Integration into the Middle East? Let’s see you pull it off, Lapid

On his historic June 30 visit to the Emirates for the official opening of the Israeli Embassy in Abu Dhabi and consulate in Dubai, Foreign Minister Yair Lapid urged other Muslim and Arab states to establish diplomatic relations with Israel. “The Middle East is our home. We are here to stay, and we call on all states in the region to recognize this and come talk to us,” Lapid said.

His seminal statement places Lapid alongside historic political figures such as Israel’s first President Chaim Weizmann, Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Moshe Sharett, Prime Minister Shimon Peres, and others, committed to Israel’s integration into the Middle East. The opposing school of thought, best represented by David Ben-Gurion, espoused an isolationist view of Israel as part of the West, in general, and Europe, in particular. Most leaders of the Labor and Likud parties favored this approach, whether former Labor Prime Minister Ehud Barak or former Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

The latter two will go down in history for their memorable statements in this regard, referring to Israel as a “villa” and its neighbors as “a jungle” (Barak) or “wild animals” (Netanyahu). The isolationist stream dominated Israeli decision making throughout its existence. It stemmed, inter alia, from the boycott by Israel’s Middle Eastern neighbors who refused to recognize its legitimacy. A third school of thought, favored by Israel’s mythological Foreign Minister Abba Eban, Mapam party leader Yaakov Hazan and others, regarded Israel as part of the Mediterranean region. Each of these perceptions was also supported by a series of intellectuals who lobbied for the acceptance of their version.

The 1948 Declaration of Independence indicates support for the Middle Eastern affiliation. “We extend our hand to all neighboring states and their peoples in an offer of peace and good neighborliness, and appeal to them to establish bonds of cooperation and mutual help with the sovereign Jewish people settled in its own land. The State of Israel is prepared to do its share in a common effort for the advancement of the entire Middle East,” it states.

The Jews and Arabs in Israel, it must be said, are still undecided on the question of Israel’s affinity. Mitvim Institute surveys indicate that Israeli society is divided more or less equally among these three perceptions (with about 25% support for each), while 10% think Israel does not belong to any of these regions and 12% do not know. Arab citizens tend to see Israel more as having an affinity for Europe, but the findings regarding this group are essentially similar to those of Jewish society.

The determination of Israel’s place is not merely a political matter; it is related to issues of identity and the way other see it. If the Middle East, with its majority Muslim and Arab population, is perceived as inferior politically (in failing to practice democracy), economically (lacking attractive markets) and culturally, then those espousing Israel’s Middle Eastern affinity will remain a minority, and vice versa.

Israel’s integration into the Middle Eastern region is widely believed feasible under two conditions: Recognition of Israel, and a solution or significant progress toward resolution of the Palestinian problem. The second factor is a pre-condition for recognition, as was the case following Israel’s 1993 Oslo Accords with the Palestinians when Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, Qatar, Oman and Mauritania established diplomatic relations with Israel. However, Israel’s 2020 peace agreements with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and Morocco illustrated that recognition and regional integration may be possible without resolving the Palestinian issue. This, in fact, was the approach that Netanyahu advanced with what he labeled the “peace in return for peace” doctrine.

The normalization agreements with the Emirates and Bahrain, and perhaps with Sudan and Morocco down the line, illustrate that the peace with Egypt and Jordan, which did not normalize relations between the people, is not necessarily the only model of diplomatic ties between Israel and the Arab world. However, the integration issue is not linked only to cooperation against a shared enemy, whether Iran or Nasser’s Egypt. Israel cooperated in the past with Iran, Turkey, Ethiopia, Sudan, Yemen, Morocco, Iraq’s Kurds, Lebanon’s Maronite Christians and others, but these states and minorities were unwilling to expose their ties with Israel due to opposition in the Islamic and Arab world.

Israel’s integration into the Middle East will always generate religious and ideological opposition on the part of those who view it as an artificial colonial entity serving the interests of the West and controlling territory not its own, in which Palestinians have dwelled since time immemorial. Others oppose any normalization with Israel as long as the Palestinian problem has not been settled by a two-state solution. However, it is becoming increasingly obvious that Israeli policy is designed to strengthen its control of the occupied territories, leaving a one Arab-Jewish state between the Mediterranean and the Jordan River as the only solution. Given demographic trends, this state would have an Arab majority. Thus, events are bringing together the deniers of Israel’s right to exist with those willing to accept it but only within the 1967 borders (with some land swaps).

Israel’s integration into the Middle East carries a price tag – resolution of the Palestinian problem. Are Lapid or other members of the coalition government – except for Labor and Meretz – willing to embark on that course? And if the answer is “no”, how is their view different from the approach that Netanyahu espoused of integration into the region without resolution of the Palestinian problem?

“Israel’s Fateful Decisions” was the title of a 1986 book by the late historian Yehoshafat Harkabi, which foresaw the following option: “Acceptance of a Greater Land of Israel as an Arab state”. Thirty-five years on, this scenario appears closer. Fateful decisions, indeed.

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