Nov. 20, 2019
Boycotting Israel is a failure, and has only helped that country while damaging Arab nations that have long shunned the Jewish state, according to a small new group of liberal-minded Arab thinkers from across the Middle East who are pushing to engage with Israel on the theory that it would aid their societies and further the Palestinian cause.
The group has brought together Arab journalists, artists, politicians, diplomats, Quranic scholars and others who share a view that isolating and demonizing Israel has cost Arab nations billions in trade. They say it has also undercut Palestinian efforts to build institutions for a future state, and torn at the Arab social fabric, as rival ethnic, religious and national leaders increasingly apply tactics that were first tested against Israel.
“Arabs are the boycott’s first — and only — victims,” Eglal Gheita, an Egyptian-British lawyer, declared at an inaugural gathering this week in London.
Calling itself the Arab Council for Regional Integration, the group does not purport to be broadly representative of Arab public opinion. Its members espouse a viewpoint that is, to put it mildly, politically incorrect in their home countries: Some have already been ostracized for advocating engagement with Israel and others said they feared retribution when they return.
Still, the few dozen members include more than a few well-known figures in places as far-ranging as Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, many of whom have begun to speak out, to varying degrees, in favor of engagement with Israel. The most recognizable name — to Western eyes, at least — may be that of Anwar Sadat, nephew and namesake of the Egyptian president who struck the first Arab peace treaty with Israel. He is also a critic of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was expelled from Egypt’s Parliament in 2017.
One of the council’s main organizers, Mustafa el-Dessouki, the Egyptian managing editor of an influential Saudi-funded newsmagazine, Majalla, said that as he has wandered the region in recent years he has met many like-minded Arabs “who had kind of been waiting for somebody like me to come along.”
Arab news media and entertainment have long been “programming people toward this hostility” toward Israel and Jews, he said, while political leaders were “intimidating and scaring people into manifesting it.” But many Arabs — even, to his surprise, in Lebanon, a bitter Israeli enemy — “actually want to connect with Israelis,” he added.
To a degree, the group also reflects the geopolitical alignment now linking the Persian Gulf nations and other predominantly Sunni Muslim countries with Israel, against Iran and its Shiite proxies in the region, said Mr. el-Dessouki’s co-organizer, Joseph Braude, an American author and Middle East analyst of Iraqi-Jewish descent.
“The sense of Israel being somehow a greater friend or lesser enemy than Iran is a factor here,” he said. But it is also one that will not last forever, he said, creating an urgency to build ties “based on common humanity, not some fleeting shared-security concern.”
For the Palestinians, the council’s arguments fly in the face of decades of efforts to isolate Israel in the hope that this would force it to make concessions at the negotiating table.
Even Palestinian leaders who do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement oppose fully normalizing Arab relations with Israel, arguing that Israel’s diplomatic gains from the Oslo peace process had only encouraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expand settlements on the West Bank.
Husam Zomlot, who leads the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom and did the same in Washington until the Trump administration closed that office, belittled the new council’s members as an “extreme fringe of isolated individuals.” From Tunisia, whose new president has called it treasonous to engage with Israel, he said, to Lebanon, where protesters are waving the Palestinian flag alongside their own, “the sentiment of the vast majority of the Arab world is going in the other direction.”
“They are playing into the hands of Netanyahu,” Mr. Zomlot said, because Mr. Netanyahu wants to “convince the Israeli electorate that he can have the cake and eat it too: keep the occupation and still normalize relations with the Arab world.”
Mr. Netanyahu, indeed, has long posited that Arab nations are so eager to engage with Israel, culturally and commercially, that they will come around to normalizing ties even in the absence of a Palestinian state.
The Arab Council’s members, however, explicitly reject the view that it is possible for Arab countries to reach formal diplomatic relations with Israel without resolution of the Palestinian conflict. And they argue that polls show that when Israelis are offered the enticement of acceptance by Arab nations, they become more willing to compromise, even by giving up land.
Mr. Sadat, for one, heaped enormous criticism upon Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and of its own Arab citizens, as well as for “supporting the current autocratic regime in Egypt.” All those things, he said, were adding to what he called the “Egyptian guilt quotient” over having made peace with Israel in the first place.
Some participants urged measures like establishing a teachers college and research institute with campuses in Casablanca, Amman, Haifa and Manama. And an Iraqi counterterrorism expert living in Germany, Jassim Mohammad, urged Arab security services to stop the spread of “radicalism and hate” in the media, schools and mosques and to spread “corrective content about Israel and Jews” instead.
He called this a “matter of Arab national security.”
“The tools of scapegoating and blame deflection that initially targeted Jews and Israel have long since found new, local targets,” Mr. Mohammad wrote, like ruling elites or rival ethnicities and sects.
The attendees received piped-in encouragement from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who commended them for speaking out and said that nurturing stronger Arab-Israeli ties was vital to “any realistic possibility of an enduring peace” and a two-state solution.
Mr. el-Dessouki said some members were attending at considerable risk. Egyptian citizens, including Mr. Sadat, were warned not to attend by security officials, he said.
Members praised a Lebanese cleric from Tripoli, Saleh Hamed, who attended in spite of the possibility of reprisal upon his return. “We do not deny the rights of the Jews to have a country,” Sheikh Hamed said, citing the Prophet Muhammad’s kindness toward Jews. But he was careful to add that the Palestinians “should have their lands according to the 1967 borders.”
Sukayna Mushaykhis, a Saudi news anchor in Dubai, recalled seeing Lebanese officials abruptly exit a meeting in San Francisco when they learned that their hosts were Jews. “And yet today,” she said, “I hear a man of faith coming from a state that is governed by Hezbollah, and he talks with so much bravery and courage.”
The group met privately, citing security concerns, but allowed The New York Times to monitor the proceedings, which were held in Arabic, by live stream on the condition that it not report on them until the conference had concluded. The conference was funded strictly by American donors, but organizers said they planned to raise money in the region as a going concern.
They stressed that they received no aid from any government and that no Israelis were involved in any way.
In a founding document, the members urged their adversaries to debate them constructively “rather than resort to old methods of silencing critics and demonizing reformers.”
Only one Palestinian was in attendance: Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, an academic who said he lost his post at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem after his bridge-building efforts with Israelis led him to take a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust.
Mr. Dajani called for educating a new generation of peacemakers, lamenting that the Oslo process had failed to achieve peace in part because the “peace discussed between diplomats and generals was never fully matched by preparations for a wave of peace between peoples, allowing spoilers on both sides to win the day.”
Asked why the only Palestinian participating was already something of an outcast, Mr. Braude said that younger Palestinians were interested, but that there were none well-established enough in their careers yet to withstand the blowback.
“We didn’t want to burn them,” he said.
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