Anticipating President Trump’s meeting on Wednesday with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas, Gideon Israel of MIDA interviewed 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.  

Sharon’s position as a commentator on the situation is unassailable. He is fluent in Arabic and Farsi; over 50 years ago, Sharon lived with the Bedouins in Southern Israel and Israeli Arabs from the Galilee in order to understand their culture.  Sharon recalled, “I had my own sheep, my own little flock, I spoke their language, I was like one of them. 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.”

After living with the Bedouins, Sharon lived with the Arabs. He pointed out that conflating Arabs from Gaza and the West Bank is a mistake. He asserted:

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.

Sharon wrote a guide for negotiating in the Middle East. He noted that English should not be used in negotiations. He cogently stated, “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 said 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.  He added, “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.”  

Gideon Israel writes:

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.

Sharon posited:

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.

Sharon explained the 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 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. 

Arguing that there is no chance for a peace agreement because Israel wants peace whereas the Palestinians want to destroy Israel, Sharon opined:

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.

Asked what Abbas wants from Trump and how Trump should conduct his meeting with Abbas, Sharon said Abbas simply wants the U.S. as an ally; Trump, he said, should say to Abbas: “What is your peace plan and show me your covenant.”  The PLO charter does not recognize Israel’s existence.

Sharon advised Trump to ask Abbas to go through the articles of the covenant and understand what each means.  What does Article 2 mean when it says, “Palestine with its boundaries at the time of the British Mandate is a regional indivisible unit”? He added,  “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?” 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 Arabic.

Sharon explained, “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.” 

Asked if there will ever be a situation where the leader of Islam can give a tone of reconciliation, Sharon replied, “The question of reconciliation is impossible. Why? Because then you put on parity Muslims and non-Muslims and that is impossible.”

Sharon also spoke of Iran’s apocalyptic view of history, and the danger of them having nuclear weapons, noting, “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.”  

Sharon said that bringing the Mahdi has never before been tried by the Shia:

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.

Sharon explained further that 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 is going to do, and Israel also puts the whole Muslim world to shame.   Islam, a shame-oriented society, is in contrast to the Christian world, which is a guilt-oriented society. Israel writes, “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.”

For the full interview, see here.