Hebron—A powerful Arab leader today boldly offered himself and his connections as a bridge for Arab-Israeli peace, in what may prove to be one of the few real fruits of the so-called “Arab Spring” as well as an indirect challenge to the traditional Palestinian leadership of the PLO and Hamas.
“After all the experience with war and peace and secret peace talks, there is a missing link that we have not used,” declared Sheikh Farid al-Ja’abari, the leader of the biggest hamoulah—clan—in the West Bank area that Israel conquered in 1967.
Sheikh Ja’abari’s remarks were unusual not only for their content but for their public nature, offered—not behind closed doors—in a public session with Jewish settlers, American and Israeli reporters, and even senior representatives of the European Union.
“I want to concentrate on this missing link,” said the 64-year-old sheikh, explaining this meant educating the younger generation not to hate non-Arabs. Sheikh Ja’abari stressed that the PLO and Hamas had not moved away from a deliberate policy of hatred, but that he would do so unhesitatingly.
“I am determined to continue on this journey no matter what it costs,” said Ja’abari, whose clan is said to number between 33,000 and 35,000, but whose overall backing may be over a million.
The sheikh greeted invitees in a tent encampment near Hebron, the town of Abraham, Isaac and Ishmael, and he underlined the symbolic significance of the place to underscore joint movement for peace. ”In my view the Israeli people are ready for peace, and I think the Palestinians want peace.”
Sheikh Ja’abari’s remarks came at a time when public opinion polls and political foment show that both the PLO and Hamas seem to have lost legitimacy in the eyes of many, if not most, Palestinian Arabs.
In the West Bank the PLO clings to power, but the leadership that passed from Yasser Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas is seen as corrupt. PLO chief Abbas has delayed holding new elections, which were due five years ago. It is believed the PLO would be thrown out by elections or by force if not for the Israeli army presence.
In Gaza, where Hamas seized power in 2006 after Israel withdrew forces and expelled its own settlers in 2005, several groups have challenged the leadership, including al-lijan al-sha’abiyeh (the popular committees), Islamic Jihad and various salafist groups some of which seem to have ties to Al-Qaeda.
Clad in the customary kaffiyeh head-dress and white flowing robe of his Arab tribe, Sheikh Ja’abari spoke to 60 invitees for three hours, even members of the local Hebron salafists—extremely conservative or fundamentalist Muslims who believe Islam should return to a purer form of governance similar to the time of Muhammad.
The Jewish invitees included leaders of the settler movement in Judea and Samaria—the Hebrew names Israelis use for the West Bank, and they took turns blessing the sheikh for reaching out to them as neighbors.
“These people want peace as much as those people want peace,” declared Rabbi Shlomo Riskin, a leader of the Jewish town of Efrat south of Bethlehem.
Rabbi Riskin said three Arab villages near his town had good ties with local Jews, and he applauded Sheikh Ja’abari for spearheading this kind of effort, although neither the sheikh nor his guests offered any details or political formulas for future action.
Many of the remarks by Ja’abari and his Jewish guests seemed aimed at criticizing the European Parliament and constituent governments that give aid to the Palestinian Authority or political support to Hamas.
But it appeared that some European Union representatives might be taking the criticism to heart.
“We in the European community are used to Palestinian representatives who are very aggressive, and when we meet with the sheikh, we find a different kind of dialogue,” asserted Philip de Winter, a Flemish parliamentarian from Belgium.
Dr. Michael Widlanski, an expert on Arab politics and communications, is the author of Battle for Our Minds: Western Elites and the Terror Threat just published by Threshold/Simon and Schuster. He is a former reporter, correspondent and editor respectively at The New York Times, Cox Newspapers, and The Jerusalem Post, and he served Strategic Affairs Advisor in Israel’s Ministry of Public Security and as an advisor to Israeli negotiating teams in 1991-92 at the Madrid Summit and thereafter.