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End the Arab Boycott of Israel

END THE ARAB BOYCOTT OF ISRAEL

By Ed Husain 
THE NEW YORK TIMES
March 7, 2013

On Jerusalem's ancient walls hung old fans that made a rattling, windy noise. There was no money for air-conditioning. The carpet for worshipers was old and ragged. I was inside one of the world's most significant buildings, but scaffolding and clutter prevented me from seeing the center of the Dome of the Rock.

Water leaks, disheveled shoe shelves, and unclean antique tiles brought a sense of disharmony to Islam's third most sacred site. No, this was not the fault of the Jews or the West, but we Muslims who claim to fight daily for "liberating Jerusalem" and yet neglect the very heart of this city. Why? And how can this change?

I recently visited Israel and the West Bank for the first time. I am Muslim and in Muslim communities around the world to visit Israel is to support "the Zionist entity" and therefore risk social isolation. Not only is this mind-set outdated, it is self-defeating.

The Arab League began its boycott of Zionist goods back in 1945 and later created a Central Boycott Office to ensure minimal Arab contact with Israel. In reality, the Gulf states and others circumvent this policy, but the Arab and Muslim masses have yet to break free from the mind-set of boycotting all things Israeli.

A prominent cleric, Yusuf al-Qaradawi, in addition to justifying suicide bombings against Israelis, regularly upholds his fatwas urging Muslims to avoid contact with Israel from his Al Jazeera podium. Recent attempts by European Marxist academics to boycott Israel have given support to this counterproductive attitude.

In many mosques and universities this view might bolster the superiority complex of some academics and Muslim clerics. But the main victims of this boycott are not Israelis, but Palestinians. Israel's economy is booming, while Palestinians languish in abject poverty. The decades-long Arab boycott has failed miserably. An estimated 70 percent of Palestinian families in East Jerusalem live below the poverty line.

Arabs from neighboring countries do not visit Jerusalem because of the boycott, but many Arab men do not have that luxury: They find jobs as cleaners and porters in the city's hotels, or with Jewish-owned businesses, or travel to the West Bank to find work.

Many people condemn Israeli settlements and call for an economic boycott of their produce, but I saw that it was Arab builders, plumbers, taxi drivers and other workers who maintained Israeli lifestyles. Separatism in the Holy Land has not worked and it is time to end it. How much longer will we punish Palestinians to create a free Palestine?

I abandoned Muslim groupthink and went to Israel because there is a new momentum in the region. Egypt's former grand mufti, Ali Gomaa, and the prominent scholar Habib Ali al-Jifri, broke ranks with Qaradawi and went to Jerusalem last April. They justified their visit on scriptural grounds, citing the Prophet Muhammad's encouragement for believers to visit the Holy Land. Their trip was facilitated by Prince Ghazi bin Muhammad bin Talal of Jordan, the principal religious adviser to King Abdullah II.

Muslim leaders in Jerusalem welcomed both men and Palestinian imams called for the end of the Arab boycott on Al Jazeera Arabic and other media outlets. This was a direct challenge to radicals like Qaradawi and his supporters in the Muslim Brotherhood in Cairo and the Islamist party Ennahda in Tunis. Why do they want to continue the boycott?

Turkey's free-trade agreement with Israel, which is yielding results for both countries, Jordan's cordial relations with the Jewish state, and the new show of leadership from two prominent scholars shows us that not all Arabs and Muslims are dedicated to confrontation.

President Obama is due to visit Israel and Jordan this month. Talk of renewing peace negotiations is once more in the air, but talks will fail again unless there is a wider change in attitudes. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, for all his faults, is correct in identifying a wider strain of intolerance of Israel. The nations of the Arab Spring cannot be serious about wanting democracy when they are banning their citizens from visiting Muslim (and Jewish and Christian) holy sites.

The voice of the Palestinian imams who want to see an end to the boycott needs to be amplified. Religious leaders at Al Azhar seminary in Egypt or the University of Medina in Saudi Arabia who advocate peace are often ignored by policymakers, even though they have vast popular influence. A peace agreement underwritten by moderate imams like these would have broad political and religious clout.

Without a shift in attitudes, Israel's security concerns will never be allayed. Humanizing Israel to Arabs - by bringing together America's Muslim allies, by addressing anti-Semitism in school textbooks and in sermons at mosques, by permitting Arab citizens to visit and trade with Israel - are requisite first steps.

To be credible in Muslim eyes, any peace agreement requires backing from major Sunni powers, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Egypt. With Islamist organizations of various hues in power in Ankara, Tunis, Gaza, Cairo and on the rise in Libya, Yemen, Syria and Jordan, the West cannot continue to ignore religious dimensions to the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Unless we tame the Islamist tiger, a decade from now we will look back and lament.

Ed Husain is a senior fellow for Middle Eastern Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations.

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