Regional Cooperation Could Be Ray of Hope for Israelis

Moderate Arab nations and Israel have a common enemy: radical Islam. Our politicians must finally take the Arab League’s 2002 peace initiative seriously and combat the threat together.

Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger
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An Israeli Merkava tank rolls back from the Gaza Strip to an army deployment near the Gaza border, August 3, 2014.
An Israeli Merkava tank rolls back from the Gaza Strip to an army deployment near the Gaza border, August 3, 2014.Credit: AFP
Carlo Strenger
Carlo Strenger

As I write these lines, the latest cease-fire has not been renewed, and it is as yet unclear when this latest Gaza war will end. In any case, the question of how to prevent the next round of bloodshed is timely and urgent.

The current war has deepened Israelis’ loss of hope that the cycle of blood can ever be stopped, and the result of this hopelessness is catastrophic. The rhetoric of Israel’s right wingers is surpassing all boundaries, and Israel’s general state of mind is governed by fear and hatred, fanned by the increasingly irresponsible statements by right-wing politicians.

It is, therefore, of the utmost urgency to present some ray of hope, if we are to salvage Israel’s democracy and prevent further, horrible bloodshed. Strange as this may sound, the latest Gaza war has presented such a ray for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear.

Most Arab governments have systematically refused to comment on this war through most of the last four weeks. As time went on, it was clear that, from Morocco through Egypt to Saudi Arabia, almost no Arab state was willing to support Hamas in this conflict.

There is a very specific reason: Most Arab regimes feel deeply threatened by the exponential growth of radical Islam in the region. Organizations like Islamic State (formerly known as ISIS), groups associated with Al-Qaida, Islamic Jihad and others are playing major and enormously destructive roles in Syria and Iraq; they are beginning to infiltrate Lebanon, and have strong power bases in Yemen and other states.

The Arab world is even more threatened by this wave of radicalization than Israel, hence its unwillingness to support Hamas – a representative of the Muslim Brotherhood, which is perceived as part of the radical Islam movement.

There are now powerful common interests between Israel and Arab states, including Saudi Arabia, the Emirates, Egypt, Jordan, the Palestinian Authority and parts of the Maghreb. None of these states are capable of containing the danger of radical Islam on their own.

The security of the whole region depends on pooling resources of intelligence, counterterrorist organizations and armies to fight the forces that are threatening to push the Middle East into chaos. This has led influential Saudi columnist Mohammed al-Sheikh to call for peace with Israel (“Peace with Israel is the solution,” Al Arabiya, in Arabic).

For most Israelis, this may sound like science fiction. But the Arab League’s peace initiative has been on the table since 2002, and former Saudi intelligence chief Turki al Faisal has recently written in Haaretz that this initiative continues to be on the table, and is the only way toward stability for the region as a whole and for the Israel-Palestine conflict.

So far, the Arab Peace Initiative’s existence has not penetrated Israel’s political discourse. The vast majority of Israelis don’t even know of its existence, let alone its contents. But Arab silence during the Gaza war may help Israelis to finally realize that this initiative is a political reality. The reason is not that these Arab countries have become fervent Zionists, but that the Arab world has strong, tangible interests in peace and cooperation with Israel against radical Islam.

As the Israeli Peace Initiative has documented time and again, engaging with the Arab Peace Initiative is clearly in Israel’s long-term interest, in terms of security, Israel’s international standing and economically.

First, because the support of the Arab world at large would give Palestinian leaders legitimacy to sign a peace agreement with Israel and could contribute to its practical implementation, particularly the refugee issue.

Second, because Israel’s long-term security needs require cooperation with moderate Arab states regionally – despite Israel’s military and technological prowess, Israel cannot deal with the Islamist threat that is emerging throughout the Middle East on its own.

Third, because Israel desperately needs a positive dynamic toward peace: This war in Gaza is bound to further deepen Israel’s international isolation, and only an initiative toward peace can stem the tide of the BDS Movement.

The crucial question is whether Israel’s political leadership will seize this opportunity. There are ministers in this government who are well acquainted with the Arab Peace Initiative, and recognize its importance and value. But they are facing the strident voices of the extreme right, which nowadays includes Likud.

The key, of course, is Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has withstood the pressure of the extreme right to escalate the operation in Gaza even further. The question is whether he is able to make the historical move of engaging with the Arab Peace Initiative and give Israelis hope.

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