Lt. Col. (res.) Dr. Mordechai Kedar is an Israeli scholar of Arabic language and culture who served for 25 years in IDF military intelligence. He holds a Ph.D. from Bar-Ilan University, where he is currently a research associate at the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies.
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Dr. Kedar has lectured around the world and has been a frequent guest on Al Jazeera and numerous other media outlets.
The Jewish Press: How did you learn to speak fluent Arabic and what sparked your interest in Arabic culture?
Kedar: I grew up speaking Yiddish and had a great German Jewish teacher who taught us literary Arabic. After all, many Jewish teachings were written in literary Arabic, including major works of the Rambam, Rabbeinu Bechaye Ben Pakuda and Rav Saadia Gaon. Those of us who took Arabic seriously became experts and the army took us into intelligence. I spent twenty-five years in a military intelligence unit, trying to understand our Arab neighbors and decipher what drives and motivates them and how to understand their culture. If you know what motivates them you can sometimes predict what they are going to do, especially against Israel.
With that knowledge, how do you view the current situation in Egypt? Do you think the Egyptian army will be able to control the streets and advance the country toward real democracy or will the Muslim Brotherhood end up filling the void?
I think the masses will give the army a chance for a while to stabilize the system because nobody wants to be hungry. Everyone wants to reactivate the economy; everybody needs to work. The man in the street wanted to oust Mubarak and he succeeded. Now they got the hangover of the day after, and the day after doesn’t look too easy. Given the situation, I have doubts the army will take Egypt to a better place from an economic and other points of view. If elections will be just and honest, the Muslim Brotherhood might take a large part of the legislative council and land in the driver’s seat. They may take the Iranian Islamist line in politics, close the Suez Canal, etc. However, they will have to provide food, jobs and medical care for 85 million people, and they do want to take Egypt to some kind of prosperity like Turkey. They may behave and become a normative player in the world arena and at the same time be an Islamist state.
How would you respond to those who point to Israel and the Palestinians and try to draw a connection between that conflict and what is going on in Egypt?
There is absolutely no connection between what happens between Israel and the Palestinians and anything connected to Lebanon, Egypt or any other Arab state. Anyone who says otherwise is singling out Israel to cover other problems in the Arab arena. Israel has always been used as a kind of pretext to divert problems rather than deal with them seriously in the Arab world.
You surely are familiar with the differences between the narrative presented by Arab leaders in English for Western ears and what they say in Arabic to their own people. Why isn’t more being done in Israel to expose these leaders’ true intentions?
People are motivated by political correctness. They tie their own hands, because whoever says the truth and speaks of reality is looked upon as a hatemonger, an extremist. People are afraid of reality and want to see the situation change according to their own dreams. During the 1990s, right after I finished in the army, I myself was a member of a peace organization called Netivot Shalom, which is the small and religious sister of Shalom Achshav. I hoped that after the Oslo agreements something could be achieved between the Israelis and Palestinians.
I thought they would give up on their dreams to abolish Israel altogether and Israelis would realize that there is another people in Eretz Yisrael. I believed because I wanted to believe. I visited Arafat in November of 1996, on Rabin’s first yahrzeit. Arafat invited some 40 delegates of the peace movement, including myself. The Palestinian media interviewed me frequently then and always concentrated on my kippah, because in their view a religious Jew who was not a settler or an extremist, and who talked both peace and Arabic, was a strange creature.
Looking back, do you think they exploited you?
Definitely. They used me. But I must say the Palestinians do have a group of intellectuals who understand that Israel is here to stay. They would come to terms with Israel, but they have no power. The Middle East psyche is different than that found in the United States. In Middle East culture what counts is who has the power. In the Middle East the violent, the extremist, will always be the master of the agenda. The majority of sheep will never be able to convince the minority of wolves because those wolves have teeth and are ready to use them.
Do you consider yourself a “ba’al teshuvah” from the peace movement?
No, I consider myself someone who woke up to see reality.
What did it take for you to see the reality?
The Second Intifada. When I started to listen to Palestinian radio in late 2000 I understood it was not a matter of Jerusalem or a return of refugees to Israel proper; it was a matter of not letting Israel live as a Jewish state. When I understood the Palestinians would never agree to Israel as the state of the Jewish people, that is when I started to advocate that there is no peace precisely because of Peace Now. From my understanding, when [the Palestinians] see that we are begging for peace, the price of peace gets higher. The more eager we are for peace, the more they demand that we pay for it until it reaches a price we cannot pay anymore.
If we want a reasonable peace in the Middle East we should say that we don’t want peace. We should say, “What will you pay us for peace?” In the Middle East, peace is given only to the invincible.
How do you explain the penchant of many Israelis, who must understand this mentality of their neighbors, to demean themselves and lose their power of deterrence in the process?
Here you come to the inner divisions within Israel. I would say the majority of Israelis understand the Middle East very well and know that Israel will be committed to peace only if Israel can convince its neighbors that it is here forever. The majority of Israelis would like peace with the Arabs so they can leave us alone but do not want to give up on [Israel’s security and stability] just to have peace.
The problem is that the minority in Israel is in control of the media, the academia and some political arenas, and they impose their leftist hallucinatory agenda. The right is afraid to speak out because the leftists are viewed as intellectuals and have succeeded in planting their disciples in all kinds of organizations, especially human rights organizations. In Israel human rights means anti-Zionism. These leftist organizations succeeded in creating an image that whoever is for human rights belongs to the left. But do Jews not have any human rights over their own land?
Rather than establish a Palestinian state, you have proposed an “eight-state solution.” Can you elaborate?
This is based on a sociological view of the Arab world. The Arab world today is divided between two kinds of states – successful and failing. Most of the Arab states are failing because they are made up of groups traditionally hostile to each other, such as different tribal groups, ethnic groups like Kurds and Arabs, religious groups like Muslims and Christians, and communities like Shiites and Sunnis. These groups can’t even sit with each other, much less cooperate. The borders of the states were drawn by Britian, France and Italy, which drew the lines according to their own interests, not according to the social makeup of the people. These states cannot be successful because their societies are so fragmented; they invest more time in hurting others than in cooperating. You can’t have a flourishing economy when the social and political bases are not steady.
The other group of states are the Gulf Emirates. Those governments are very steady and stable, and therefore their economies are flourishing. It’s not because of the oil. Iraq has more oil than the Gulf, but Iraq is socially fragmented. The Gulf is successful because every emirate is one single tribe. In Qatar, Dubai, Kuwait and the other emirates, the citizens are one tribe. No one fights with each other.
When it comes to a future Palestinian state, what do we want here? Another failing state which will combine all the tribes, those living in Hebron, Jericho and Shechem, who usually won’t even intermarry? If they will be incorporated into one state they will fight with each other and we’ll have another failing state which will export its agonies to Israel. The better way is to copy the paradigm of the Gulf, to give one state to the people in Jericho, one to the tribe of Shechem, one to Ramallah, one to the Arab part of Hebron, and others. Gaza anyhow is already a state of its own. Israel should forever retain the rural areas to prevent the hills from turning into Hizbullah hills or Hamas hills.
Even though these groups are fragmented, aren’t you concerned that their overriding hatred toward Israel would be enough to unite them into a force against Israel?
Hamas and Fatah share the same hatred toward Israel, yet it’s not enough to combine them into one political entity. When Hamas took over Gaza in 2007 they blew up a whole Fatah stronghold and killed [Fatah members] in front of their families. This is not the behavior of people who share something. Taking advantage of Israel’s vulnerability in the past is one thing, but sharing something is another.
What is your response to those who advocate an Arab “right of return”?
The notion of a right of return is bizarre, because people who came to Israel from all over the Middle East prior to the 1948 war and lived there even for less than a year demand the right of return. These people were foreign workers in Palestine before 1948 for a year, maybe half a year. Many of them still carry names like “El Iraqi” (“from Iraq”) or El Masri (“from Egypt”) or “El Hourani” (“from the Houran, Syria”), which testify that they are originally not from Palestine. So I do back their right of return – to the original places they came from: Iraq, Egypt, and Syria. But they don’t want to return to those places. They would rather live in Israel – a democratic state that honors human rights and political freedoms.