How Israel Can Return to the Middle East

Israelis are so estranged from their region that the wider Middle East is another world to us. Now is the chance to test our neighbors' commitment to dialogue - through the Arab Peace Initiative - if we genuinely want peace.

Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund
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Benjamin Pogrund
Benjamin Pogrund

At a dinner event in London I sat next to a Syrian. During the evening I had a long talk with someone from Bahrain who told me about his fight at home for human rights. I spoke to a man from Afghanistan who told me his hopes for his country's future. Also at the dinner were people from Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.

To an Israeli it was an unusual and strange experience. All these people from our neighborhood, friendly and wanting to talk, to share information and thoughts. Yet we never see them, we know little about their aspirations and day-to-day lives. They are 'the enemy'.

We know that there are surreptitious contacts behind the scenes. Limited trade continues: in shops we can buy dates from Iran and dried lemons that come from Basra in Iraq. Israeli products make their way to countries in the region. Israeli tourists go to Petra in Jordan. There is undoubtedly contact at diplomatic and intelligence levels. Last month the Foreign Ministry announced it had established a diplomatic mission in a country in the Gulf state but it kept the location secret.

The Middle East is another world to us. It barely exists in our consciousness. We are focused on the United States and on Europe: we look there in politics, for travel and for culture.

There is nothing intrinsically wrong with that. Modern Zionism, which led to Israel's founding, was dominated by immigrants from Europe, joined later by those from the U.S. and other parts of the Western world. Their heritage underpins the nature of our society.

Yet nowadays, Sephardi Jews and Jews from Arab lands constitute nearly half of Israel's Jewish population, and 20 percent of our domestic population are Arabs. Geographically, we are in the Middle East.

We are on the edge of our eastern hinterland but we are remote from it. That is our loss and everyone's loss. We could be so enriched by contact with people, by two-way tourism and by trade.

It does not mean that we must turn away from the West. Instead we are a prime candidate for fusing the best of the East and the West and also for serving as a bridge between the two, to smooth misunderstandings and to further contact.

Of course it would be naïve and silly to put all the blame on ourselves for the lack of connection. Arab states have shunned us since 1948. Their formal boycott dating from that time continues up to now, and they incessantly harass and condemn us in international forums. Iranian leaders want to eliminate us. We have signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan which help to keep us out of war but we do not enjoy normal relations.

It goes without saying that a primary reason for what we don't have is the continuing conflict with Palestinians. That is such an overwhelming factor in our lives that we should be exhausting every possible opportunity to resolve it. That starts with getting out of the occupation, whose moral and material costs are as catastrophic for us as for Palestinians.

The cynic will say that we will never achieve closeness with our neighbors because they deny our very existence. That is true for some. But it does not apply to everyone and evidence of that is in the overtures made through the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looked the other way and pretended it had never happened. The Arab League took it over, backed by the 57-member Organization of Islamic Cooperation. .

The API offers normalization of relations in exchange for withdrawal from territories we conquered in 1967; it speaks of a "just solution" for Palestinian refugees and the division of Jerusalem.

It certainly does not offer everything we want. It does not soothe all our fears. But the mere fact that it was put forward and 11 years later is still on the table is crucial – and even more because it was affirmed as recently as April this year with an amendment that limited exchanges of land would be acceptable.

The Arab Peace Initiative must not be viewed as a final take-it-or-leave declaration. It is an opening statement. It opens up the possibility of dialogue, negotiation and compromise. If we genuinely want peace we must seize the chance - and then put the Arab states to the test.

South African-born, Benjamin Pogrund was deputy editor of the Rand Daily Mail, Johannesburg, and later chief foreign sub-editor of the U.K.'s Independent newspaper. After moving to Israel in 1997 he founded Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. He is writing a book about Israel and apartheid.

Barack Obama walking down Cross Hall with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas, September 1, 2010. Credit: Reuters
Druze students crossing the border back into Israel Tuesday.Credit: Gil Eliahu

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