Earlier this summer, I was in Jerusalem meeting with various officials and
catching up with old friends. Minutes after meeting a former high-up official in
Israel’s Foreign Ministry, he ran back to me and said: “Alon, come quick, you
have to speak with this guy.”
After our meeting, he had walked into a
pharmacy where the pharmacist saw that he was carrying the brochure I published,
“Israel and the Arab Peace Initiative.”
I went to speak with the
pharmacist and after I confirmed that I was the author of the brochure, he said,
“You do not really believe that peace with the Arabs is possible, do you? ‘Arab
and peace’ is an oxymoron.
There is no such thing.”
pharmacist, like many Israelis, was simply unaware of the Arab Peace Initiative
and the groundbreaking opportunity that it represents. A recent joint poll by
Hebrew University’s Truman Institute and the Palestinian Center for Policy and
Survey Research indicated that 59 percent of Israelis are opposed to it. It is a
troubling statistic, but one that reflects the failure by successive Israeli
governments to embrace and market this critical initiative to its
To be sure, Israelis have reason to be skeptical.
violent conflicts with Arabs and the Arab states’ rejection of past peace
overtures have traumatized Israelis to believe that an ‘Arab Peace Initiative’
is indeed an oxymoron. Following the 1967 war, the Arab world rejected the
possibility of negotiating with Israel for a withdrawal from the lands it
captured in the Six Day War. Instead, they delivered their answer through the
infamous declaration at the Khartoum Conference in 1967 stating “no to peace, no
to recognition, no to negotiations,” which has been ingrained in the mindset of
Israelis ever since.
To make matters worse, the Arab Peace Initiative was
first adopted by the Arab League at the Beirut Summit on March 27, 2002, the
same day as a horrific suicide bombing which killed 30 people and injured 140 at
a Passover Seder at the Park Hotel in Netanya, at the height of the violent
second intifada. Thus, good ideas presented at the wrong time seemingly become
bad ideas. This was certainly the case with the Arab Peace Initiative in March
2002. Indeed, had it been presented in 1967 instead of the declaration at
Khartoum, the region might look very different today.
BUT IT is no longer
the spring of 2002 and it is no longer 1967. Israel should act accordingly. It
cannot allow the trauma of the past to distract it from its obligation to its
people to seek ways to safeguard the security of the Jewish state which can be
attained only through peace. While there are aspects of the Initiative that
concern Israel, it should still fully embrace the effort as a historic
opportunity and landmark repudiation of the message the Arab states delivered at
the Khartoum conference.
In fact, Israel’s silence in response to the
Arab world’s bold gesture sends the message that it is rejecting peace today – a
notion that was reaffirmed to me during my recent trip to Strasbourg, France
where I met scores of EU members of Parliament who, without exception, insisted
that Israel – and not the Palestinians – is the obstacle to peace. Israel must
recognize that time and circumstances have changed, and that the Arab states
also recognize that Israel is here to stay – albeit peace can be forged only
through the exchange of territory for peace. There are six key reasons why Arab
states recognize the need to make peace today and why they have yet to remove
their initiative from the table despite Israel’s rejection, and in spite of the
currently stalled negotiating process.
First, the ability of the Arab
states to exploit the Palestinian problem for domestic consumption has run its
course. It is no longer advantageous for them to use the Palestinian problem to
distract their publics from domestic problems. The Arab states are deeply
troubled by extremism within their own societies – extremism and dissatisfaction
which are fueled to a large extent by the Israeli-Palestinian
Second, resolving the conflict is not only an Arab concern
today, it is a global concern. The Palestinian problem is now one that has been
adopted by the international community, with the United Nations, Europe, United
States and the Arab world all heavily engaged. In this regard, the Arab world
has succeeded in making Palestinian nationalism a focus of the international
community. No longer can the Arab states claim it is an issue that is being
ignored. Now it is an issue that must be resolved.
Third, the Arab states
realize that Israel is too powerful to be defeated. Israel is a powerful nation
with a vibrant economy and strong military. In 1967, it was not clear to the
Arab states – despite their defeat in the Six Day War – whether the ‘Israel
phenomenon’ was insurmountable.
In 2010, it is clear that Israel is a
reality that must be reckoned with. Those Arab extremists who still dream of
destroying Israel do so now at their peril.
Fourth, Arab states see
Israel as a buffer against the growing influence of Iran in the Middle East. The
Arab world is deeply concerned with Iran’s determination to acquire nuclear
weapons and its hegemonic ambitions in Lebanon, Gaza, Iraq and elsewhere in the
region. In addition, the possible failure of sanctions against the current
Iranian regime and the concerns that the Obama administration may not be willing
to use force to halt Iran’s nuclear ambitions leave Israel – in the Arab world’s
perspective – as the only credible power with the capability to stop
In this regard, the concept of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”
Fifth, Israel is increasingly viewed as a useful economic
partner in the Middle East. As the West seeks to transition from its oil
dependence, so too do the Arab states.
Many also realize that Israel has
much to offer in terms of advanced technologies and economic
In fact, currently there are nearly a dozen Arab states
that have established some kind of relations with Israel in these fields. They
indeed realize that they have much to learn – and benefit – from Israel’s
thriving economy and educated citizenry.
Sixth, for Arab states, peace is
no longer a luxury – it is a necessity. The regional powers in the Middle East
today are Israel, Iran and Turkey – all non-Arab actors.
To turn the tide
which has placed the Arab world lagging behind requires that they begin to look
to the future and resolve the conflicts of the past. To overcome the Arab
world’s frustration with its malaise, the Arab states need to begin providing
the kind of economic developments and security that can enable
And that is only possible through a comprehensive peace with
There is a very strong likelihood that the Palestinian
Authority’s President Mahmoud Abbas will soon agree to enter into direct
negotiations with Israel.
Israel will now have a golden opportunity to
demonstrate its commitment to peace by agreeing to negotiate substantive issues
with the intention of finalizing peace with the Palestinians before the end of
Israel should begin to communicate to its public exactly what I
told the Israeli pharmacist: ‘Arab and peace’ is not an oxymoron today, just as
‘Israel and peace’ need not be.
The Arab world has dramatically changed
since 1967, and the time has come for Israelis to recognize it.The
writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs
at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.