Gamal Abdelazim – Egyptian journalist, writes for Alarabi


I must admit that when I received a message on behalf of the American-Israeli writer, Yossi Klein Halevi, it came as a surprise to me that people in Israel were reading my articles and following my Twitter account.

Yossi Klein Halevi is an advocate for peace, an opponent of the current Israeli government and a supporter of the two-state solution. Yossi writes in prominent American publications such as The New York Times and the LA Times. He holds an MA in Media and Journalism and is interested in learning about different religions. The message I received in Arabic from a member of Yossi’s staff read: “First of all, I have had the privilege to follow your account and read your work and articles. I would, therefore, like to talk to you about a book that addresses the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and is called Letters to my Palestinian Neighbor.”

This staff member with whom I corresponded was interested to hear my opinion on the book and requested that I write down my observations in a review. This person was interested in me, he said, “particularly because you are an Egyptian critic and intellectual who goes against the current, can I talk to you about this book?” 

He then politely confronted me about my articles which he said were extremely hostile towards Israel. He insisted that my criticism was particularly harsh, and addressed my allegations that the Mossad was involved in the killing of the late British Princess, Diana. 

So, I gave the offer some thought and eventually started reading Yossi’s first letter to his Palestinian neighbor. However, after reading several pages I lost the motivation to continue. I apologized to the translator who was acting as the intermediary between Yossi and myself, and told him that I had decided not to continue reading. 

The translator persisted and asked me why. 

I replied by saying that these letters were not truly addressed to a Palestinian Neighbor, but rather to the ignorant American citizen who thinks that the world starts and ends at the borders of the United States. Yossi addresses the American reader who knows nothing about the tragedy of Palestine, let alone where it’s located on a map. It is easy to convince such naive readers of the legitimacy of the Israeli narrative, especially in the absence of an Arab lobby in America that could present the Palestinian perspective to the American public.

As for us, in the Arab world, we know that the various peace talks in America, Oslo and Madrid have all failed because of the stubbornness of the Israeli government. We witnessed Israel building more and more settlements during the periods of negotiation and have seen the Israeli military violate human rights, demolish Palestinian homes and exercise brutality against Palestinian children in the Gaza Strip, violating international laws of military conduct. 

Mr. Yossi Klein had the audacity to address the crushed, frustrated, weak Palestinian side, demanding peace from them, whereas he should really have addressed his own government first!

My response ended here, accompanied by an apology to the translator. However, he was persistent and continued to talk amicably with me, and his patience and conduct shamed me into succumbing to his request to continue reading the entire book. The translator explained that the writer is balanced and criticizes some of the Israeli government’s actions in some of his letters, and that he stands firmly behind the two-state solution and peaceful coexistence between the two peoples.

I returned to the first letter. As far as I could understand, Yossi has engaged in an attempt to conduct a dialogue with Arabs, Muslims and Palestinians through his book, and it is this endeavor that motivated me to send him my thoughts, and here they are: 

First, I must note that Yossi has a refined literary style, brimming with religious and spiritual motifs that may well be rooted in the depths of Jewish mysticism. Yossi is a religious person who holds a Bachelor’s degree in Jewish Studies and has long been dedicated to interfaith dialogue. But, in his younger years, he was a member of an extremist religious group, about which, in fact, revolved his first book, Memoirs of a Jewish Extremist

I believe that Yossi’s focus on religions had shifted the conflict between Arabs and Jews from the earth to the heavens, from battlefields and negotiating halls to mosques and synagogues. 

I don’t perceive the conflict as Yossi does. I am a political person in the first place and my law studies have taught me to stick to the facts on the ground, not to ideas in the metaphysical realm. 

Unlike Yossi, when I was young, I was not religious. I was not an extremist Islamist but rather an atheist communist. Such disparities in worldviews in our earlier years have inevitably left their mark, leaving major differences between our respective views of this conflict.

Yossi sees Judaism and Islam – particularly by virtue of their shared monotheistic outlook and joint sanctification of a supreme divine entity – as means to achieving peace between Israelis and Palestinians.

Yet, I strongly disagree with Yossi’s religious approach in striving for peace. While Palestinian Muslims believe in the Torah and the prophet Moses, Jews do not believe in the Qur’an or Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him). 

The heavenly message professed by Jews is ancient and grounded in their contention that they were chosen and preferred by God over other nations. The belief professed by the Palestinian Muslim is that his religion is the expression of God’s most recent message, rendering the Jews a cursed people and elevating the faithful Muslim to the status of a member of the greatest nation sent to humanity.

This conflict has many complicated political aspects and I believe that they must be solved through politics by politicians, not by religion or religious figures. This is one of my major disagreements with Yossi. 

Here, I’d like to delve deeper into some more specific observations to the first letter, “The Wall Between Us”.

Yossi focuses on the mutual religious aspects in Judaism and Islam. He points out how they are both united in the belief in one divine entity. Where the Torah says, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” and the Qur’an says, “He is the One God, God the Eternal, the Uncaused Cause of all being“. Both religions sanctify this Divine entity.

Mr. Yossi speaks with great respect about the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the Muslim religion and its manner of prayer with its unique movements. He tells us how he learned about Islam from “Sheikh Abdul Rahim” who leads a Sufi group in Nusseirat camp in the occupied lands, and how his mosque faces a cemetery in order to remind the servants of God about death in order to deter them from sin.

Yossi then relays his admiration for the spirit of Islam, including the way its religious teachings encourage its followers to not be afraid to confront death, which stands in contrast to Western philosophical outlooks which evade any and all confrontation with death. I was reminded, at this point, of a well-known Arabic proverb: “why kill with poison if you can kill with honey?”, the understanding being that the honey contains poison, and here’s the explanation:

The term “a culture of death” has spread widely in the West as a descriptor of Islam ever since the West declared war on the religion. The West has accused Islam of inciting and encouraging its followers to die, kill and belittle death. This is a false and unjust accusation. Our basic human instincts guide each and every one of us to escape death. What causes a human being to contemplate death is despair, a loss of hope in life. Thus, these accusations merely demonstrate how the West judges the victim and ignores the reasons that lie behind his actions; the West created the despair which has pushed Muslims to consider death.

A talented writer, Mr. Halevi’s words carry his naïve American reader to the heavens on a journey of faith in which he portrays his country as the nation of the Lord, and one that extends a hand of peace to the Palestinians. Yossi portrays Israel as a state that feels guilty for not reaching out to the Palestinians and offering them peace sooner.

It is quite clear that Yossi adopts an emotional literary style that seeks to obscure falsehoods and infiltrate the minds and the hearts of naïve American readers. However, Yossi must surely know that I, as an Arab reader, am not buying what he is selling in this book.

His beautiful words cannot convince me when I can see and hear the Israeli bombs that kill my Arab brethren in Gaza and Lebanon. 

Yossi claims that Israel offered peace under Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli Prime Minister who, in September 1993, launched the peace process in front of the White House, shaking hands with Palestinian President Yasser Arafat. However, I would like to remind you, Yossi, of the scene that unfolded before the whole world on their television screens at this historic moment; the scene that reveals the truth about the Israeli leader’s true intentions with regards to the peace process:  

The three leaders stood facing journalists and TV cameras on the White House lawn, their actions being broadcasted to the whole world.  The American president Bill Clinton stood in the middle, Rabin stood on the left side and Arafat on the right. After giving a short speech, Clinton invited both leaders to shake hands. Rabin was hesitant when Arafat reached out his hand. Rabin deliberately paused and only then shook Arafat’s hand, looking either doubtful or disgusted. He gave the impression that he had been forced to do this.

This scene drew the media’s attention more than the peace process itself and I, personally, maintain that this moment reveals a lot. It expresses the ill intentions of the Israeli leadership, showing us that Israel was not really committed to peace and that, consequently, Oslo was nothing but another absurd episode in this conflict in which Israel hoped to make Arafat one of its puppet police officers who would take charge of the West Bank and Gaza and thus provide Israel’s security establishment with a free asset. 

The Israelis’ sole intention was to win over the international community by playing the part of a peaceful state embracing the peace process. If Israel were to have succeeded, the Palestinians would have opted for reconciliation and recognized its right to exist, bringing the international boycott of Israel to an end by depriving pro-Palestinian activists with justification for their actions.  Israel would have therefore greatly benefited from the Oslo Accords by pulling the rug out from under the feet of the international boycotters and pro-Palestinian activists.  

I predicted, even back then, that Israel would never commit to what both sides had already agreed upon over the course of the negotiations. I foresaw that Israel would place yet more obstacles in the way of fulfilling their part of the deal whilst simultaneously snatching up the security, diplomatic, political and business benefits. Above all, Oslo changed the way that the world perceived Israel. And all this has come to pass. 

Yet, Yossi still believes that Israel initiated the Oslo Accords in September 1993 in good faith. 

He continues in his apologetics for Israel in his discussion of the Second Intifada: “And then, in September 2000, came the Second Intifada. Thousands of Israelis were killed or wounded in our streets”, he writes. And then, in order to further his emotional manipulation adds, “and thousands more in your streets“. 

He also recounts some upsetting violent events, such as the instance of a Palestinian suicide bomber blowing himself up in a café, killing a father and daughter on the eve of her wedding, turning days of joy into days of sorrow and consolation. However, Yossi does not elaborate on the real reasons behind the eruption of the Second Intifada. Instead, he rather disingenuously portrays it as the Palestinian response to Israel extending its hand for peace. I therefore wish to refresh Yossi’s memory by citing some pertinent facts regarding that period of unrest:


The reasons behind the Second Intifada

In 1999, the Palestinians found themselves in the depths of despair as the Israelis forego their obligations under the Oslo agreement. The planned implementation of what had been agreed upon regarding the final matters of discussion had thus far yielded no results as Israel kept suspending negotiations with the Palestinians. Indeed, Israel would eventually freeze any further talks and, with the backing of America, would seek to impose a solution on the Palestinians in total disregard of the pertinent UN resolutions (242, 338, 194). 

Furthermore, Israel repeatedly and forcefully entered territory that was supposed to be under the jurisdiction of the Palestinian Authority, arresting and assassinating Palestinians. Israel refused to allow Palestinians to return to the land they had left on June 4th 1967, and, most importantly, Israel continued building settlements and confiscating more and more land.

All of the above convinced the Palestinians that the peace process with Israel was an entirely pointless endeavor. Further tension was added to the unpleasant situation when the Israeli politician, Ariel Sharon, accompanied by his security detail, decided to provoke the Palestinians by ascending to the Al-Aqsa Mosque. He patrolled the Al-Aqsa compound, declaring that Alharam Alsharif was, under all circumstances, to remain under Israeli control, thus provoking a crowd of worshipers to confront him and his security personnel. The ensuing clashes in the courtyards of the Al-Aqsa Mosque resulted in seven dead and many wounded: 250 Palestinians and 13 Israeli soldiers, respectively. This spawned the Second Intifada, which would continue until the Sharm El Sheikh Summit and its accompanying ceasefire agreement in 2005.

By this time, the peace process had reached an impasse, characterized solely by fruitless dialogue and pointless meetings which could, at best, calm tensions, but at the expense of wasting more and more time. Thus, as I had predicted from the start, Israel had merely deceived the Palestinians by playing along with a so-called peace process.

The Israelis’ achievements from this disingenuous process were far greater than anything they could have won in war. The most substantial prize was the diversion of international attention from the Palestinian issue. The global community believed that both sides were finally making peace and that Palestinian suffering was on the verge of ending. More and more Israeli embassies opened in countries that had previously rejected the notion of diplomatic relations with Israel, and it was only a matter of time before economic, political and security cooperation followed. 


The strong side imposes his conditions and terms on the other

Let me finish, Yossi, by telling you this story. I got to know a person by the name of Samir Al-iskandrani. He became a close friend of mine in the 1990s when he was working for the egyptian intelligence agency, before becoming a prominent politician and one of the main supporters of peace. He was a well-connected individual acquainted with high-ranking political and military figures.

When I last saw him in 1998, we discussed the possibility of war in the region due to Israel’s intransigence and the failed peace process. He insisted, with some conviction, that the October War would be the last major war with Israel. Quoting President Sadat, he argued that the region would never witness another war, even if the peace process were to come to a halt. I, however, expressed my opinion that the region would remain in a perpetual state of tension and turmoil. 

Such instability, he responded, would be short-lived because it is a law of nature (which applies to the Middle East just as it applies everywhere else around the world) that the strong imposes its conditions on the weak who will, eventually, succumb and accept them. And this is precisely what has happened in the region, right up until President Trump pulled the plug on the peace process.

This latest act by the US administration has proven that the entire so-called process between the Palestinians and the Israelis was not a genuine attempt at reconciliation, but rather an elaborate trick by Israel in an attempt to break the international boycotting efforts before returning to its previous behavior.

I would like to end this segment by stressing the fact that Arabs are not brutal or savage in the way Israeli propaganda presents them to Western audiences. In fact, Jews lived in many Arab countries before the establishment of the State of Israel; were they living amongst the “culture of death” to which Yossi alludes? Did the Arabs fight them or seek to destroy their identity? Or did the Jews, rather, receive citizenship in these host countries? Were there Arab and Muslim suicide bombers before the State of Israel?

I hope that my words have not caused disappointment for the esteemed writer and respected intellectual, Mr. Yossi Klein Halevi, with whom I have had the pleasure to become acquainted through his book. I look forward to continuing our conversation and conducting our dialogue.


Gamal’s review appeared on Alarabi in Arabic