He detects something different going on in Mideast

May 07, 1992|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Staff Writer

Fouad Ajami talks like a man who has been disappointed so many times that he doesn't want to get his hopes up again. Clearly, it is an occupational hazard for someone who spends his time involved in Mideast politics.

A native of Lebanon who is a professor of Middle Eastern studies at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington, Dr. Ajami spoke last night at a forum called "Arabs and Jews Together: Our Positive Legacy for Tomorrow."

The event drew more than 600 people to the Beth El Congregation on Park Heights Avenue.

Asked to say something positive about relations between Jews and Arabs, Dr. Ajami talked of their common legacy as exiles from Spain in a talk about what he termed "the other 1492."

"You cannot fake history," he said. "I didn't want to cover up the rough parts of the relationship. But this was a time when the two cultures did interact."

Still, it seemed almost as if he found it necessary to turn his back on the present to find a positive theme. And yet he admitted, clearly with some reluctance, that something different is going on in the Middle East.

Dr. Ajami, perhaps best-known for his work as a commentator for CBS television on Mideast issues, shared the stage with Sarah Kreimer, a Pittsburgh native who heads an organization in Israel that encourages joint business ventures between Arabs and Jews.

"This is a part of the world that is so close to our hearts that it pains us to see the kinds of divisions that tear it apart," Rebecca Meyerhoff of the group that sponsored the forum, the Associated: Jewish Community Federation of Baltimore, said of the high level of interest that filled the auditorium. "We are interested in any signs of hope."

"Look, you can make the case that it is hopeless, that none of it can be resolved, that it is now at the bleakest point," Dr. Ajami said after the talks. "You can intellectually make this argument and reality would probably be on your side.

"But you take a look at the cultural currents and there are dominant currents and recessive currents and there are small currents. Take a look at the relationship between Arabs and Jews today and you can say it can't be fixed. Why even give it a try?

"But some things have changed. The Israelis and the Syrians have talked. . . . Wise men, cynical men tell you [Syrians] are doing this because the Soviet Union has fallen, they have lost their superpower, they are orphans. Well, I don't care. The fact of the matter is, they are talking.

"I must admit, even for somebody like me who always said 'Forget it,' that now we are all being asked to sit down and watch a drama unfold. Something is happening. You can take a look at it and say it won't work. And as someone who has studied this, I can look at it and say, 'Don't even bother.' But still, something is happening."

Dr. Ajami said that his inspiration for studying the common history of Arabs and Jews in Spain came when he was in Madrid for CBS covering the first round of the peace talks between the Arabs and Israelis last year.

"Maybe these people did the right thing for the wrong reason," he said of the participants in those talks as their presence was virtually ordered by the United States following the Persian Gulf War.

"But they did the right thing. Maybe we'll look back a year from today and say Madrid was a delusion, it didn't change anything, that you can't change realities on the ground in a diplomatic conference.

"But it's been interesting to watch all that and to watch people change. If you ask me, as someone who had studied Arab politics, would the Saudis have come to Madrid, I would have said, 'No.' But they did come to Madrid. And when they took a hit at home because of it, they stood their ground."

Dr. Ajami said that his more hopeful side sees the legacy of the Gulf War as the end of the hope of a united Pan Arabic state.

"The Arab world woke up on August 2, 1990, and saw that their dream of Pan-Arabism was a nightmare," he said. "The Kuwaitis saw it. The Saudis saw it. They saw that Arab nationalism had hatched a monster in Saddam Hussein. . . ."

So now, though clearly cautious of forecasting hopefully, he points to small events -- a delegation of Zionists visiting Saudi Arabia, a phone line between Tel Aviv and Riyadh, the liberation of Jews in Syria -- as evidence of the possibility of deeper changes in the region.

Ms. Kreimer, who has lived in Israel for 11 years and founded the Center for Jewish/Arab Economic Development in 1988, is hoping just such small changes will be a first step toward profound changes for the Arabs who are Israeli citizens.

"This is 15 percent of our population that we should not be turning our back on," she said, indicating that various policies in effect since the founding of Israel in 1948 had effectively turned the Arab population into a permanent working class.

She noted that, until 1966, Arab travel was restricted because they were under military control. This meant that they could not tend their farmlands and the government ruled that untended land could be confiscated. Laws prohibiting Arabs from having hTC jobs related to defense meant they were unable to work in many industries.

So now she can point to an Arab baker who, aided by a loan from her organization, has a contract with El Al for baklava sweets, to Arabs and Jews working together to revive a commercial street in an Arab town.

"A lot of changes are motivated by economics," she said. "If it is in people's economic self-interest, they can change even if the peace talks are stalled. We are trying to make both the Arabs and the Jews in Israel to realize that they don't have to fight over the same pie, that together they can make a bigger pie that they can all share."

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