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A Letter to My Palestinian Friends

My resume is no secret. My mother was born in Hebron in 1921, a seventh generation Hebron Jew. I am the eighth generation. My family’s deep link to the City of the Patriarchs was cruelly severed in the summer of 1929, when rioters chanting “Kill the Jew” slaughtered half my family. The other half — my grandfather, uncles, aunts and my mother — was saved by their Arab landlord. Ever since, my family has been divided in half. One half will never again trust a Palestinian. The other half will never stop searching for neighbors who seek peace.

I have the right of return to the city in which my mother was born and from which we were expelled. I will never give up this right, but I have no intention of exercising it, because in addition to my property rights I have an obligation to create a life free of unending death and conflict. The right to life of my children and the children of Hebron takes precedence over the right to slaughter one another on the altar of land and hearth.

Last month I published a painful article in Israel’s largest-circulation newspaper. It ended with this thought: “What’s needed is not a political replacement for the Sharon government but a vision of hope, an alternative to the destruction of Zionism and its values by the deaf, dumb and callous.”

Ever since, I have been asked over and over: What are you telling your Arab friends? And because we are the reflected image of one another, when I attack my own national reality I am obliged to tell you what I think of what is going on among you.

I am angry. I am mad with anger. I see my dreams and the dreams of my Jewish and Arab friends consumed in the flame of extremism. It is a flame that eternally whispers to us here in the Middle East, a flame that I thought the tides of peace would wash away, but which I find rising up to consume everything — homes, bodies, dreams. I am angry at you, and at the terrible meanings you allow too many of your religious teachers to impose on the holy word of God. But I have sworn a vow: I will not let anger become my adviser. I will not turn revenge into policy. I will not become a hater. Therefore I will continue to believe. Not naively — no, I will believe, I will pray and I will keep up my guard.

And here is my faith: Any future agreement will be based on the principles of territorial compromise. What is this compromise? Territorial compromise is not just a real estate deal. It is a spiritual decision by peoples that have decided to accept one another despite years of hostility and deep wells of hatred and vengeance. Such a compromise is first of all between a nation and itself. I believe with perfect faith that the entire Land of Israel belongs to me. So it is written in the Bible, so my mother from Hebron taught me and her grandchildren. And I know that the dream of greater Palestine passes from grandfather to grandchild in every Palestinian home. Therefore the first compromise is between me and my dream. I compromise with my dream of returning to Hebron in order that I may live free in the new Israel. And my Palestinian brother must give up his dream of returning to Jaffa in order to live an honorable and dignified life in Nablus. Only those capable of compromising with their dreams can sit together to forge a compromise on behalf of their nations.

Up to now you have served as the eternal excuse for all the failures of the Arab regimes. The refugees are abandoned in Lebanon or Syria — and not because of us. During the last 50 years Israel absorbed hordes of refugees from around the world without waiting for anyone. Most Arab states have not lifted a finger for the Palestinian refugees. Many have found it useful to preserve your rage and humiliation. They know that the moment Palestinian independence is declared, the face of the Arab and Muslim world will change beyond recognition.

A leading Palestinian researcher once told me that while the Palestinians oppose Israel bitterly on almost every plane, there is one area in which Palestinians wish to emulate the Israelis, and that is our democracy. I know that 35 years of occupation have taken their toll on you, as they have on us. But these bad years have spawned one good thing — the real possibility of the first Arab democracy.

The forces of democracy, both Israeli and Palestinian, face an unholy alliance of corrupt autocrats and scheming theocrats who will do anything to prevent the light of democracy from spreading its rays of hope. Democracies are richer, freer and, most important, built on hope, not fear. And what they fear most is a Palestinian society without fear.

This is the true decision you face. Up to now you have been exploited by everyone — Arab states, Islamic extremists, Israel and your own corrupt leaders. Now you have the opportunity to take Palestinian fate into your own hands. The transition from oppression to national freedom is not easy.

Because the world will not be safe for me until it is safe for you, I want to share with you my people’s historic experience. Through thousands of years of exile we were weak, and we operated by the rules of the weak. And the world, especially the Christian world, loved our weakness. Our weakness symbolized their strength, our defeat their victory. But at a certain historic moment the Zionist movement arose, the movement of Jewish national rebirth, and took our people’s fate in its hands. A brave and honest leadership led this downtrodden people to nearly unimaginable accomplishments. In one historic moment we decided to stop being weak, and the nature of our dialogue with the family of nations was utterly changed.

Up to now you have sanctified your image of weakness, even though you could have been powerful. This path will lead you nowhere. Imagine that everything was done: Israel had left the territories, there were no more settlements and an internationally recognized Palestinian state had arisen with East Jerusalem as its capital. How would you behave? What would be the character of the state? What part would you play in the symphony of nations?

The way things look now, you are headed toward massive failure: a Palestinian state that will be the world’s newest state but retrograde in its values and unable to fulfill your people’s great mission.

I hear the cries of joy when a suicide bomber completes his ugly task. I see the happiness, part muffled, part overt, that breaks through the despair when a shahid manages to commit his broken self to heaven and leave behind a trail of Israeli orphans and widows. I know your claim that you have no helicopters or jet fighters and so the suicide bombers are your strategic weaponry. That is your truth. Well, this is my truth: The suicide bomber offers himself and me as sacrifices to a false god. The true God hates killing. Suicide bombings leave behind nothing but wounds and scars. No one in the world beyond, not even the greatest supporters of the Palestinian cause, accepts this weapon of suicide. It is a weapon of monsters, not freedom fighters. And until you spit it and its facilitators from your midst, you will have no partner on my side, not me, not anyone else.

And what comes after? What happens when we are gone and all the great debates surface over the character of your state — religious or modern, Islamic or secular? How will these debates be resolved? I’m willing to bet right now: There will be suicide bombers. Hamas will try to dictate these national decisions by the tools it knows.

What is good for Israel is to give up the dream of the Greater Land of Israel, to dismantle the settlements, leave the territories and live in peace alongside a Palestinian state, to fight corruption and direct all its energies inward toward Israeli society. And what is good for you? The same thing. To give up the fantasy of driving us away from here and returning to villages that mostly no longer exist. To fight the corruption that is destroying you from within and to direct all your talents and resources toward building an exemplary Arab society — a Palestinian model that will revolutionize the Arab world, bring Muslim democracy to the region and transform your people into a living bridge between East and West.

There is an ancient story about the sage who could answer every question. One of his students decided to stump him. The student caught a butterfly and held it in his fist. He came to the sage and said, “What is in my hand — a live butterfly or a dead one?” He was thinking, if he guesses a live one, I will crush it to death, and if he guesses a dead one, I will open my hand and let the butterfly show the world the sage’s failure. But the wise man looked him in the eye and said, “It is all in your hands.”

A future of life or death, children with hope or despair, a Palestinian nation that is respected or despised — it is all in your hands.

Avraham Burg was speaker of Israel’s Knesset from 1999 to 2003 and is a former chairman of the Jewish Agency for Israel. He is currently a Labor Party Knesset member. This article was first published September 17 in the East Jerusalem Arabic-language daily Al Quds.

Translated by J.J. Goldberg.

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