While it may seem trivial, some argue that the lack of Arabic skills among Israeli politicians is one of the greatest impediments to peace.What? Israel is a throwback to colonialism? No! And a junior minister has only just discovered that? But what's all this? Mubarak said, "They’re condescending. They tell us what to do." So what do you do when Israel's diplomats tell you what to do? Seriously though. Israel had been talking openly with Egypt for about seven years by 1984 and this was the first time that Mubarak felt that he had not been condescended to and told what to do by Israel and that was with a junior Israeli minister. I wonder how many Israeli Arabic speakers have met with him since then.
If you think that is an exaggeration, ask Moshe Shahal, a former member of Knesset for the Labor Party and a former negotiator.
“In my opinion, 50 percent of the Israeli-Arab conflict is a problem of culture and language,” the Iraqi-born Shahal says.
Shahal, who speaks Arabic fluently, cites a past incident to support his premise.
It was 1984. Israel and Egypt had signed a peace agreement five years earlier, but there remained a dispute over who should get Taba, an Egyptian village in the Sinai Peninsula.
Shahal, who was Israel’s energy minister at the time, recalls a conversation he had in Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak’s house in Egypt.
Mubarak had been surprised to hear Shahal deliver a speech in Arabic at a reception a day earlier.
“Mubarak began by saying, in Arabic, ‘I heard that you spoke Arabic with an Iraqi dialect.’ Ten minutes later he put his hand on my hand – he was sitting on an armchair and I was sitting on the sofa – and he said ‘Listen, you are the first Israeli and the only minister I can speak with as an equal.’”
Shahal was stunned. After all, he was a low-profile cabinet minister, not a head of state.
“I thought, maybe I didn’t understand his Egyptian accent,” Shahal recalls with amusement.
Mubarak soon clarified.
“Every Israeli who comes to talk to us, it’s as though they take us back to the British colonialism era in Egypt,” Mubarak told Shahal. “They speak in English. They’re condescending. They tell us what to do and they don’t understand the language or the culture. But with you I can talk.”
I think the language thing is merely a symptom of a zionist disdain for all things native to the Middle East. It occurred to me while reading the article that if language was so conducive t peace those many Palestinians who now speak Hebrew could have achieved peace. But isn't that part of the problem? The Palestinians didn't turn up in Palestine one day with a language contrived for their own exclusive nationhood. Their Arabic language grew up over time with its own local dialect. The Israelis are people or the descendants of people who knew that there were native Arabic speakers in the area. So surely it's for them to learn the local language not the other way round. And clearly Palestinians learning Hebrew hasn't settled anything. Would Israelis learning Arabic make a difference? Well it might well signify an attitude change from the politics and culture of Jewish supremacy to something that accepts the equal status of all.