Washington Report on Middle East Affairs, June/July 1997, pgs. 48, 118

Special Report

Are the Two Vetoes the Straw That Broke the Arab Camel's Back?

By Richard H. Curtiss

"One of Islam's holiest shrines, Al Quds, is now under occupation. At the same time the demographics of the city which holds it are being changed The United States cannot and will not help us. It is clearly under Israeli domination, and though many Americans will be upset by this, it is the bitter truth Why not apply sanctions?", Khalid Al-Maeena, Arab News, Jeddah, March 25, 1997.

"The Arab League Ministerial Council has asked Arab countries to halt a normalization of relations with Israel, to resume a primary economic boycott against it, and to freeze their participation in multilateral peace talks America champions the principle of boycott as a weapon against those who disagree with it, but condemns Arabs for using it against Israel as a last resort. This double standard always was, and remains, a feature of American logic." , Dr. Abdel Qader Tash, Arab News, Jeddah, April 6, 1997.

My host and his other guest were old Saudi friends and fellow University of Southern California alumni and the setting was relaxed, a Saudi restaurant in "typical" Nejdi style. The two Saudis spend their days in hushed, modern offices with deep carpets and corridors of polished marble or granite, their male secretaries screening the steady stream of calls, their own cellular telephones with numbers they give only to personal friends in the pockets of outer robes hanging behind their desks.

They arrived at the restaurant in leather-upholstered automobiles so sleek and luxurious that their rustic fellow alumnus from Washington couldn't even identify them. Tonight, however, they were sitting on flat cushions placed in rows on striped, hand-woven tribal rugs under palm-thatched roofs. The newly opened restaurant had been painstakingly reconstructed in the style of their grandfathers, who rode out of central Arabia in the first quarter of this century with the legendary King Abdul Aziz Ibn Saud and created the modern Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.

The other guest, a former government official and member of a merchant family whose name is on buildings and billboards all over the Kingdom, waited until we were alone for a moment to switch the topic abruptly from reminiscences of student days in Los Angeles.

"You're lucky I contributed to your library endowment so early this year," he said.

"Why?" I asked.

"Because my wife, who has her own charities and rarely interferes in mine, made me promise just last week that before I send another riyal to any American charity this year, I would send $5,000 to the family of that suicide bomber in Tel Aviv whose house was blown up last week in the West Bank."

"The free ride is over. America will pay a price this time."

I said nothing for a moment. I could see he was studying my face, knowing I might write about what he was saying.

"I had relatives in Tel Aviv the day that bomb went off," I said finally. "They could have been in that outdoor cafe."

"I was surprised, too, at my wife's reaction," he said. "This is the mother of my children, a woman who is horrified by violence and who hates no one. And by the way, this has nothing to do with her decision but we had relatives in Lebanon last spring. They could have been in any of a hundred places hit by Israeli bombs."

"So what are you going to do?"

"I've already done it," he said. "I sent the money without asking her a single question. It may turn out to be what I would otherwise have sent to USC this year. We all feel like giving up on Americans."

Our host rejoined us and the conversation shifted. But when the host stepped out again the former government official picked up exactly where he had left off:

"The first U.S. veto of a Security Council resolution condemning Netanyahu's decision to start building a settlement at Jabal Abu Ghneim surprised me. I thought you would abstain. Then I laughed at the vote in the General Assembly, 130 to 2. Never has American isolation in the world, with Israel, been more obvious for everyone to see.

"But then, after Bill Clinton said he regretted the Israeli decision to build the Har Homa settlement and the Europeans put his words into another, milder Security Council Resolution, and still the U.S. cast another veto, I was shocked. Who's running America?"

Our host returned, but this time the former government official didn't stop talking.

Nothing Too Shameful?

"When Boutros Boutros-Ghali refused to change the United Nations report blaming Israel for deliberately killing 100 people at Qana in Lebanon last May, Clinton couldn't veto the report. So he vetoed Boutros-Ghali's reappointment instead. Is there nothing the Israelis can do that is too shameful for you to defend? Two of those children killed at Qana were Americans from Detroit. Doesn't Clinton represent Americans?"

Constrained by his role as host from saying anything that might offend me, the other Saudi, one of the kindest people I have ever known, limited his comment to regret that the Organization of the Islamic Conference (OIC) had not passed a stronger recommendation to resume the boycott of Israel.

"It's not just Israel we should boycott," the former government official grumped, "And by the way, make no mistake about it. This time the Arabs finally are serious. We won't forget these two vetoes. The free ride is over. America will pay a price this time."

A few days later the Arab League met and passed a resolution calling for resumption of the Arab boycott of Israel.

The day after my dinner with the two Saudis, I lunched with another old friend, a Palestinian American who has spent several years, off and on, in Riyadh. I asked him, "Are they really serious this time? Or will it blow over again?."

"I've seen them angry before," he said, "and usually not much happens. But this time they're really serious about resuming the boycott on Israel. And forget the 'Oslo accords,' which they didn't believe in anyway but didn't want to criticize openly when they'd been accepted by most of the Palestinians themselves, and while the U.S. was putting so much prestige behind them. But now that Clinton seems to have forgotten about them, so can the Saudis."

"I'm really thinking about American products in the Middle East," I said. "Depending upon how it's enforced, a boycott could affect not only American goods containing Israeli components, but also goods made by American companies with operations in Israel."

"I don't know," the Palestinian-American said. "But I'll bet it won't affect how many Saudis go to the U.S. on vacation this summer. They really like America much better than they do Europe. It's gone beyond taking their kids to Disneyland and Disney World. Now they're buying second houses in the U.S. and they take their kids around to choose American universities. The Saudi government won't pay for undergraduate scholarships to U.S. universities anymore, but it will pay for U.S. graduate schools. It's a real Saudi love affair with Americans, and that's why they're so furious with what the U.S. government is doing. But like I said, I've seen them angry before."

The next day I attended a breakfast meeting of the American Businessmen's Association, which can turn out 200 or 300 people for even a routine event. The speaker, the brand-new CEO of Lockheed-Martin, was on his first visit to the Middle East and very gung ho about doing business there.

I asked my American host, who had been representing American companies in Saudi Arabia for more than a quarter-century, if he thought the current mood, and at least nominal resumption of the boycott of Israel, would affect the sale of American products in Saudi Arabia.

"It already has," he said. "It started more than a year ago."

"Are you sure?" I asked. "I keep reading the whole world is crazy about everything American, our telecommunications, our software, our music, our videos and our cartoons on television, including the Arabs."

"They are," he said. "The problem is they're angry enough now that, if they have a choice, they buy the non-American product. And you can be sure that the French, the Germans, the Japanese all make sure they have a choice. They love Clinton's Middle East policy, as long as their governments don't get sucked into it."

"How bad is it?" I asked.

"So bad that, if it continues, I'll be gone in two years. Maybe even one."

"And all this?" I asked, gesturing to the hotel ballroom full of U.S. businessmen, bankers, engineers, consultants, and even lawyers.

"I don't know," he said. "But I've been here as long as any of them. I'm hurting now and getting ready to pull up stakes if it gets worse, as I feel pretty certain it will."

I recalled that conversation when I read the articles quoted above (and printed in full on pp. 32 and 33 of this issue). Both Saudi writers know the United States very well. Khalid Al-Maeena spent part of last summer vacationing in New Mexico and visiting in other parts of the United States. Dr. Abdel Qader Tash's doctorate is from the University of Michigan.

What they are writing now is what their countrymen will be saying and acting upon in coming months. And like my two USC-educated friends in Riyadh, they love Americans from first-hand exposure to them in their most vulnerable and impressionable years. But they all also understand the U.S. government very well, perhaps better than do most Americans. And one says he's "given up on America" and "America will pay a price this time." To their question, "who's running America?" Americans should add one of their own. "Who does Bill Clinton represent?"

and enjoys playing basketball with them, yet complains about the racist ones who pick fights or curse.

"You, Me, Jerusalem" also shows that not all Israelis are fanatics. One of the Da'ana family's closest friends is Jack Cohen, an Israeli actor and newspaper distributor who grew up in Jerusalem before it was divided in 1948. An older man, he dreams of starring in a sitcom which would show Palestinian and Israeli Jerusalemites dealing with each other as neighbors rather than as rivals for control of the city. Cohen's reminiscences about Jerusalem as it was provide a bittersweet portrait of the personal, human price its residents have paid for the Israeli government's insistance on political dominance.

Paramedic Dudu Ben Ezra, an idealist who would "rather be naive" than live hating Palestinians, explores his family's feelings about Arabs. His parents, who came to Israel from Morocco, were given a house confiscated from an Arab family. They, like the other "old-timers" in the film, express their respect for Arabs as people. Yet they reject out of hand the notion of returning the house if its original Palestinian owners ever are allowed to return.

Dudu's conflict is not about discrimination, but about dealing with other Israelis who don't feel the way he does about Palestinians. Even his wife scolds him for trusting his Palestinian co-workers, and tells him they would kill him if it meant saving their own lives.

Throughout Dudu's revealing conversations with his family, his daughter sits quietly observing from the background. Though the viewer can never tell how she is affected by what she sees and hears, there is a positive note. Toward the end of the film, as Dudu plays with her on a swing, he tells her about sneaking off as a child to play with Arab children, even while the city was divided.

All the threads of the story converge when a suicide bomb is detonated in a Jerusalem bus, and the crew members rush to the scene to aid the victims. Isa, the Arab ambulance driver, is given a medal for his work.

In the aftermath, both Palestinians and Israelis deal with the catastrophe differently. Palestinians wonder if the Israelis will take revenge on them. Israeli Jews, such as Dudu's family, wonder how Palestinians, like Dr. Da'ana, could be capable of such an act.

Other Israelis and Palestinians are introduced to examine various issues, such as the lack of housing for Palestinians in Jerusalem, and how victims of terror and violence deal with their sadness. Zoher Nabulsi is an Arab social worker who teaches Israeli and Palestinian children about their local city park. Even as he treats these children equally, his own father must build his house illegally, risking demolition. Young Israeli Moran Ornan-Shattner, whose cousin was shot and killed years earlier by an Egyptian soldier in the Sinai, nevertheless befriends a Palestinian girl from Ramallah. Eliahu Brand, an ambulance volunteer from Jerusalem, personifies the ultra-Orthodox devotion to the study of Judaism.

Directors Peled and Khleifi have portrayed authentically the friendships, idealism, and mistrust that exists in the ambulance crew and the city itself, illustrating that while politics are by their nature abstract, people are not. "You, Me, Jerusalem" is not a feel-good movie, but a documentary about two peoples who may try to divide the city politically and ethnically, yet must share it every day as they try to live normal lives.

As the ambulance races toward another emergency at the end, we hear Dudu say, "When we go by with sirens, everyone thinks it's a disaster. But often a new child is born." In 20 years, however, when that child has grown up and another documentary is made, will the city be any different? And if so, will it be for better or for worse?

This video is available through MXP Productions, PO Box 5057, Mill Valley, CA 94941, (415) 453-6922. Cost is $49 plus shipping.

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