"For you September 11 changed everything; for us the TV Channel al-Jazeera changed everything” was how more than a few Muslim friends summed up the situation that I observed while spending the first six weeks of this year in the Arab world. “We all watched the war on that Islamic news Channel and what we saw was not a pretty picture for the United States of America.”
In one conversation after another during those weeks, the same themes arose: Uncle Sam has become a bully. All that heavy bombing, and now the threats against two Muslim countries, cannot solve anything; it is just to satisfy America’s desire for revenge after the World Trade Center terrorist attack.
My Muslim friends truly sympathize with what they see as our tragic losses on September 11, but just as we watched those twin tower explosions over and over on Cable News Network (CNN), so they saw miserable Afghans struggling to escape our bombs and maimed children without hospitals being shown repeatedly on al-Jazeera TV. The Palestinian plight is brought home by pictures of Israeli bulldozers destroying West Bank olive orchards that took generations to grow and refugees being shot at. It really is not a pretty picture on their screens, and there is no visible sign of hope.
What can, and must, be done to try to correct this image? The obvious answer is to address long-term concerns, starting with the Arab-Israeli confrontation. President George W. Bush took a step in the right direction when he acknowledged the need for a Palestinian state. The Arab world, after welcoming that announcement, is waiting for the follow-up. It has been waiting since 1967*, when the US joined the United Kingdom, France and the Soviet Union in the unanimously adopted United Nations (UN) Security Council Resolution 242 calling for a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East. This fall will mark the thirty-fifth anniversary of that failed promise; every Arab and almost every Muslim resents the failure, and attributes it to the US. They believe our “strategic partnership” with Israel deprives millions of Palestinians of their basic human rights and makes a mockery of our protestations about seeking a just and lasting peace.
We must insist on the earliest possible Arab-Israeli peace talks, based on the UN Resolutions. And this time we must doggedly pursue them until settlement. Reopening the talks for the umpteenth time is not the point; this time the US, coordinating with our European friends—and, why not, the coalition partners in the war against terrorism—must press the talks through to a successful accord, as we did for the Egypt-Israel talks at Camp David.
My conclusion from talking to Arabs and Israelis in the last couple of months is that the war against terrorism gives Washington an unexpected advantage in its long search for Middle East peace. As a war-time President, George W. Bush has enhanced authority as well as a decisive argument for demanding concessions from both Palestinians and Israelis that go further than Bill Clinton could extract as a lame duck leader. It is totally unacceptable that Americans should live in terror of Middle East kamikaze attacks because of the fears of either Arafat or Sharon that one or both will loose his leadership position. This time the leaders of both America’s Jewish and Arab communities could actually act concertedly as a lobby to insist on the closure, rather than just the opening, of negotiations on security through peace in the Middle East. And our war-time President can call upon all citizens, Republican and Democrat, Christian, Jew and Muslim, to do our patriotic duty in assuring the success of the Arab-Israeli peace process—finally.
Recently I have been asked repeatedly whether the majority of Arabs are for America or against America. The answer is that virtually every Arab is partly favorable and partly critical of us. Even the most rabid fundamentalist finds something to respect in America; even the most Americanized Arab has something for which to reproach us. Like ourselves, they work on different levels simultaneously and how the balance is struck frequently depends on the day and the mood. That is where al-Jazeera television comes in. Just as CNN is projecting daily an image of America’s successful war against terrorism, this new Muslim TV channel—watched by an Arab audience estimated at 35 million—shows fellow Muslims being attacked day after day by overwhelming forces. This will inevitably affect the mood of the entire Arab population and threatens to tip the daily balance toward anti-Americanism.
But again, Washington should see al-Jazeera as an opportunity rather than simply a problem. If we wrestle the Arabs and Israelis to the negotiating table, and so have a visible peace process going on, then al-Jazeera would have to report it—their management insists that they will show both sides of each picture. US leadership at the peace table would become a daily story for Arabs to see on their own TV, rather than just the bullying they decry. Of course, here again we will have to be successful this time, but by now America must realize finally that a “just and lasting peace” in the Middle East is no longer only an option.
* Editor’s Note: In an article dated February 5, 1978, and posted on the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs Web site, Prime Minister Menachem Begin recalled the “agonizing days leading up to the Six-Day War of June 1967. It was for Israel, in the highest sense of the term, a war of legitimate national self-defense. We were threatened, literally and physically, with the destruction of our state and the physical annihilation of our people.”
United States Ambassador to Morocco, 1992-1993