Like most Lebanese, Hussain Abdul-Hussain came of age believing the Jewish state to be rapacious, expansionist, and a threat to its Arab neighbors. But he became curious to learn more after peeking across the Lebanon-Israel border in 2000. (Free registration required.)
I wanted to know what made Israel stable and prosperous, yet in Lebanon at the time, literature about Israel consisted mainly of anti-Semitic books. I turned to the Internet, scavenging for resources that helped me learn Hebrew. I also found one spot in Beirut—at the westernmost tip of Beirut’s coastline, underneath the New Lighthouse—where my AM radio could receive the signal from Israel’s Reshet Alef channel. I spent hundreds of hours listening, learning, and decoding printouts of the Hebrew press, all in secrecy for fear that doing so would be construed as “normalization with the Zionist enemy.”
I also drove to the border to practice my Hebrew across the barbed wire. Israeli troops were amused that a Lebanese was dabbling in their language, but Hizballah militiamen berated me for “talking to the enemy.” Lebanese law prohibits any dealing with Israelis, including talking to them. I was learning about Israel, but at an agonizingly slow rate.
Yet learn Abdul-Hussain did, especially after he left Lebanon for the West and soon came to find himself sympathizing with Zionism. He now hopes that Saudi Arabia and other Arab states will follow the examples of Bahrain and the UAE and normalize ties with Israel.
Saudi networks have started inviting Israeli pundits on their shows, a practice that remains taboo on most Arab channels. Saudi networks have found it hard to pair Israelis with Arab counterparts, who are usually mindful of laws (or harassment even in countries at peace with Israel) in their home countries that criminalize going on any TV with Israeli guests.
While Riyadh and Jerusalem negotiate, Arab advocates of peace have a crucial role to play. The first step is to defy pervasive shaming by fellow Arabs and come out as proponents of normalization. Their voices can help bring peace talks across the finish line, because fear of a public backlash is precisely what constrains so many Middle Eastern leaders who would prefer to treat Israel as a neighbor, not an enemy.