather than Islamic terms and concepts. The West can not impose imported, ready-made ideas on the non-western world but it should adapt and accept homegrown ones.

For example, for democracy to be palatable and acceptable in the Moslem world, it must be presented in the context of the Islamic concept of shura, meaning consultation in decision-making. Moderation as a concept has negative connotations in the Arab world, meaning surrender, so it can be presented as wasatiya which means middle of the road.

Needless to say, each culture has its value system and cultural characteristics. We have our own culture, value system and after all, very deep rooted traditions that they have to learn to respect, accept and live with.

(Closing remark)

In conclusion, if there is good will on both sides there must be a way to achieve peace. Both conflicting sides should be willing to pay the costly and painful price of peace.

The Palestinians have to give up their big dream of historical Palestine and to accept the 1967 borders for their State. Similarly, the Israelis have to give up their dream of Greater Israel and to accept the land of Israel to be within the 1948 borders.

We owe it to future generations, to our children, to present them with a better future, a better quality of life, by seeking an alternative to the current life of continued conflict, violence, and destruction. We need to offer them, I say, a life full of harmony and happiness, harmony with themselves, as well as with others, with their friends and neighbors.

In the final analysis, with all the problems that we have today, we all agree that we need peace but the question remains what kind of peace? I say we need an honorable peace that will last for generations to come, a comprehensive and just peace acceptable to all, to all of us now and for future generations to come.

It must be a win-win situation and not a zero-sum formula. This can be achieved only with good will to reconcile and to coexist, to accept each other as equal human beings hoping to live with each other in peace and harmony.

Thank you again for your patience and attentiveness.

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