VBeilin, Yossi
VBeilin, Yossi

Arabs new sense of power to the people taking hold of Palestinians, too

It happened during my second visit to Muscat, the capital of Oman, in 1994. It was a time when it looked like everything had changed and the Arab world was ready to embrace Israel.

Yossi Beilin

As Israel’s deputy foreign minister, I headed a diplomatic delegation intent on building a relationship between the two countries. In the course of my first visit, I had already been to Muscat’s unique fish market, so when I was asked where we would like to visit before our first official meeting, I informed the Omani chief of protocol that I would like to show my colleagues the fish market.

The next morning, several black Mercedes limousines — accompanied by endless security guards — stopped at the entrance to the market and deposited us, decked out in dark suits at the beginning of the kind of hot day only the Gulf states know how to generate.

Under the astonished eyes of the fishermen seated on the floor with their marvelous produce, we walked among the stands until we reached the far end of the market. There, we were approached by a man wearing a suit jacket who was buying fresh fish and was curious to know where we were from.

He asked if we were Italian; we replied in the negative. He tried French and was again turned down. At that point I decided that I couldn’t permit myself to leave his question unanswered, and with Israeli pride told him exactly who we were.

His face dropped and paled. He looked at me and launched into a rapid lecture in English about the Zionist invasion of Palestine in the early 20th century, the injustice the Jews had inflicted on the Arabs living there, the expulsion of refugees and the need to repatriate them. He even said something about the Arabs not having to pay for the injustices the Germans had inflicted on the Jews.

That turned out to be the most important event in the entire visit, at least for me. I understood that the Palestinian issue is not just between the Palestinians and us. I realized how deeply the issue is rooted in the Arab consciousness, even among those who are not considered adherents of the Palestinian cause.

In late 2010, the Arab public discovered a secret that had been kept from it for generations: nothing can stop it if it decides to act. For years this fact had been hidden from the public by authoritarian regimes, some more and some less enlightened, that caused it to believe that real power is in the hands of the regime and that only the regime, in a gesture of good will, could benefit the people.

The broad public knew that voicing criticism, organizing, demonstrating against the regime and/or saying the

wrong thing to the media could end up in an unpleasant interrogation and an even less pleasant sojourn in jail. It knew that loyalty pays, that towing the line keeps the regime off your back and maybe even produces payoffs and good jobs.

The public learned that it’s best not to take on the regime, and to play the game: fly the national flag, hang the ruler’s photograph in your house or office or shop, and never ever ask questions.

People were born and died under such regimes for most of human history; they lived their lives this way in most Arab countries most of the time, with an occasional short exception. They were oppressed. They were aware of their oppression, but saw it as a fact of life.

The rulers well understood that they were on shaky ground. As more and more Western European countries (Spain, Portugal, Greece) emerged from dictatorship during the 1970s, as the Soviet Union collapsed along with the dictatorships of Eastern Europe at the end of the 1980s, as the dictatorships of Latin America dissolved during the same period and even Africa began to experience a move toward democracy, they knew their hour was approaching.

All they could do was buy time by means of their police states. What happened in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen and what is still not over in Libya and Syria needed just a spark.

The moment Arab public opinion becomes an important actor that can change regimes, the decision-makers have to pay attention.

The demand to solve the Palestinian problem is a broad public demand in the Arab world. It is impossible to push aside that man wearing the jacket in Oman. His opinion counts.

Middle East leaders, whether sincere or cynical in their interest in the conflict, will have to deal with it, pressure for a solution, and no longer suffice with the kind of step they took nine years ago — offering an Arab Peace Initiative without pushing it in any direction.

The new empowerment of the Arab individual includes the Palestinians. To the distress of the establishment, al Jazeera broadcasts to nearly every Palestinian home, where social networks are also very popular.

Suddenly it occurs to the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of the refugees that previous generations may have failed them by first acquiescing to their situation, then turning to violence and now engaging in sterile diplomacy. They believe they can unsettle Israel by means of a Palestinian Tahrir Square.

As matters now stand, and assuming no alternative option looks more promising, mass marches to Israel’s borders will become the next Palestinian effort.

Yossi Beilin, a former deputy foreign affairs minister and justice minister in Israel, is known for his work on the Oslo Accords and is now chair of the Geneva Initiative. This piece appeared on Bitterlemons.org.