There is some stirring in the Sunni-Arab Middle East regarding the Jewish State. In the Arab Gulf states, Algeria, Egypt, Libya, Morocco, Sudan, Tunisia, and Yemen, writers and intellectuals, artists, diplomats, journalists, politicians, and even Sunni-Muslim religious figures are questioning the wisdom of shunning Israel. Late November last year, at an obscure London hotel, and for the first time, men and women from the Arab world gathered to publicly denounce the anti-Israel and antisemitic BDS (Boycott, Divestment, and Sanction) movement and seek reconciliation with the Jewish state. The forum for this unusual feat was the newly established Arab Council.
Thirty-two distinguished people from a wide range of Arab civil society, representing 15 Arab states, mustered the courage to take part in forming a new body they named the Arab Council for Regional Integration. Their declared mission was “peace, love, and friendship,” aiming to heal the relationship between Arabs and Israelis, Muslims, and Jews. They bemoaned the departure of Jews from their countries and expressed the hope of reconnecting with Israelis whose families came from Arab countries.
The push behind this initiative came from the U.S. based Center for Peace Communications (CPC) headed by the former Middle East Peace negotiator, Dennis Ross. The co-convener of the London conference was Joseph Braude, a senior fellow at the Middle East Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute in Philadelphia.
Well-known figures from Egypt, Iraq, Kuwait, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Sudan and, even a Palestinian, were in attendance. Many have been on record in favor of engagement with Israel. Egypt was represented by Mohammad Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the late (assassinated) Egyptian president of the same name, and Ahmed Salim, director of political programming for the popular Egyptian TV channel, Sada El-Balad. Another Egyptian was Mustafa el-Dessouki, managing editor of the Saudi-funded newsmagazine Majalla, and the conference organizer. Others included the former Kuwaiti Information Minister Sami Abdul-Latif Al-Nisf, and two important Islamic clerics, Hasan Chalghoumi, a Paris-based Tunisian cleric, and Lebanese imam from Tripoli (Lebanon) Saleh Hamed, who faced death threats for attending the conference. Saleh Hamed declared, “We do not deny the right of the Jews to have a country.” He cited the Prophet Mohammad’s alleged kindness toward Jews, and added, “Palestinians should have their lands according to the 1967 borders.”
Mohammad Anwar Sadat, who leads the Reform and Development Party in the Egyptian parliament, expressed his disappointment with the “cold peace” between Egypt and Israel, and said, “Too little thought was given as to how to turn the peace of the elites into a peace of the people.” He pointed out that the only way to build a foundation for true peace is to give as many people as possible a concrete and visible stake in the process.
In a Wall Street Journal (November 20, 2019) Opinion piece, Mustafa El-Dessouki and Eglal Gheit (an Egyptian British lawyer) wrote: “Boycotting Israel and its people has only strengthened both, while doing great harm to Arab countries, and not least to the Palestinians. For the sake of the region, it is long past time to move forward to a post-boycott era.”
In summary, Kuwait’s Sami al-Nisf called for an end to the zero-sum thinking that typifies public attitudes toward Israel in the region. Palestinian intellectual Mohammed Dajani proposed a pan-Arab graduate program in peace education. Sudan’s Ismail Sayyid Ahmed called for organized people-to-people dialogue ventures to bring Arabs and Israelis closer together. Emirati women’s activist Maryam al-Ahmedi and Saudi broadcaster Sakina Mushaykis urged pushing back against the demonization of Jews and Israel through media, education, and cultural collaboration such as joint film productions or music festivals. Iraqi, Algerian and Tunisian delegates called for reconnecting with Israelis whose families came from those countries.
For the leaders of the Sunni-Arab states, and especially for the Arab Gulf states, one’s enemies enemy is one’s friend” as the old saying goes. Shiite-Muslim Iran is both an historical enemy of the Arabs and is today an existential threat to their monarchial rule. Israel is no longer seen as the primary threat, if it ever was. Moreover, Israel is seen by these rulers as a major counterforce to the Islamic Republic of Iran’s aggressive and expansionist designs. Many of these same leaders who have secretly visited Israel and been impressed by its technological advances seek closer economic and trade relations with the Jewish state. Some are frustrated with the Palestinians refusal to join the Trump administration peace plan that promises a better economic future for the Palestinians and the region as a whole.
Beyond security, other common interests include such issues as sharing natural resources and energy. Albeit, common efforts on these issues are currently taking place behind the scenes. The problem for the leadership of the Sunni-Muslim Gulf states, in particular, is the fear of the reaction from their publics. They are cognizant that Iran would use their open relationship with Israel to instigate their people to rebel in the name of solidarity with “fellow Muslim Palestinians.” Not that the Iranian regime cares much about the Palestinians, but rather they would use it as a useful tool against the Sunni Muslim monarchies. Ironically, in Shiite-Muslim Iran, are the urban and educated classes who are pro-Israel while the regime is oppressive and antisemitic. If true peace is ever going to be established between Israel and the Sunni-Muslim countries, their educational systems, religious seminaries, and the media must change the way they deal with Israel and Jews. It is therefore most encouraging to see the emergence of the Arab Council for Regional Integration.
There is another encouraging sign in the Arab world. A survey for the BBC News Arabic by the Arab Barometer Research Network, interviewing more than 25,000 people, found that “Arabs are increasingly saying they are no longer religious, according to the largest and most in-depth survey undertaken of the Middle East and North Africa.”
But lest we get too excited about an imminent peace treaty between the Sunni-Arab states and Israel, the above survey served to “cool our heels.” To the proposition, “Israel is perceived as the greatest threat. 79% of Lebanese answered the survey in the affirmative, 63% in the Palestinian Territories, 54% of surveyed Egyptians, and 42% by Jordanians. Tunisia had the lowest number of people perceiving Israel to be the “greatest threat” at 14%. The U.S. was qualified as the “greatest threat” to Tunisians at 24%. In Iraq, Israel was deemed third “greatest threat” with 21%. Iran was perceived as the “greatest threat at 31%, followed by the U.S. at 30%. Apparently, the closer geographically the country was to Israel, the more “threatening” Israel was. It suggested clearly that Hezbollah’s anti-Israel propaganda has had a major effect. It also suggested that Palestinian text books, the educational system as whole, as well as the media, and mosques preach hate of Jews and Israel rather than conciliation and peace. Similarly, in Egypt and Jordan the elites might have made peace with Israel, but the educational system, the media, and the mosques in these two countries have done little to educate the public on the value of peace with Israel.
The Arab Council for Regional Integration London conference highlighted the issues that must be addressed by the Sunni Arab nations if peace with Israel is their aim. Particularly poignant is the call of Mohammad Anwar Sadat to “turn the peace of the elites into the peace of the people.”