The engagement of my Jordanian friend was a good enough reason to visit the Hashemite Kingdom, only few hours drive from Tel Aviv. We met some years ago at an EU-sponsored Israeli-Palestinian seminar. As we walked the streets of Amman, sat in cafes, visited a refugee camp and spoke openly about every possible issue, I thought to myself that Israelis tend to forget the benefits of peace - if nothing else, the opportunity for Israelis and Jordanians to socialize together in Amman. Oslo did indeed make a difference. But then I realized how rare and unusual such friendships are. Few Israelis choose Jordan over Turkey as their summer destination and even fewer have close Jordanian friends. The peace agreement with our neighbor to the east has not broken any psychological boundaries.
The current American concept for push-starting the peace process is simple: Israelis would freeze settlement construction in the West Bank and in return, the Arab world would grant a dose of normalization measures. Arabs states, as well as the Israeli government, are struggling with this offer. The roots of Israeli hesitations are well known, and are largely tied to internal politics. The roots of Arab hesitations are given less attention - but they call for an analysis of the issue of normalization at large.
The offer of normalization has always been on the table during the various efforts to resolve the Arab-Israeli conflict, usually put forward as a psychological incentive. Various negotiators have mediated the following trade-off: Israelis would give away cherished lands in return for security; to convince them to do so, some gestures would be needed. These could be warm words from an Arab leader, the option of traveling to Europe via Syria and the opportunity to sell Israeli software in Kuwait. Ezer Weizman, the late Israeli general, minister and President, once stated his desire to eat chumus in Damascus. So have many other Israeli politicians. While basing strategic decisions on chumus is never a good idea, Israeli-Arab peace negotiations have often been based on the assumptions that normalization means a lot to Israelis, and can be easily handed out by Arab states, should they only decide to do so. Both assumptions are false.
In fact, normalization is not so important to Israelis. Most do not want to integrate culturally into the region - they just want their neighbors to let them live in peace. One indication for this is the poor state of Arabic language instruction in Israeli schools. Less than five percent of Israeli students finish high school with a meaningful knowledge of Arabic.
ANOTHER REASON why normalization does not matter so much to Israelis is that many aspects of normalization have already been realized - though not openly. For example, when Arab demands meet specific Israeli capabilities, business deals are sealed. This is accomplished using foreign passports or non-Israeli mediating operations, but the financial result is largely the same.
Normalization is on the table not because the Israeli public desires to deepen its cultural and economic relations with Arabs, but because Israeli politicians fear the image of the frier (sucker) - one who gives without getting enough in return. This mindset cannot be ignored, but as is the case with the pleasure of eating chumus, it cannot be the basis for a national strategy.
While Israelis don't see normalization as a real strategic asset, Arabs - regimes and citizen alike - view it as a deep strategic threat. This perception must be understood if we wish to ever resolve the conflict. First, the autocratic nature of Arab regimes must be taken into account. For a regime such as Syria's, the prospect of dozens of thousands of tourists coming from a free society such as Israel poses a potential risk to its foundations. These tourists may bring dangerous ideas along and tell locals about free elections or freedom of speech.
Second, there exists the danger that cultural interactions between the two sides will lead to hatred rather than understanding. Historian Bernard Lewis once relayed that Jordanians felt Israeli tourists were acting triumphantly while visiting their country. Lewis comforted his Jordanian friends, "[The Israelis] are acting this way towards everybody," and concluded: "The tragedy of the conflict is that the most polite nation [the Arabs] is encountering the most impolite nation [The Israelis]." Perhaps Prof. Lewis was exaggerating (are we that impolite? Get out of here!), but the point nevertheless deserves our attention: cultural encounters, when improperly constructed, do not always advance relations.
Third, normalization with Israel underlines the ultimate historical failure of some Arab regimes. Arab attitudes towards Israel can be divided into two groups: Those who reject any recognition of Israel and seek to destroy it; and those who reject Israel as an historical or a cultural entity, but accept it as a political reality. Arab regimes can perhaps justify the signing of agreements with Israel in the diplomatic sense, but it is much harder for them to welcome Israelis, a welcoming that essentially entails a legitimization of the Zionist project, which their publics strongly object to.
Fourth - and perhaps the most important - many Arabs view Israel as part of the "Western Cultural Attack" against Muslim society. The notion of the cultural attack struck roots in Arab societies several decades ago and is a simple notion: the West failed to subordinate Muslims through imperialistic militaristic expansion; thus, it now tries to subordinate them through cultural means - television programs, fashion modes, text books, financial firms, sports and pop culture frenzy. Israel is perceived as one of the Western tools used in this cultural attack. To reject Israel is to reject the cultural attack; to recognize Israel is to blindly support a Western master-plan aimed at destroying Muslim and Arab identity. Israelis may find these claims absurd, but they reflect sincere concerns of many Arabs, concerns which translate into fierce resentment towards any offers of normalization.
THE STRATEGIC implications are clear: For Israelis, normalization has limited importance, while it seriously threatens Arab regimes and societies. Thus, rather than being a card played by Arab regimes, it should become a card used by the Israelis. The traditional demand for full normalization should be traded off in exchange for other Arab concessions.
Does this mean Israel should give up all demands in regards to normalization? No. Israel must, for example, demand an end to incitement in the Arab press and textbooks as part of a future agreement with any Arab states. But progress in other areas can - and should - be more moderate. Embassies must not open the day after new peace accords are signed. Travel for Israelis may remain restricted for the first decade, available only to Israelis with deep passion and respect for Arab culture, such as former compatriots or academic experts. Financial relations may also progress moderately at first.
A day will come when Israel lives in peace and cooperation with Arab countries. The day will come, when many Israelis and many Jordanians celebrate engagements together. But we must give it time.
The writer is director of Programs in Democracy at the Adelson Institute where the full version of this article originally appeared.