Visitors to Israel are often hard-pressed to assimilate much of what they see. But occasionally, all of the disparate elements of Israeli society with its heavy baggage of history, culture and politics can be placed into a comprehensible perspective.
Such a moment came for me last week while attending the International Conference of Jewish Newspaper Editors. Among the many interesting sessions brought together by its organizers for the assembled Jewish press was an afternoon in Nazareth, the Arab city in the Galilee where we visited a business project many see as a hopeful sign of the possibility of Arab-Jewish cooperation.
Nazareth-based NGT — Next Generation Technology — is a joint project of entrepreneurs, scientists and technicians with a double purpose. On the one hand, it is a business "incubator" that seeks to finance various business ideas with the hope that they will take off and become successful enterprises.
IT'S JUST GOOD BUSINESS
Operating with both private capital and guaranteed government loans, NGT's founder and CEO, Sharon Devir, describes himself as nothing more than a "venture capitalist" whose aim is to make money.
But Devir has a slightly different angle than the score of other incubator projects currently operating in the country. NGT's uniqueness lies in its express desire to bridge the vast gap between Jews and Arabs inside of Israel. As such, it has prospered, and gained valuable publicity in the Israeli media because of its status as a joint Israeli-Arab project.
While seeking to get life-science technology-based startups such as Fluorinex (which hopes to produce dental products) and Nutrinia (which produces baby-formula supplements) off the ground, it is also building trust between two diverse sectors of Israeli society.
Nasri Said — NGT's vice president and the man who chooses which start-ups to push — is an Arab, as are five of its principal local backers. Other financing comes from Israeli Davidi Gilo and a quartet of well-heeled Americans, including Alan Slifka, who has poured a fortune into projects devoted to helping foster understanding between Jews and Arabs.
Devir insists that the co-existence angle of his project is just good business, and his colleague Nasri dismisses the notion that his involvement with Jews would endanger him within his own community.
"This isn't viewed as a negative," he says. "Everywhere, Arabs work with Jews."
But this breath of fresh air was quickly dispelled when the same group that met with the NGT team sat down with a pair of Israeli-Arab journalists in what was ostensibly billed as a session devoted to understanding the issues and concerns that they deal with. Rather than a fuzzy schmoozing session with fellow newsies, what followed was a hard slap in the face for anyone who thought "good business" would be enough to bridge the gap between Jew and Arab.
For anyone who doubted that the conflict - and not life-science technology — was still at the top of the agenda, Haneen Zoubi, the general director of I'lam, a "media center for Arab Palestinians in Israel," had a wake-up call.
"This land is our [the Arab] homeland," she spat out when asked to discuss her status. "We are the indigenous people; we're not immigrants."
Reciting a laundry list of complaints about the plight of the 18-20 percent of Israel's citizens who are Arabs, Zoubi made it clear that her main complaint was with the nature of the state of which she is a citizen: "Israel can't be a democratic state and a Jewish state."
"We don't want 'to destroy Israel' — we want to change it," said Zoubi. At the same time, she asserted that she defined herself as "Palestinian," not an Israeli. That's because it is the whole Zionist enterprise — and not just some of its policies — that really bug her.
While Prime Minister Ehud Olmert believes his planned unilateral withdrawals from more of the territories will maintain a Jewish majority inside Israel's borders, it is that very concept that Zoubi rejects. Other plans for putting more Jewish resources into the Galilee and the Negev are nothing more than "Judaizing," she says. The notion of keeping Israel Jewish is "an obsession."
"I'm not a foreigner. I have the same rights, maybe more than immigrants from Russia," said Zoubi.
Her anger was echoed by the other Arab participant in the colloquy, Adeed Alwan, a 63-year-old who has variously worked for Saudi-owned Arabic papers in London, the BBC and the Israel Broadcasting Authority.
Rather than focus on ending the conflict, Alwan was more concerned with rehashing Israel's War of Independence, in which Arabs living in villages such as the one he was born in were dispossessed by the tide of war.
As such, the discussion quickly spiraled into a composite of every other Israeli-Arab debate about the rights and wrongs of the conflict — and led absolutely nowhere.
Complaints about the difficult position of Israeli Arabs — or Palestinians with Israeli citizenship as they prefer to style themselves these days — are not without justice. Living in a country whose purpose is to be the sole Jewish state while the rest of the Arab world rejects and makes war on it is a hard task.
But to listen to Zoubi and Alwan, who justly describe themselves as "moderates" within an Arab context, is to hear people who have not made peace with the idea of a Jewish state. They are unmoved by living in a country where Arabs can vote for parliament since it does not automatically translate into the power to squelch the Jewish majority.
A ZERO-SUM GAME
Far from accepting the idea that Arab sovereignty in the land must content itself with the putative Palestinian state currently ruled by the Hamas-dominated Palestinian Authority, their implicit demand is that Israel — and not just the West Bank and Gaza — must be purged of its specific Jewish identity if they are to be satisfied.
For all of the talk of co-existence, the conflict is, even in the eyes of these Arab moderates, still a zero-sum game, in which the Arabs lose as long as the Jewish state lives.
That also means that even if Olmert's scheme for separation is completed, that will still leave a potentially hostile Arab minority within Israel's borders. Can they be satisfied with business development projects when it is still the fundamental issues of identity that are at stake?
Those thinking that a restful peace lies just beyond the next round of "disengagement" will have to have an answer to that question, lest they doom Israel and its friends to further disillusionment. Unfortunately, on even the sunniest days in Israel, it can take only an hour or two for even a bright glimmer of hope to be overshadowed by rancor.