With Washington trying once again to randomly sketch new Middle East maps, intellectuals, politicians and Arab journalists are dreaming of a fundamental change in attitudes and true normalization leading to peace between peoples, not only between leaders. Who has real prospects of success?
The nephew of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat, a former Kuwaiti government minister, a Lebanese Shi’ite cleric and dozens of journalists, researchers, ministers and former lawmakers met several months ago in London to discuss normalization and peace with Israel.
The Israelis were not in the room, but members of the Arab Council for Regional Integration – an initiative established in November 2019 by intellectuals, politicians and clerics from around the Arab world – spoke mostly about Israel. They discussed the historic ties between Jews and Arabs and proposed ideas for combating the anti-Israel boycott movement.
The launch of the initiative generated broad interest and media coverage, but also harsh criticism within the Arab world, especially in the Palestinian Authority, Egypt and Jordan. Despite the more agreeable and positive attitudes toward Israel recently emerging from the Arab world, supporters of the initiative believe they still have much work ahead to foster normalization and peace, and the chilly reception they encountered in the Arab media was the clearest indication that they are right.
This spirit supposedly contradicts the new realities in the Middle East. Israel has been awash in recent years in reports heralding a new era in relations with the Arab world. Israel was said to be discussing a possible agreement of nonbelligerence with Bahrain, it was allowing its citizens to visit Saudi Arabia, UAE authorities are allowing Israelis to attend the international Expo 2020 fair in Dubai, and Israeli government ministers were shuttling between Arab capitals, until recently closed to Israelis, to advance cooperation on energy and defense issues.
HAS ISRAEL’S dream truly come true, and can it now enjoy normal relations with most of its neighbors in the region?
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes that is the case, indeed. In addressing the Knesset in November 2019 on Israel’s peace with Jordan, he said Israel was successfully enhancing its standing in the Arab world without paying a price – in other words, without renewing peace talks with the Palestinians or signing a peace agreement entailing significant and painful concessions.
In analyzing the current state of affairs in the Middle East, things look different, less glowing and hopeful.
A rapprochement with Israel is undoubtedly of strategic interest for the ruling elites in several Arab states, especially in the Persian Gulf, which fear growing isolation in light of the gradual US disengagement from the Middle East and growing Iranian influence in the region.
However, at the same time, the influence of movements opposed to normalization with Israel is also increasing, especially in the countries at peace with Israel, Egypt and Jordan. In the Gulf States, too, things are not as simple as they appear from the optimistic reports about Israeli visits to Manama and Abu Dhabi, where the elites are also facing complex limitations.
While the Palestinian issue may not be high on the regional agenda these days, it still dictates the pace of relations between Israel and Arab states. At the same time, anti-Israel sentiment, often antisemitism, too, are still pervasive in the Middle East.
In light of the above, will Arab societies really be able to accept Israel and normalize relations with Israel?
A DRIVING force behind the new initiative is Joseph Braude, an American scholar, writer and media personality of Jewish origin, who heads the Center for Peace Communications. It appears to be inspired by the new climate of relations between Israel and the Gulf and changing attitudes toward Israel in other countries, from Iraq to Morocco.
However, members of the Arab Council for Regional Integration are interested not only in cooperation among leaders, but also among peoples.
Braude, who speaks Arabic, Farsi and Hebrew, is a regular guest on Arabic-language television channels and serves as an adviser to the Al-Mesbar Studies and Research Center in Dubai.
In his recent book, Reclamation: Cultural Policy for Arab-Israeli Partnership, Braude presents a coherent strategy designed to dispel the effects of toxic incitement, antisemitism and anti-Israel sentiments in the Arab world. He calls for a significant change in the Arab media by creating a support network for Arab peace proponents who advocate relations with Israel and the Jews, and reducing the influence of Iranian and jihadist propaganda channels.
In a certain sense, this book served as the manifesto of the Arab Council for Regional Integration upon its inception.
Participants in the London gathering set themselves an overriding goal of fostering change in their societies and overcoming internal obstacles of division and distrust. Most of the meeting was devoted to issues that engage Israelis and Jews – the fight against the boycott movement, which participants argued was a harmful movement first and foremost to Arab states, and the desire for rapprochement with Israel.
In fact, this initiative is similar to Israeli initiatives that seek to foster changed attitudes within Israeli society and acceptance of “others” before engaging with the Arab side.
After years of numerous unofficial dialogue meetings and projects between Palestinians and Israelis, the number of these initiatives appears to be in decline, inter alia due to lack of official negotiations for over five years. On the other hand, only a handful of initiatives over the years involved bilateral meetings between Israelis and representatives of Arab states, both because of concern on the Arab side about domestic criticism and Arab states’ focus on the Palestinian issue, until recent years. Such meetings may now be easier to carry out than before.
Participants in the London meeting referred to the inherent limitations of the agreements between Israel, Egypt, Jordan and the PA, arguing that the generals and diplomats who conducted the peace negotiations never sought to promote peace between their peoples. The new initiative espouses peace among peoples and cultures, arguing that peace agreements between countries do not stand a chance unless the people accept them. According to this view, before launching diplomatic negotiations on peace and normalization, the ground must be prepared from the bottom up.
The mission of the new Arab Council is complex and important. Its members want to influence discourse, positions and media depictions. They are interested in promoting a new set of ideological values to replace the rubble of old ideologies, which, despite their failure, still manage to dictate Arab societies’ tone toward “the other.”
Will the new initiative change the rules of the game in the region, or will it be just another passing chapter in the annals of the Middle East?
It is too soon to say, but given the current regional reality rife with terrorism, wars, blood and hatred, an initiative designed to eradicate hatred and foster goodwill is undoubtedly a necessary and welcome measure, even if it sometimes seems like tilting at windmills.
Israel could benefit from a similar initiative of its own, which would aspire to promote a moderate and balanced view of Palestinians, Arabs and Muslims in the Israeli media, politics and society. After all, in order to advance relations with our Arab neighbors, both sides must lower the bar of hatred. It is time that Israelis, too, understand and believe that we are an inseparable part of the Middle East, that we do not live on a lone island, and that despite the clear difficulties, cooperation with the region is feasible, first and foremost with states that are already Israel’s partners in peace – Egypt and Jordan.
The writer is director of the program on Israel-Middle East relations at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. She is a senior research fellow at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya and formerly a member of the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.