Commentator detects something different in the Middle East

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, 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.

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 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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