Al-Ahram Weekly Online   13 - 19 August 2009
Issue No. 960
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Sex, marriage and Mideast peacemaking

Pushing Arabs and Israelis towards peace is comparable to concluding a marriage between two hostile families. Without clear terms it cannot be consummated, and halfway intimacies are not enough, writes Ezzedine Choukri Fishere*

Once again, Arab, American and Israeli policymakers are engaged in sterile debates over the possible and impossible steps that could build confidence between Israel and its neighbours. Arabs are reluctant to take any steps before Israel makes serious and tangible moves towards a final political settlement. In their view, doing so gives away the "normalisation card" for free.

Most Americans and Israelis do not appreciate this reluctance. They explain to all who want to listen -- and also those who don't -- that goodwill gestures are needed before peace agreements are reached. Arab goodwill gestures, they argue, are part and parcel of building the confidence needed in order to reach a political settlement.

Israelis are quick to point out that in order to win Israel's support for territorial concessions, Arab states must send a message -- and preferably more than one -- that they are serious about normalisation.

To the sceptics, American mediators explain that goodwill gestures do not constitute "normalization" with Israel: Arab states can at any time reverse whatever positive measures they have taken towards Israel. In addition, Israel will also make goodwill gestures; a settlement freeze is its best example.

There is no point in repeating the arguments and counterarguments on each side of this debate; the parties have done so ad nauseum. Instead, try looking at this matter as if we were arranging a marriage between two hostile families; many of whom -- including the prospective bride and groom -- doubt the intentions of the other and question the possibility of finding agreement on the marriage's terms.

The mediators, who see in the marriage a possible end to the hostility between the two families that would bring peace to the village, are trying to convince bride, groom and the members of the two families of the merits of such a deal.

In the midst of their zeal, and to allay the multiple concerns of the groom (who has commitment issues as well as problems with his boisterous family members), the mediators encourage the bride to have sex with her prospective groom before the marriage is concluded. "Sex would entice him to proceed; it will reassure him that the money he will put in the marriage will be well rewarded," they say.

Mostly liberal in their thinking and ways of life, the mediators see no problem in the proposition (neither does the prospective groom, for all too different reasons). After all, millions of couples in America and Europe engage in premarital sex as a way of experiencing each other and determining whether it would be a good idea to proceed further. There is no disrespect, foul play or wrongdoing involved. They argue.

The proposition sounds logical to the bride (and quite convenient for the groom). Yet the bride's family is really conservative. Even if she finds it tempting, the bride knows well that she cannot face her family with such a proposition. "It will be suicide," she says. However, not wanting to undermine the prospects of her own marriage, the bride is willing to engage in premarital intimate encounters -- but short of intercourse. And in return for these intimacies she requires the groom to make demonstrable progress towards signing the marriage contract.

Thrilled by this "window of opportunity", the mediators spend weeks negotiating the nature of these intimacies; how much skin is involved, whether it would be made public or kept secret, how far they will go, how frequently they will meet, etc. At the same time, they negotiate the nature of demonstrable steps that would satisfy the bride in return; the nature of commitments the groom has to make, whether these would be reversible, phased, synchronised with the intimacies, etc. (Verification and arbitration remain contentious and unresolved issues).

Instead of working on finalising the terms of the marriage contract, the mediators waste everyone's time on fine-tuning the terms of these confidence-building measures. Naturally, neither the groom nor the bride derives any pleasure from their halfway intimacies, and they are busy quarrelling over each other's compliance with the terms of the deal. The families get no closer to marriage; nobody has negotiated the terms of that agreement -- and its difficult issues didn't become any easier on their own. In the meantime, the bride's family gets angrier as they feel they were taken for a ride (again) and eventually lock the bride at home. And those who always opposed the marriage on both sides feel vindicated in their prejudice: "this marriage will never take place," they say; "if they can't even agree on these tiny matters, how are they going to face common life with all its challenges?"

Senator Mitchell and friends: would you please drop the useless confidence-building track that depleted precious political resources of so many mediators before you and focus on the real issue? Get the marriage contract signed, after which you can have all the sex you want.

* The writer is distinguished visiting lecturer at the American University in Cairo.

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