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JNS: Understanding the Middle East requires ‘knowing the difference between Shalom and Salam’

Q: Do all of the signatories to the Abraham Accords, Arabs and Israelis, see the Abraham Accords the same way?

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A: We Jews want people to love us. And the peace we’re looking for is that you’ll stop fighting, and we’ll stop fighting, and everyone will live together in peace. But the Muslims do not have a concept like that. They won’t stop until the whole world will be Muslim. They follow what their prophet Muhammad did. He signed a 10-year ceasefire with Quraysh. After two years, Muhammad realized Quraysh had weakened—so he attacked them, and won.

There is a classic Latin phrase, “Bellum omnium contra omnes, pace inter omnes interpellatur,” that war is the natural state of man, interrupted by periods of peace.

We don’t look at life like that, but historically most people do. From a Muslim point of view, they can agree to have relations with their enemies—whether they be Muslims, Jews, or anybody else. They can make temporary agreements just like their prophet did. Those agreements can be renewed, renewed and renewed. But to think that the Saudis see peace the way we Jews see it is a pipe dream. 


In 1949, after Israel’s War of Independence, there was a peace conference in Rhodes. The Arabs insisted the borders be called “ceasefire lines” and not borders. The situation was not set in stone. Arabs do not have the concept that when the fighting is over, we can be friends. If we think we will have a peace agreement with the Saudis in the way we understand peace, we will be disappointed. 


Q: Does this mean the Abraham Accords are a pipe dream?

A: No, that does not mean the Abraham Accords are an illusion. We can have agreements with the Arab countries—as long as we have things they want from us, such as hi-tech, connections to the outside world, and alternate routes in place of the Suez Canal. They are interested in what’s in it for them, not for the sake of friendship. Friendship is between people. Countries ally themselves because of common interests. The Abraham Accords are not about peace; they are about what is in both sides’ interest. 


The Arab word “salam” has nothing to do with the Hebrew word “shalom.” Shalom comes from the root for “completeness.” The [Hebrew] word “shalaim” means to pay. When two people come to an agreement on a price, that payment completes the process.

In Arabic, the word “salam” is similar to the Hebrew word “shalom,” but they do not have the same meaning. “Islam” and “salam” come from the same Arabic root. Islam means “submission,” while “salam” means something like the special sense of joy that someone has by submitting to Allah’s will through Islam. Shalom, on the other hand, means letting bygones be bygones, a concept that is totally alien to Islam. Clearly, “salam” and “shalom” do not mean the same thing.


The following example illustrates the Arabic meaning of the word in a Muslim context: If you take a look at the correspondence between Yemen and Saudi Arabia during the war in 1934, the leaders of the two sides wrote the most threatening things to each other—and then closed their letters with “salam alaikum.” These leaders hated each other, but they were fellow Muslims addressing each other. So if “salam” meant peace, how could they end their letters to each other with “salam alaikum?” How could they close their letters with “Peace be unto you”? Because the phrase has nothing to do with peace—it is about submission to Allah, which both of them, as fellow Muslims, are required to do.


So, we are dealing with cultures that are so incredibly different from ours, from the Western culture, which is partially based on the Hebrew culture.


I am for the Abraham Accords, very strongly so. The Arab countries are interested because Israel is strong. The proof of that goes back to when contact between Israel and the UAE became serious. Netanyahu spoke before Congress against the Iran deal in 2015, in defiance of the United States. He showed Israel was an independent country that could make its own decisions, and was willing to stand up to the United States. That was when the Arab countries decided they could do business directly with Israel. It is why Saudi Arabia and Israel have had good relations for a long while. And both have a strong dislike for Mahmoud Abbas, Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.


Q: But wouldn’t you think that at some point the “experts” would catch on to the fact that the Arab world is different?

A: No, not at all. Few of these “experts” know the languages, or haven’t taken the time to learn about and understand the cultures of the Muslim world. They think anyone who speaks English is a closet American. The White House ignored the Kurds, but when Iraq was liberated during the Gulf War, the White House greeted them as part of Iraq. A State Department senior official approached the Kurds and told them, “You have to stop thinking of yourselves as Kurds; you have to think of yourselves as Iraqis.” 

 

The experts don’t read Bernard Lewis. They read Edward Said. His approach is that you can never understand another culture, so don’t waste your time trying to. Don’t learn the languages and don’t learn the culture. Bernard Lewis’s attitude was quite different. He said you had to immerse yourself in the culture and the language. You have to try to understand what they are doing and saying in terms of their culture. In modern parlance, what the experts are doing is the equivalent of telling a person not to think of themselves as a man or a woman, but rather as a human. 


I recall the reaction of a very senior leader when war broke out in Syria in 2011. I suggested this was nothing more than the return of the ancient Shi’ite-Sunni conflict. His response was, “Well, we can’t have that!” I said to myself it didn’t matter if we could or could not have it. The fact is that they see it this way. The reality is the reality, and if you choose to ignore it, you do so at your own peril.


Q: Let’s talk about Oct. 7. On the one hand, Israel’s weakness was revealed by the Hamas attack. On the other hand, Israel has entered Gaza and taken the battle to Hamas to a degree few could have predicted.

A: Hamas misread the Jews. 


Q: But how do the Saudis and the rest of the Gulf states read this? Do they see this as a sign of Israeli weakness or do they see Israel’s reaction as a sign of Israel’s strength?

A: They understand strength very well, and Israel has come back very strongly. That part of the world has immense patience—the Jews don’t, but everyone else there does. They know how to wait. Let the Saudis put off signing the agreement. I don’t really care if there is a formal agreement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, because their relationship is so strong. The relationship is between governments, because these Arab countries rule from the top down, unlike in a democracy, where leaders are elected by the people and must take into account the will of the people they lead.


Q: Israelis seem to have a Westernized view of the Middle East. You would think they would have a keener insight and understanding of their Arab neighbors.

A: Superficially, Israel is a Westernized country. But when you scratch the surface, you see how the Israelis have reacted to the issue of judicial reforms, which the Arabs saw as a weakness—it is another reason why Hamas decided to pounce now—but Israel has created a younger generation, who are going to have a huge say after this, a revolution against the politics, military, intelligence and the media: “We put our lives on the line—not for you, but for the Jewish people.” That is what they are saying. We will see where all this leads. It is only going to be healthy.

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