This is another in a series focussing on moderate Arab intellectuals who advocate a tolerant vision of Islam and peace between Israelis and Palestinians. Previous segments in this series have highlighted the work of Sari Nusseibeh, Irshad Manji, Tariq Ramadan, Khaled Abou El Fadl.
Shibley Telhami is the Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development at the University of Maryland, College Park, and senior fellow at the Saban Center at the Brookings Institution. He is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations and serves on the boards of Human Rights Watch (and as vice-chair of Human Rights Watch/Middle East), Seeds of Peace, the Education for Employment Foundation, and Neve Shalom/Wahat al-Salam, and several academic advisory boards. He completed his PhD in political science at UC Berkeley.
For a more in depth perspective on Telhami’s views of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, read U.S. Foreign Policy and the Search for Peace in the Middle East a UC Berkeley Institute for International Studies interview between Harry Kreisler & Telhami. Here Telhami talks about his early life in an Israeli Arab village:
I was born in a little village, an Arab village near the city of Haifa. It’s on the highest peak of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean in a wonderful setting. Although it’s only about fifteen minutes from the city of Haifa, when I grew up in the fifties — I was born in 1951 — in those years, the village was highly underdeveloped. The road to Haifa made Haifa seem like a continent away. The village didn’t have running water, did not have electricity. It was very much a village, and it was rare that I, as a child, would go to Haifa. Transportation existed but not on a regular basis, and typically, children did not make it into the city very often.
He was born Christian within a majority Druse village:
The majority of the people in the village were Druse. Druse are a derivative of Islam, but they have their own independent religion. In the village, there was also a Christian minority and also an Arab Christian minority, of which my family was a member, and there was also a very small Muslim community as well.
Growing up, he did not feel the sting of discrimination that many other Israeli Arabs felt because his village was quite remote, located at the highest point of Mt. Carmel just outside Haifa. Telhami’s father and grandfather were leaders of the village and they never made distinctions between Christian, Druse, Muslim or Jew. They had many close friendships with Israelis which continue to this day. This may explain why Telhami’s analysis of the conflict lacks much of the hard edge and rhetorical anger of other Palestinian and Israeli Arab intellectuals (Edward Said being but one example).
Telhami is a strong believer in the necessity for active U.S. engagement in Israeli-Palestinian negotiations for peace:
As we reflect on the future of American policy in the region after the Iraq war, one thing remains the same: any strategy to reduce militancy, anti-Americanism and repression in the Middle East cannot succeed unless a robust effort to mediate a fair Arab-Israeli peace is a priority.
He, along with many other Mideast specialists faults the Bush Adminstration for not taking advantage of the leverage it has to push both sides toward more realistic and moderate positions.
His more recent research involves a survey of political, social and religious attitudes in the Arab world. He discovered that the single most important issue for Arabs is the Israel-Palestine conflict. Until we can resolve this complex problem, we cannot hope for ‘normalized’ relations with any of these nations. In addition, Telhami likens this Arab ‘fixation’ with Palestine to world Jewry’s relationship with Israel. Here is how he characaterized it:
Every single survey shows that the central issue in the perception, the central issue that exacerbates everything else is the Arab-Israel issue. Every single survey shows that. Over 60 percent of the Arab public thinks that this is “the single most important issue” to them personally.
Now that doesn’t mean that they’re necessarily willing to go to war over it. It doesn’t mean that they love Yasser Arafat. It may not even mean that they support the PLO. What it does mean is that this issue, particularly the issue of Palestine, has become an issue of national identity, collective identity, in the region for Arabs and Muslims. I would argue in the same way that the issue of Israel has become an issue of identity for contemporary Jewry. You can hate Ariel Sharon, you can dislike the policies of the government of Israel, but if Israelis are seen to be killed, innocent Israelis blown to pieces, or Israel is threatened, you can’t help but be mobilized. This becomes an important issue to you. It reflects on your own identity.
The role of Palestine in the Arab world exists for a lot of reasons. I don’t want to say the Muslim world, because it varies, but in the Arab world. You have to put it in perspective. Arabs fought many devastating wars over this issue. They lost a huge war in 1948. They fought a war in 1956 that they saw as an imperialist war that linked Israel to the West. The 1967 war was devastating; there were more territories lost and thousands of people killed and injured and the economy was destroyed.
Two generations have had their political identity shaped over big events related to this issue, whether it’s war or peace. And it remains an open wound today after half a century, with continued suffering and occupation, and now driven home by the news media so that no one can ignore it. It’s there at the breakfast table, at the dinner table. It exacerbates this wound on the collective psyche of the region.
There is no single issue that affects the psychology of the region and its view of the U.S. more than this. If this issue is resolved, the tension between America and the rest of the Middle East will not be removed—don’t kid yourself—in the same way that there is resentment in Latin America, Asia and Europe, where there is no Arab-Israeli issue. But the intensity of the resentment that plays into the hands of terrorism would be significantly reduced.