Comment: Israel and the Arab world — Take a risk, reap the rewards

Azerbaijan has spent millions of dollars on Israeli defense systems and other equipment, strengthening the trade ties between the countries.

December 29, 2016 08:19
4 minute read.
A general view of Akorda, the official residence of Kazakhstan's President, in Astana, Kazakhstan.

A general view of Akorda, the official residence of Kazakhstan's President, in Astana, Kazakhstan.. (photo credit: REUTERS)

At a time when Israel’s international diplomatic relations seem to be a low point following the outrageous UN Security Council vote last week, there is a glimmer of hope in an otherwise grey world that Israel’s relationship with the Muslim world may not be all doom and gloom.

The relationship Israel has with Muslim and Arab countries across the Middle East may well define the next chapter of its history. It would be all too easy to overlook Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s recently returned mission to Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan, but these relationships, and others like them, could be the basis for positive change, whatever happens at the UN.

Netanyahu’s trip sought to focus on security, economic and diplomatic ties. We should not underestimate the significance of this dialogue to Israel and the host countries. Both Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan prove that it is possible for Israel to have a positive relationship with Muslim countries and I believe relationships such as these will allow future engagement with Muslim states across the region and throughout the Gulf.

Israel’s relationship with Kazakhstan is robust and growing. In 2009 as much as 25% of Israel’s oil came from the country. Similarly, Israel’s relationship with Azerbaijan is testimony to the power of longterm dialogue. These have never been relationships that Israel has looked to publicize, yet they have slowly become beneficial. Israeli companies have been active in Azerbaijan for more than 20 years and have been extremely successful. Azerbaijan has spent millions of dollars on Israeli defense systems and other equipment, strengthening the trade ties between the countries.

Israel has a lot to offer the Muslim world in terms of science, innovation and technology, and indeed there is a growing realization in these countries that they can benefit hugely from a better relationship with Israel. There is no reason why Israel should not build relationships beyond the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, with countries like the Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.

In fact, there are many reports coming out that attitudes towards Israel in the Arab world are softening and that over time economic development can be achieved.

As the president of the American Jewish Congress, I have always advocated the importance of engagement and dialogue between Israel and the Muslim and Arab world. Even if someone has gone beyond the political mainstream, there is still a chance that progress can be made through finding common ground and positive discussions. It may be slow progress, but it will still be progress.

For years, advocating for Israel, I went to meet leaders across the world who many thought were authoritative governments. However, even then I saw progress. I saw the foundations for further dialogue and, ultimately, I saw small changes that cumulatively helped people in those countries. It may be easier to simply cut off any country whose views differ from our own, but all sides suffer a disservice.

Israel has a lot to be proud of. It is at the forefront of innovation and technology. During a recent trip to Tel Aviv, I brought 25 mayors from throughout the world to experience first-hand how Israeli developments are changing industries such as communications, transportation, agriculture, cyber and defense, with the last two developing endless possibilities for civil applications and purposes.

Leaders from around the world come to Israel to see for themselves, not just how Israel has made the desert bloom, but also how they have harnessed technology to improve the lives of their citizens and around the world. If these technologies, products and services can be traded – fantastic. If they can be used as a tool for diplomacy and engagement, so much the better.

Politically, Israel’s relations with Muslim countries could help avoid confrontation on the world stage, as the UN spends a great deal of time these days condemning Israel. The UN would be a better place if Israel could contribute rather than be attacked, as we witnessed with the recent damaging UNESCO votes on Jerusalem. That’s not to mention the economic benefits of having better commercial ties with Muslim countries throughout the region, and in particular the Gulf.

We are all too aware of the wariness that Israel has had with Muslim and Arab countries for generations, but we are now in an era where we need to distinguish between those who want to do Israel harm and those who would be prepared to engage in dialogue. One thing we know with certainty is that there is no such thing as status quo in the Middle East, and the consequences of not engaging are too great. If we do not build allies, it will have a detrimental effect on the peace process as well as on commerce.

Netanyahu is increasingly prioritizing global diplomacy and the calculated risks he is taking are starting to reap rewards, showing the power of constructive dialogue. We should not forget the inherent potential that exists among people of good will – the large majority of whom desperately want to find the right path out of the maze of troubles that infect the region.

Israel should look to judge each country on their individual merits and where there is an opportunity for discussion, they should take it. The potential is there for the relationships with Kazakhstan and Azerbaijan to foster many more similar arrangements.

Despite the madness at the UN, Israel should continue to explore ways to sit around the table with Muslim and Arab leaders and begin to build for a more positive, peaceful, and prosperous future.

The writer is president of the American Jewish Congress.

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