Aug 16th 2010

‘Arab and Peace’ is not an Oxymoron

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

Earlier this summer I was in Jerusalem meeting with various officials and catching up with old friends. Minutes after meeting a friend, a former high-up official in Israel's Foreign Ministry, he ran back to see me. "Alon, come quick, you have to speak with this guy," he told me. 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 the pharmacy 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."

The 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 the Arab Peace Initiative. It is a troubling statistic, but one that reflects the failure by successive Israeli governments to embrace and market this critical initiative to its people. To be sure, Israelis have reason to be skeptical. Repeated violent conflicts with Arabs and the Arab states' rejection to 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 Israel 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 the Israeli coastal city of 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 the Arab Peace Initiative 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 an 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 in support of a comprehensive regional peace 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 the 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 the Arab states 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 fuelled to a large extent by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

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, the 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 throughout 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-from the Arab world's perspective-as the only credible power with the capability to stop Iran. In this regard, the concept of "the enemy of my enemy is my friend" is applicable.

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 are the Arab states. Many Arab states also realize that Israel has much to offer in terms of advanced technologies and economic developments. 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 the 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 the Arab states to 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 to provide the kind of economic developments and security that can enable prosperity-and that is only possible through a comprehensive peace with Israel.

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-such as borders-with the intention of finalizing peace with the Palestinians before the end of 2011.

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.

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