Israel and the dawn of the coming era

Hazem Al-Rifai
Wednesday 3 Jan 2024

Even though their voices are currently almost inaudible, there are many Israelis who want to see peace with the Palestinians.


The life of Yasser Arafat, the historic Palestinian leader, was legendary in many respects. His profound belief in his people’s cause was unparalleled, matched only by his courage and remarkable ability to remain optimistic.

He described the Palestinians as the “people of the mighty,” defying the horror and bloodshed that had befallen them and as resilient as a mountain unaffected by the wind. When asked where he was headed when he withdrew from Beirut, besieged by the Israelis, in 1982, Arafat replied: “Back to Palestine!”

Some considered Arafat to be deluded, but his vision indeed materialised. One event that showed his flexibility and intelligence was his visit to the widow of former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin under the cover of darkness just days after Rabin’s assassination. Rabin despised Arafat and stipulated that he would never shake hands with him in front of the cameras, considering him to be a shedder of Israeli blood.

For decades, Israel adamantly refused to acknowledge even the mere existence of the Palestinian people, as reflected in statements made by its leaders from David Ben-Gurion to Golda Meir. However, the Palestinians’ determination and epic sacrifices proved to be an unexpected challenge to such arrogance.

All the Palestinians sought was justice, like any other oppressed group, and in this respect they were similar to the African population of South Africa during Apartheid, the Algerians and Vietnamese under French colonial rule, and many others.

In the end, Israel was forced to recognise the Palestinians, negotiate with them, and engage with their political institutions. At the same time, Arafat and his associates never lost sight of the importance of negotiating with the Israelis and reaching a historic compromise. At the heart of this solution was Jerusalem, a national symbol for the Palestinians.

In November 1995, Rabin was assassinated by an Israeli gunman. Israel refused to allow Arafat to attend Rabin’s funeral, citing security reasons. However, Arafat, never despairing, insisted on visiting Rabin’s wife to offer condolences at his home. A single image emerged of Arafat sipping coffee with Rabin’s family and wearing his famous Palestinian keffiyeh scarf that was deemed a security threat by Israel.

This symbolic visit echoed Arafat’s earlier life in Egypt and perhaps also his awareness of the film “Saladin the Victorious” made in the 1960s. Influential Egyptian intellectuals supervised the film’s storyline, emphasising the ways in which Saladin, the mediaeval Arab leader who fought the European Crusaders, rejected despair and opted for resilience and the proper mobilisation of resources.

The film was advanced in its historical vision, presenting parallel dialogues about war, peace, honour, and the intentions and divisions of Saladin’s enemies. The film, directed by Egyptian director Youssef Chahine and benefitting from the cooperation of the writer and intellectual Lotfi Al-Khouli, predicted the future and indicated that negotiations came at the end of the path of war and that coexistence was inevitable.

However, things can get complicated when transitioning from a call to war to a call for peace. This was the case for many people in the 1970s, including Zakaria Murad, the then leader of Egypt’s socialists. Murad hesitated when then president Anwar Al-Sadat visited Israel in 1977 as part of his peace initiative, as the visit carried within it the prospect of peace that Egyptian socialists had been calling for decades. However, he then realised within hours that going for peace alone with Israel would lead to more war and destruction.

Despite this, Murad sought to ensure that the message of peace did not vanish from the ranks of the Egyptian left. He urged his colleague, the writer Abdullah Al-Toukhi, to give imaginative shape to the prospect of peace, and this he did in his great novel “The Dawn of the Coming Era” published by Dar Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida in Cairo in 1978. This was a unique work in its timing, form, and the circumstances of its writing amidst the rubble of the Bar Lev Line on the Suez Canal.

Arafat was never the sole Arab leader calling for peace with Israel. King Abdullah I of Jordan urged Jewish leaders not to declare an independent state in 1948 but instead to be part of an Arab-Jewish parliament. He told them that if they chose integration in this way, the region as a whole would flourish, benefitting Arabs, Palestinians, and Jews.

Former Egyptian president Gamal Abdel-Nasser, on the other hand, always treated Israel as a state in its own right, seeking to curb its expansion by every means possible including by assigning fellow Free Officer Ahmed Hamroush to contact leading Zionist Nahum Goldmann.

We may wonder where the peace advocates are in Israel today. We may ask ourselves, as Arafat himself did, whether Israel is awaiting its De Gaulle, the French leader who made peace with Algeria at the end of the Algerian War of Independence.

Peace is needed, and the forces of peace in Israel could curb the brutality of the Israeli state. Israeli peace advocate Miko Peled, for example, has surprised everyone with his anti-racist statements and his description of Israel as an occupying entity. People forget that he is the son of Israeli General Mattityahu Peled, who met Palestinian heart surgeon Issam Sartawi through Egyptian exile Henry Curiel in the first unofficial recognition of the Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO).

Both Curiel and Sartawi were later assassinated, the latter in Portugal at a meeting of an international socialist conference at which late Israeli prime minister and president Shimon Peres was also present.

 The Israeli Zionists reject equal coexistence with those around them, and they seek to dominate the peoples of the region through bloodshed. This plan will never succeed. Meanwhile, there are also many Jews who oppose Zionism, and we should call out to them.


The writer is a rheumatologist and member of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 4 January, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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