AMMAN – As Israelis headed to the ballot boxes on March 17, a number of journalists and politicians gathered for a workshop detailing the various political parties, their platforms and campaigns. This pre-election seminar, however, was not held in Hebrew for the disgruntled Israeli voter. It was entirely in Arabic and in the unlikeliest of places — neighboring Jordan.
The initiative, among others, was spearheaded by the Amman-based Center for Israel Studies, an independent nonprofit think tank established in late 2014 that seeks to combat media misinformation surrounding the Jewish state and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by presenting an alternative, neutrality-driven view of Israel in Arabic for Jordan’s decision makers, journalists and wider public.
One of the first of its kind in the Arab world – small Israel-studies circles exist in Egyptian academia — the center hosts lectures, programs, conferences and debates that signal a growing openness to understanding Israeli society amid a post-Arab Spring internet-savvy generation thirsty for a balanced, more objective view of their oft-maligned and misunderstood neighbor west of the Jordan river.
The man behind the institute, Dr. Abdullah Swalha, wants to see an informed Arab public equipped with the tools to relate, deal and negotiate with Israel, by presenting the country as an imperfect democracy and model of tolerance, albeit with inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens and an occupying power still controlling the lives of million of Palestinians in the West Bank — a far cry from the “Zionist entity” trope widely used for decades in the Arab world as a blanket description for the Jewish state.
“We don’t see the other side of Israel: Israel as a model of democracy, Israel as a model for prosperity, Israel as a state that respects human rights,” Swalha told this reporter in his cushy, renovated office featuring arresting views of downtown Amman.
“The relationship between the government branch and the people, the separation of power, an independent judiciary — all the necessary democratic criteria exist in Israel,” Swalha said, adding “I speak of course only about Israel within [the 1967 lines], not about Israel in relation to the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza. We have to be clear about this point.”
Modeling the center on Israeli think tanks and research institutes, Swalha seeks not only to inform the public, but also to provide strategy analysis and recommendations to the Jordanian government — both to shape foreign policy vis-à-vis Israel, and to widen Jordan’s involvement in a binding rapprochement between Israel and the Palestinian Authority.
‘We want to enable ordinary people to understand Israel in Arabic’
The center employs 10 translators to work around the clock, poring over Hebrew news media, Israeli television channels and newspapers as well as government policy reports. Swalha himself speaks a little Hebrew and holds a PhD in political science from Cairo University. He wrote his dissertation on religion and state in Israel.
The content is translated into Arabic, and published in press release and analysis form on the center’s website, which contains continuously updated material on Israeli internal affairs, military matters, statistics, figures, politics, and government policies.
“Why is it that Israeli think tanks know everything about the Arab world, but that Arab think tanks don’t know anything about Israel? I know a person from Tel Aviv University who wrote a book discussing Jordanian tribes. How is it that [Israelis] know things about Jordan, Egypt and Lebanon, but we don’t know anything about Israel?” Swalha asked.
According to Swalha there are two principal underpinnings to the lack of understanding and to Israel’s overwhelmingly negative image in the Arab world. The first is a dearth of information. The second is an abundance of misinformation. He believes the institute is well placed to remove these impediments.
“It’s mostly due to propaganda and shortage of [data]. There is no mention of what’s going on in Israel, they only know that there is a conflict going on between Israel and the Palestinians,” he said of the Arab world, adding that the center seeks to fill this gap and provide “clear, objective information about Israel” in order to help solve the 60-year-long conflict.
A number of plasma screens affixed side by side in an adjacent viewing room broadcasts an endless loop of Israeli breakfast TV, news and Hebrew films, while the adhan, or Arabic call to prayer, blares loudly outside. Framed photographs of King Abdullah II and Crown Prince Hussein blithely gaze down from an adjacent wall.
“We want to enable ordinary people to understand Israel in Arabic. It is often misrepresented in Arabic media — people in the Arab world want an objective source to know what’s going on Israel. We fulfill this need,” Swalha said, momentarily distracted by a gaggle of mothers in a Tel Aviv studio discussing lunchbox nutrition on morning-show TV.
At first, the center encountered some resistance given the initial suspicion surrounding an organization with the word “Israel” in its title, but it was eventually given a green light and a blessing by the Jordanian government.
“Jordanian politicians encouraged me. They think it’s a good idea to understand Israel. But in the beginning some people were afraid. They wanted to know what is this center, who’s behind it,” Swalha said.
“When you establish a new project like this, you want to talk to the people using their own logic: I told them, I don’t serve the Israelis. I serve my people, my issue, and my country. So if we want to deal with Israel or to achieve peace, we have to understand what’s going on inside Israel,” he said.
The institute is funded through private-sector donations, according to Swalha, but he would be willing to accept grants from Israeli groups as well, in his bid to broaden the initiative beyond Jordan and into other Arab countries.
Know thy enemy, know thy friend
While the institute is certainly indicative of growing but tentative acceptance of Israel in the Arab street, Swalha noted that these initiatives do not herald the kind of normalization of ties that Jerusalem wants to see with surrounding countries. True acceptance of Israel in the Middle East can only be ushered in through an accord recognizing Palestinian sovereignty alongside Israel’s: a two-state solution with an independent, democratic, viable Palestinian state living side-by-side with Israel and its other neighbors.
“We don’t have a problem with normalization [in principle], but we have to find a definition for this normalization. Normalization does not mean that I accept everything from Israel. Israel must establish an independent Palestinian state and we have to achieve the peace by giving them their rights,” Swalha said.
“The [current situation] is not normalization. It is something more like dealing with Israel. If you consider Israel as enemy you have to study it and you have to deal with it. If you consider Israel as a friend, you have to study it and you have to deal with it,” Swalha said, adding that the Gulf states, such as Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Qatar, are ready for an agreement with Israel and share common interests in the shadow of the Iranian threat, but that the Palestinian issue remains a sticking point. Israel’s relations with the Arab world cannot be isolated from the Palestinian question, he said.
When it comes to the West Bank, Swalha noted, Israel does not respect human rights or international law and “there is no democracy for the Palestinians.”
If Israel wants to be accepted in the Arab world, Swalha said, it must first reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
“Normalization of ties [with Jerusalem] hinges on the Palestinian issue. Without it, there will be no peace in the region,” he said, noting that bilateral relations between Israel and Jordan are a “peace between governments, not between peoples,” referring to the peace treaty signed between the two countries in 1994.
The center has thus far received little media attention — an article or two in the Jordanian press — but Swalha wants to seize the opportunity to expand to neighboring Arab countries, so that Israel can be properly understood elsewhere too.
‘Mr. President, are you satisfied with Israel’s current borders? Does it match up to your history?’
The Center for Israel Studies by no means paints a rosy picture of the Jewish state. But it does attempt to construct a relatively impartial view of Israel while still remaining palatable to the Arab ear, which over decades has become accustomed to strictly demonizing depictions of a fervently unwanted regional interloper.
Swalha has visited Israel on a number of occasions, and even fondly recalled meeting with former president Shimon Peres – “he’s 91, and could hardly hear” – and Arab-Israeli Supreme Court Justice Salim Joubran – “this shows that there is a good opportunity [for peace].”
“Many people criticize Peres and look at him as an imaginary [dreamer], as not realistic — but I like him,” Swalha said.
“I told him: ‘Mr. President, the Jewish people have lots of history, but not enough geography [to make up for all that history]. The Jewish people lived thousands of years without a land, without a state, and in 1948 they established their state. I asked him: [you have] so much history, but not enough geography. Are you satisfied with Israel’s [current boundaries], with Israel’s borders? Does it match up to your history?” Swalha recalled of his meeting with the nonagenarian who served as Israel’s prime minister during three separate terms in the 70s, 80s and 90s and president during 2007-2014.
“[Peres] told me: ‘The land is not so important, because if you want to control large amounts of land you need a [large] army, you need resources, administration, but we [aren’t that populous or powerful]. Here in Israel, our income in the high-tech industry is more than Saudi Arabia’s income from oil. Our issue is not the land, but how to control and manage what [little] land we have,” Swalha said.