When Moshe Ma’oz began studying Islam as a young sabra in Tel Aviv, he found he was in for a surprise.
“I came to appreciate part of it in a scholarly way and sort of developed a kind of empathy with the Arab culture. I’m trying to see Islamic-Jewish relations in a balanced, objective way.”
Maoz is in Pittsburgh for four months as the Rooney International Visiting Scholar at Robert Morris University. He applied for position to be closer to his three granddaughters and his daughter, a social psychologist on sabbatical at the University of Pennsylvania.
While here, he will offer three open lectures at RMU. He can also be heard at The Agency for Jewish Learning in Squirrel Hill and Temple Emanuel of the South Hills.
During a three-hour interview with The Chronicle, Ma’oz discussed the current mayhem in the Middle East and his vision of the road to peace for Israel: dialogue with Syria and the Palestinians and the need to exchange additional lands for a stable peace.
“It will be arduous and heart wrenching,” he said, “but it can be done. We only need someone with sekel (brains).”
Israel can better negotiate with the Arabs than Christian nations, because Jews and Muslims share cultures and customs not part of Christianity, he explained.
“We don’t live in America,” he said. “We need to integrate into the Middle East and not be the outpost of the United States. We need to talk to our neighbors.”
Aware that his beliefs are far from the norm, Ma’oz, 71, doesn’t forget the ideas once accepted by Presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton and former Israeli Prime Ministers Ben-Gurion, Shimon Peres and Yitzak Rubin, whom he advised.
The Second Lebanon War has made it even more important for Israel to interact with its enemies, he said.
“Things are getting worse because of the war and the repercussions can be very bad,” he said. Both sides overacted and Israel did not achieve its war aims. Yet the war was hardly Israel’s swan song, said Ma’oz, a former colonel in the IDF’s intelligence division. The Jewish state is a strong country, he noted, with a strong army and a strong economy.
What war in Lebanon, as well as the one in Iraq, have done, he said, is strengthen the hands of terrorist groups in Egypt, Jordan and Morocco – Arab nations that have diplomatic relations with Israel – as well as terrorist groups in the Gaza Strip that consider Hamas too liberal.
The developments, he said, have put those governments in danger.
Most Arabs, he noted, are pragmatic, pro-Western and quietly pro-Israel. He considers Iran the only militant Muslim state, with whom there is little hope for negotiations for peace with the Western world.
“Arabs can’t take over the world or destroy Israel,” Ma’oz said. Nor do most Arabs accept Iranian President Ahmadinejad’s fanatical version of Islam.
It is those calmer heads whom Ma’oz wants to encourage with renewed communications and promises.
Simultaneously, he wants the United States to encourage Arab governments to train more liberal teachers and jump start Arab economies. Doing so, he said, would help Arab leaders develop a stable middle class to counteract radically religious terrorists, supported by Iran.
But neutralizing Iran’s goals of achieving a pan-Islamic world means negotiating with the Palestinians, he said.
Israel should do business with Hamas, Ma’oz said – provided Hamas recognizes past agreements made with the Palestine Liberation Organization.
“Hamas is not like the PLO,” said Ma’oz, who met numerous times with Yasser Arafat. “They are clean, not corrupt.”
To prove to the Arabs that Israel is serious about peace, he touted a future Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem.
On the Syrian front, he said improved relations with Damascus – which President Bush, unlike his father and President Clinton, is not considering – would serve major Israeli interests. Among them are neutralizing Hezbollah, limiting the activities of Hamas and Islamic Jihad (headquartered in Damascus) and facilitating Israel’s acceptance in the region.
For Israel to negotiate peace with Syria, it must be prepared to return the Golan Heights to Syria within the context of a full peace agreement with Damascus, Ma’oz said.
The majority of Israelis are not willing to negotiate with Syria or give up East Jerusalem, he admitted.
He would like Israel to have a Prime Minister of Ben-Gurion’s ilk – one who Ma’oz said pushed the population towards peace rather than trying to stay in power. “I don’t care what the people wish,” he said, quoting David Ben-Gurion, “I know what they need.”
(Jo Marks Rifkin can be reached at email@example.com.)