Freedom Is at Root of Mideast Peace

I’m fond of saying my identity as a Jew formed well before
my identity as a Democrat. And I have always believed that a significant part
of my mission and role in Congress is to weigh in and provide leadership
on issues of critical concern to the Jewish community here and in Israel.

To a great extent, these issues are obvious — the
U.S.-Israel relationship, combating anti-Semitism, fighting off erosion in
First Amendment protections of religious exercise, scraping for resources and
laws that maximize the ability of Jews living under tyranny to immigrate to
Israel or the United States and ensuring the social safety net doesn’t forget
Jews in trouble.

But my Jewish identity colors how I view larger issues as
well….In so many ways my positions on issues, while not Jewish community
positions, are forged by my status as a Jew in a country that has allowed us to
thrive and prosper in so many ways.

As a 21-year veteran of the House International Relations
Committee, I have a front-row seat to the dramas played out in the Middle East.
Too many of the region’s autocrats use the Israeli-Palestinian dispute as an
excuse — as a pretext — for their refusal to make substantial reforms in their
own societies.

And for too long, I’m sad to say that the U.S. and Europe
have bought these sorry excuses. We’ve operated under the assumption that once
the thorny Israeli-Palestinian conflict gets worked out, peace will come to the
Middle East as part of a domino effect. But that’s not just wrong, it’s

….In the wake of Sept. 11, it’s clearer than ever that our
principles and values do matter. Our enemies are waging an existential struggle
against freedom, pluralism and modernity.

In 2002, a group of Arab intellectuals rocked the Mideast by
publishing a document that dramatically took stock of the state of the Arab
world. The U.N.’s Arab Development report was prepared by Arabs and partially
funded by the Arab League, so there was no way the region’s leaders could
whitewash its findings. Among the report’s conclusions were:


• That science and technology are comatose in the Arab


• That half of all Arab women are illiterate.


• Fewer than 2 percent of Arabs have Internet access.


• The entire gross domestic product in all Arab countries
combined in 1999 was less than that of Spain’s, which is a single, midsized
European country.


• Productivity is declining.


• Per capita income growth has shrunk over the past 20
years, while everywhere else, it’s been rising.


• And one of the most revealing indicators of the Arab
world’s stagnation is the fact that only 330 books are translated into Arabic
per year in the whole region. In an area encompassing 22 countries and 280
million people, fewer books have been translated in the past 1,000 years than
Israel has translated since last year’s Warschaw lecture!

To state my point in another way: Israel and America won’t
have stable, long-term, peaceful relations with the Palestinian Authority or
Egypt, for example, until they’re across the negotiating table from a truly
democratic Palestine or Egypt.

So … can America help to reform and democratize the Arab
world or to help those budding forces in the Middle East who understand that
imperative, without looking like imperialist colonizers? In light of everything
I’ve said, is there any reason for optimism?

The answer to these questions, I believe, is: maybe. But one
thing is for sure: We must at least try to help the region’s reformers
facilitate change.

….Back in the United States, I think American leaders have
gotten the message since Sept. 11 that the days of looking the other way, while
despotic regimes trample human rights and then gloss them over by feeding their
people a steady diet of anti-Israel and anti-Western hatred, are over.

Accordingly, there’s a new program at the State Department
called the Middle East Partnership Initiative [MEPI] that’s starting to see
positive results. MEPI’s director says that “across the region, internal voices
are beginning to speak up for change, political pluralism, the rule of law and
free speech in a manner that hasn’t been seen before.”

MEPI’s job description is to support economic, political and
educational goals in the region, as well as work on the empowerment of women.

This summer, President Bush is scheduled to make a
significant contribution to the cause by announcing a new Middle East
initiative at the June summit of the Group of Eight industrialized nations. The
architects of the new U.S. policy say it aims to encourage democratic and
economic reform in Arab and Muslim countries. Sounds like something everyone
can agree on, right?

Wrong. Egypt — who receives $1 billion in annual U.S.
assistance — is spearheading a massive effort to undercut the plan….

In Paris, [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak played the
Israel card. He said that only an equitable solution to the Israeli-Palestinian
conflict would allow a strengthening of popular support for reforms in the Arab

Already, there are reports that the Bush administration is
backing down from the initiative. But we must carry on with it. We must not let
Mubarak and other leaders get away with this perennial excuse for delaying the
reforms their people deserve.

And let’s recognize that real peace is possible when you
reverse Mubarak’s rhetoric. Democratize the region, and you’ll solve the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict permanently. Not the other way around.

This lofty goal, of course, doesn’t mean we should abandon
the Israeli-Palestinian peace track. Of course not … but whether Israel can
find a measure of security unilaterally or in the framework of an agreement, I
say again that it would be only a short-term solution.

The only real guarantor for long-term peace and security for
Israel and America is freedom. Freedom from oppression for the peoples of the
Middle East. Freedom to elect their leaders. Freedom for women to do basic
things like drive and go to school. Freedom to access knowledge.

Passover is called ‘zman cheiruteinu,’ the ‘time of our
freedom,’ because it is the time when the Jewish people were freed from
Egyptian slavery. Perhaps this year, it’s time to begin to free the Egyptians,
so-to-speak, from slavery and grant them the freedom we as American Jews can
celebrate openly.

This Passover, I pray for the freedom of the whole Middle
East and the continued rebuilding of Jerusalem. Â

This is an excerpt of a speech delivered by Rep. Howard Berman (D-North Hollywood) on March 28 at the Carmen and Louis Warschaw Distinguished Lecture Series of the Casden Institute for the Study of the Jewish Role in American Life at USC. Â