The Cairo Report

We must strengthen those who are our true partners. And they can be found on every street in Cairo and throughout the Arab world.

IPI delegation_521 (photo credit: COURTESY HUBERMAN)
IPI delegation_521
(photo credit: COURTESY HUBERMAN)
DRIVING FROM CAIRO’S AIRPORT THROUGH THE heavy traffic on a hot Egyptian day in mid-May, the heat outside seems to resemble the entire Middle East state of affairs – hot, dusty and turbulent.
Our 13-member delegation of “Israel Yozemet” (“Israel Takes Initiative”) is about to meet Dr. Nabil El-Araby, Egyptian foreign minister. Just a few weeks earlier, we had launched the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI).
Signed by nearly 90 prominent Israelis, including former military and security personnel, diplomats, academics, businesspeople, artists and social activists, the IPI is a two-page outline of a proposed Israeli vision for the Middle East endgame. It provides a comprehensive response to the March 2002 Arab Peace Initiative (API), which it accepts as the basis for negotiations, and it has become increasingly clear that this position is perceived as a unique voice emanating from Israel.
We have been invited to present our ideas in Amman, Ramallah and Cairo. Yet the invitation to come to Egypt was the real surprise. Since February, Israelis have been bombarded with news about the impending “collapse” of the peace agreement between Egypt and Israel. Yet in the midst of these doomsday scenarios for the future of Egyptian society, we received an official invitation from the Egyptian foreign minister, already nominated as the next secretary general of the Arab League, who wants to hear more about the IPI.
And there is another interesting element to the invitation – our Egyptian hosts strongly recommend, and almost insist, that we meet with members of a think tank called the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs, an NGO led by former diplomats and academics. They want us to speak with Egyptian civil society and not just with officials.
Our meeting with El-Araby provides the first positive echo to our initiative. He speaks openly, saying that although he disagrees with certain elements of our proposal, he views our initiative as a positive move. He feels that the Israeli people should come to realize that peace in the Middle East must be concluded quickly, and that we all have had enough of the “peace processes” that lead nowhere.
At first, El-Araby reveals, he was concerned that our proposed regional approach was merely a ploy to avoid the tough negotiations with the Palestinians; this provides us with an opportunity to reiterate our belief that a regional process will facilitate and accelerate the progress in the Israeli-Palestinian track, not bypass it. We must find a balance between the overall regional approach and one that is detailed and bilateral, and we are all concerned that sole reliance on a bilateral approach will not yield results.
We discuss the increasing role of public opinion and civil society in the region and agree that it is important to find vehicles to continue the dialogue. This is the natural conclusion of our meeting with El-Araby and a natural prelude to our meeting with 12 members of the Egyptian Council for Foreign Affairs.
Here the tone is even more positive. The council members all say that the IPI is a positive surprise. They are very well prepared and present concrete questions pertaining to the issues of borders, refugees and Jerusalem. And they clearly understand that we are presenting an Israeli position that, like the API, must be negotiated until all core issues are resolved.
Three members of our delegation decide to stay in Cairo and meet wth leaders of the Egyptian revolution, who also express their willingness to develop cooperation and build trust.
1. The mere fact that we positioned the IPI as a response to the API is a meaningful step forward, leading to a change in the general tone of interaction.
2. Even if the IPI is not accepted “as is,” it is important because it stems from the same concept of “regionalism.” In other words, we can no longer treat the Middle East dispute as a set of separate bilateral conflicts; we must reframe the resolution of the conflict through a “big picture,” a regional perspective intended to bring about the end of all the conflicts in the region.
3. The emerging Arab Spring is an opportunity to build bridges between Israelis and NGOs throughout the entire Arab world. It is up to us. We must take the responsibility to explain our positions, our fears and our interests so that we are better understood. At the same time, despite or because of the lack of mutual trust, we should be proactively engaged with people from the Arab world. We Israelis must share – through the Internet and throughout the Arab world – our passion for peace, security and prosperity. We must engage in an ongoing dialogue with our counterparts in these emerging civil societies.
As we leave the meeting, the words of a prominent member of the council resonate in our ears. Bluntly and honestly, she had described how the Arab street feels about Israel. “If you want to change this negative perspective, words will not be enough. We need to see action,” she tells us. “Your IPI group must prove that you are trying to impact Israeli public opinion. This will be the strongest signal to pro-peace Arab societies and a sign of hope.”
The question is not whether we have a partner for peace. We have many. Nor are we naïve: We know we also have many peace spoilers. We must strengthen those who are our true partners. And they can be found on every street in Cairo and throughout the Arab world.
Koby Huberman is co-author of the Israeli Peace Initiative (IPI) and a high-tech veteran and business strategist.