Professor Moshe Sharon explains what Trump needs to say to Abbas during their upcoming meeting; why a nuclear Iran is so dangerous; and why the West has trouble understanding the Muslim world
President Trump will be meeting with PA President Mahmoud Abbas this coming Wednesday. Unlike his predecessor, President Trump understands that the major problems in the Middle East are Iran, ISIS and Syria, and that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict has a minor connection, if any, to the broader conflicts in the Middle East. Still, President Trump is looking to take a swing at solving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, a feat that has eluded all of his predecessors. Is a solution possible, and if so, what needs to be done to reach it?
I spoke with Professor Moshe Sharon, professor emeritus at Hebrew University, and world renowned expert on Islam, about the possibilities of President Trump striking a peace agreement in the Middle East. A former student of Professor Bernard Lewis, Sharon is considered Israel’s most highly respected authority on Islam, and served under Prime Minister Menachem Begin as his advisor on Arab affairs where he took part in the negotiations with Egyptian President, Anwar Sadat.
In my interview with Professor Sharon, we discussed what President Trump should say to Mahmoud Abbas when they meet; why Iran might actually use a nuclear weapon if they obtain one; and whether such a term as moderate Muslim exists.
Understanding Their Language
Professor Sharon is fluent in Arabic and Farsi among other languages. More than 50 years ago, Sharon knew that he wanted to study Middle Eastern Studies and thus went to live with the Bedouins in Southern Israel and Israeli Arabs from the Galilee to better understand their culture. At the beginning, they knew he was Jewish, but once he became fluent in Arabic, it was indiscernible. “I had my own sheep, my own little flock, I spoke their language, I was like one of them,” remembers Sharon. “The most important thing was to learn their language, their habits, their nuances, and once that happens you hear not only what they say to you, but also what they don’t say, which is just as important.”
Sharon lived with the Bedouins for a period of time, and then went to live with the Arabs to understand them. From the outside, the Arabs can be seen as a homogenous people, but in reality they are very different one from another. When discussing a two state solution, many Westerners talk about combining Gaza and the West Bank together as one Palestinian state that will live alongside Israel, Sharon disagrees.
“Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank are from two different worlds. If you say to the West Bankers that the Gazans are coming to live with them, they will be absolutely flabbergasted, they won’t believe you. If a Gazan went to live in Nablus, he would be in a bad situation. Even more than that, if an Arab from Hebron went to live in Nablus (60 miles north of Hebron), he wouldn’t be in a good situation, because these cities are made up of families, clans, and tribes, they aren’t homogenous societies.”
According to Sharon, the way Israel negotiates with the Palestinians needs to be different. For decades, he has been critical of the way Israel’s leaders have handled negotiations with Arab leaders in general, and has written a guide as to how to negotiate in the Middle East bazaar. One important change is to remove the English language from negotiations. “I want negotiations to be in two languages: Hebrew and Arabic. Israel will speak Hebrew and they will speak Arabic. Because then you will really hear what the Arabs have to say, and what they don’t have to say. The Arabs know that what they say will be quoted in their media and therefore they will be very careful what they say and you will hear their true positions. In English, they can say anything they want, and then later when confronted with what they said they will say it wasn’t understood correctly and taken out of context.”
Sharon says that as a general rule, what Muslim/Arab leaders say in English means absolutely nothing. First, because they will always say what the English audience wants to hear, even if it has no resemblance to reality. Second, Muslims don’t view themselves as obligated to the Western audience. “When Muslims speak in front of their own people, they know that when they commit to something they are expected to supply the goods. That is not so with English audiences.”
But the divide is even greater.
Sharon explains that when Muslim leaders speak in front of English audiences they will not only say what their Western audience wants to hear, but also use it as a basis to extract concessions from them. For example, when discussing commitment to peace with Israel or to a certain deal, the Arab/Muslim leader goes on and on about peace, their commitment to it, its importance and so forth. The Western listener believes everything that has been said and will interpret the words and declarations of the Muslim leader as to actually mean the concept and ideas that he believes in. When the European hears about ‘peace’ from an Arab leader, he thinks about the Western concept of peace which is very different from the Muslim’s concept of peace.
“No one ever asks the Muslim speaker to explain what is it he means when he says ‘peace’ and ‘tolerance’, because they think that they know what it means since there is a definition of peace. When the Muslim speaker tells the Western audience what they want to hear, he will then take advantage of the fact that the Westerner heard what he wanted to hear, as if the Muslim made a concession to him, and as a result will demand concessions from the Westerner, since the Muslim leader has given the perception that he has made concessions to the Westerner.”
When Trump Meets Abbas
Sharon explains that there is a major difference between agreements in the Muslim world and agreements in the West. “In the Muslim world you only keep an agreement because you have to keep it, but the moment the agreement can be terminated, you terminate it, because you are the stronger party.”
In regard to a peace agreement, there is a difference between how the West understands the nature of this agreement as opposed to the Muslim world. “In Islam, the normal situation is war until the world is conquered. However, there are times when the Muslims cannot continue the war because they are not strong enough to win or for other reasons that might cause them to lose the war. The solution for type of situation in Islamic legal terms is called Sulha. This is when the Muslims stop their battles with the non-Muslims for a limited period of time which is the Sulha. This idea has rules and it can be renewed, but it is only temporary since Muslims cannot stop Jihad forever. Jihad is a normal situation, but to stop Jihad temporarily there must be a very good reason – the Muslim needs to have an alibi. However, even if there is a Sulha, it is only valid as long as the Muslims feel they are not strong enough to fight the non-Muslims, the minute this changes, they are required to return to Jihad.”
Sharon believes that there is no chance for any peace agreement because in simple terms, Israel wants peace whereas the Palestinians are committed to Israel’s destruction. “If Abbas and the Palestinians wanted to make peace, they could have done it numerous times already. The Palestinians received conditions for peace from former Prime Ministers Barak and Olmert that would have led to the destruction of the State of Israel. If Abbas would have accepted then what was offered it would have been the end of the State of Israel without question, because Hamas would have taken over the West Bank, and then there would be a situation where not one airplane could take off from Ben Gurion airport due to missile and mortar threats.” Sharon is referring to territorial concessions that both Prime Ministers made to the Palestinians which would allow them to have control of the hills overlooking Ben Gurion International Airport, only about five miles away.
If that is the case, what does Abbas want from Trump and how should Trump conduct his meeting with Abbas?
“Mahmoud Abbas is going to meet President Trump in the White House in order to get the American President on his side because he has a plan, which is not to make peace with Israel, but rather to destroy it. Part of this agenda is to find allies for his cause, and the best ally is the United States. The minute the U.S. becomes the ally of Palestinians it ceases to be the ally of Israel, as happened during the Obama Administration.”
How should Trump conduct his meeting with Abbas?
“He needs to say to Abbas: what is your peace plan and show me your covenant.” Sharon is referring to the PLO charter which was established in 1964, three years before Israel took control over the West Bank. In that charter, Israel’s existence or recognition of its existence is not mentioned at all. This document was the blueprint for the principles that would guide the PLO in their efforts to reclaim all of Palestine from Israel.
“Trump needs to ask Abbas what is the meaning of his covenant and to go through the articles of the covenant and understand what each means.” For example, what does Article 2 mean when it says that ‘Palestine with its boundaries at the time of the British Mandate is a regional indivisible unit.’ “Trump needs to ask Abbas what exactly is your plan and what are you willing to give Israel. He should say ‘we only hear about what you want from Israel, but what are you willing to give Israel.’
But what if Abbas says he is ready to stop terror attacks against Israel?
“No, that’s not enough. I’m ready to stop killing you, that is giving you something?!”
So, let’s say he says I’m ready to stop incitement?
“No, what are you ready to give in real terms, not that you are going to stop to killing Jews. You want from the Israelis a list of concessions connected to territory that brings you within seven miles of Israel’s main cities, but what are you willing to give them in terms of real things.”
So what if Abbas says he is ready to recognize Israel as a Jewish state according to the 1967 borders?
“Yes, that is very important. To recognize Israel is important and Trump needs to tell Abbas, ‘Go back to Ramallah, stand up in public and give a speech saying the Palestinian people recognize Israel as a Jewish state’ in those exact words in Arabic, but Abbas will never do it. In any event, this is only the declarative part, the second part is what is Abbas willing to give Israel in real terms, in real estate? Sometimes people ask me in public lectures ‘what is your plan for the Palestinian-Israeli conflict’? I say I have no plan. I want to know what is the Arab’s plan. The Arabs will never present their plan first, they will always create a situation where you have to present your plan first and they work from there.”
A Religious Or National Conflict
Some people get mixed up when they see the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. On the one hand there is the PLO which seems like a secular nationalist movement, and on the other hand there is Hamas and other Jihad organizations which speak in terms of a religious war against Israel – which is it? “There is no secularism in Islam, there is no such word for secularism in Islam. That is a mistake people make since they look at Islam like they look at Christianity. Even if a Muslim doesn’t go to mosque, doesn’t fast during Ramadan, doesn’t make a pilgrimage to Mecca, he is still a Muslim, because Islam is a source of identity, remember that. Islam is a center of identity. We are not talking about a religion on a scale of less and more. There is no separation between state and religion.”
Do Moderate Muslims Exist
“There are about 1.25 billion muslims in the world, 99% want to go to work and bring food home, but the ones that set the tone for Islam are the 1%. ISIS is very small, but they give the tone, same with Iran, those who have the power and give the tone are a fraction of the community.”
But are all the Muslims happy with that tone?
“Most are not happy with the leaders, but they are irrelevant. That makes no difference, no one is asking about happiness. If you have power you don’t ask about happiness because you can behead the people that don’t agree with you. Think about Saudi Arabia, under any normal standards the government should have collapsed years ago. Whoever has the power to kill has the power to rule. There are many Muslims who are nice and talk about peace, but the person who speaks about peace and how wonderful it would be, ask him not what he thinks, but what he could do for it? And if he is truthful he will say he can do nothing about it, because he has no power.”
But are these people who want peace adhering to Islam which calls for Jihad and commands Muslims to takeover the world?
“Yes, but they can’t do anything about it.”
Are Muslims happy when they have an alibi that they don’t have to go to jihad?
“This is not the question. They will have to go to jihad if a call for jihad is issued by their own leader. They are like a sheep looking for the shepherd who will take them to the water or a grazing area. There are a few thousand in the western world who want to be westerners – let them be westerners – which means that they are ready to lose their identity. Some people say “I met a wonderful Muslim who wants peace” and I say: Wonderful I want peace also, but what he can do about it? Nothing, he doesn’t set the tone.
And there will never be a situation where the leader of Islam can give a tone of reconciliation?
“The question of reconciliation is impossible. Why? Because then you put on parity Muslims and non-Muslims and that is impossible. “
But these people in the West who want peace, if they became leaders of Islam, would they be talking differently?
“The idea is very simple. The rules which control the Muslim who is a leader are not the same rules that control a regular Muslim running around Paris, London, and NY. When he has no power, a person can live by different rules but if he becomes a leader then there are other rules that govern him because he is now a ruler with the power to do something.”
Iran Might Use An Atomic Bomb
In a previous interview, Professor Sharon said that there is real possibility that Iran would use a nuclear weapon should they obtain one. “Iran is ruled by fanatic rulers who live with a feeling of impending apocalypse. The Shia is a messianic movement which means that it lives with the idea that the messiah, or Mahdi, exists somewhere, but he is hidden. This messiah is waiting to appear. There is one possibility where the Shia leadership would do everything they could to induce the Mahdi to appear – mainly through wars which would lead to major catastrophes. This would remain in the realm of religion, but there are other dangerous things that Iran’s leaders might pursue. The Shi’ites are the sufferers of the Islamic world, they are the minority in Islam and they have been persecuted by the majority of Islam which is the Sunnis. For them, the greatest in enemy of the world are the Sunnis, and they will do everything they can to destroy them. I always say that if Iran obtains nuclear weapons Saudi Arabia will be the first to be on the receiving end, since Saudi Arabia, more than any other country, represents pure Sunni Islam.”
“When Ahmadinejad was Mayor of Tehran he spent about six million dollars to build a royal entrance so that the Mahdi could enter into Tehran in a very respectable way. So they are not just talking abstractly. We may think it is ridiculous, but understand his thinking, he believes that he can bring the Mahdi and that is why builds this entrance.”
While the Iranians talk about bringing the Mahdi, Islam has been around for almost 1,400 years, have they not tried to bring the Mahdi before? Didn’t they have not a powerful army before that could bring destruction and catastrophe? Sharon says that bringing the Mahdi has never before been tried by the Shia, though they talk about it all the time.
“The Shi’ites never created for themselves a real powerful army, to such an extent where they could challenge the powers of the Sunni. Almost all of the time they were under Sunni rule. Until the 16th century Iran was a Sunni country. The Shia are a minority in Islam, maybe six or seven percent of all Muslims. What is unique now is that Iran presents themselves not only as the leaders of Shia, but also they are claiming to be the leaders of the Islamic world in general, because they are presenting a goal which is acceptable to all Muslims. This goal is first fighting the “Great Satan” which is represented by the U.S., a Christian country which is so big and so strong that in order to take over the world it needs to be brought down, and then they have this helper which runs around between its legs which is Israel.”
For Muslims, Israel is both ritually unclean and dangerous since it is suicidal by nature in the sense that Muslims don’t know what Israel going to do, and Israel also puts the whole Muslim world to shame. Islam is a shame oriented society as opposed to the Christian world which is a guilt oriented society. In a guilt oriented society, the antidote for wrongdoing is either punishment or forgiveness, whereas in a shame oriented society, the only way to deal with shame is revenge, to obliterate the thing that caused the shame. Israel puts the Muslim world to shame, and therefore the only thing they can do to Israel is destroy it.
How does Iran view President Trump?
“They see him as a real leader. He talks a language that they understand. The Iranians saw Obama as weak, and scared of Iran. The Iranians are trembling because they believe that Trump is the other side of Obama. They think to themselves, ‘maybe we should reach an agreement with him before he starts to damage us’. The stronger Trump acts towards Iran the better. They are not saying it openly, but if you read between the lines in Iranian newspapers they are far more careful, but still trying to project strength. But if Trump continues the way he is going, he could bring them down.”