by Fred Maroun
- We must look at Israel not as foreign presence, which it is not, but as a unique and remarkable component of the Middle East that enriches the region.
- The creation of such a Palestinian state under today’s conditions is likely to result in a Hamas-dominated state that is violently hostile towards Israel. The Palestinian Authority must be transitioned into a peaceful and stable entity before it can be expected to run a state.
- Binyamin Netanyahu recently suggested an approach to make the peace initiative work, but Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi rejected it out of hand. This is not how harmonious relationships between nations are built.
- “We must all rise above all forms of fanaticism, self-deception and obsolete theories of superiority.” — Egyptian President Anwar el-Sadat, 1977.
This is part two of a two-part series. The first part examined the mistakes that we Arabs made in our interactions with Israel.
There is much that we can do to improve our relationship with Israel — if we want to — and there is good reason to think that it would be in both our short- and long-term interest if we did. The most critical change is in approach. Changing that would start to repair the foundation of the relationship and would provide a basis for mutual respect and trust, without which any solution would remain fragile.
We must see the real Israel rather than the monstrosity that Arabs have been brainwashed to see. We are so afraid to call Israel by its real name that we refer to it as the “Zionist entity”. The name is “Israel”; as written in Haaretz, “Israel has been the name of an ethnic group in the Levant going back at least 3200 years”.
The standard Arab narrative about Israel is that it is the result of Western colonialism. This language has also been adopted by many, who claim that “settler colonialism that began with the Nakba … in 1948”, implying that all of Israel is a colony. This claim is not true, and no healthy relationship can be built while one side keeps repeating lies about the other.
Israel is the nation-state of the Jewish people, a people with a long and complex history on that land. Attempts to kill them and exile them came from many sources over the centuries, including the Assyrians, Babylonians, Romans and the Crusaders. These are historical facts.
Israel’s then Prime Minister Golda Meir said in 1973, “We Jews have a secret weapon in our struggle with the Arabs — we have no place to go”. No matter how much pressure Arabs put on Jews to leave, they are not going anywhere; in fact, that pressure only hardens their resolve. Israel is their home.
We must look at Israel not as foreign presence, which it is not, but as a unique and remarkable component of the Middle East that enriches the region.
Not our enemy
We must stop calling Israel our enemy. We deliberately chose to make Israel our enemy when we attacked it, rather than accept the existence of a tiny Jewish state in our midst.
Israel (including the annexed Golan Heights and East Jerusalem) is only 19% of British Mandate Palestine (which included Jordan), on which Britain promised in 1924 to build a “Jewish National Home“. Israel is so small that it would have to be duplicated 595 times to cover the entire Arab world.
We made self-defeating decisions in our relationship with Israel, based on the belief that it is our enemy and that we can only deal with it though force — but the tiny state of Israel is not a threat to the Arab world.
Every year, Palestinians hold rallies, often violent ones, to commemorate the Nakba(“catastrophe”), which is name they give to the Arab loss in the war of 1948/49. They carry keys, symbolizing the keys to homes that their ancestors fled during that war. This commemoration, like much of the Arab rhetoric about Israel, is a one-sided view that demonizes Israel while it absolves Arabs of all responsibility for starting and continuing a conflict that resulted in decades of violence as well as displacements of both Arabs and Jews.
This false narrative does not leave much room for peace with Israel. How can peace be acceptable to Arabs who are repeatedly fed the false narrative that everything is Israel’s fault, when, in fact, “everything” is not “all Israel’s fault”?
Admitting mistakes is never easy, but without admitting them, we are weaving a contrived narrative that contradicts historical facts. Building a positive future requires accepting that the past is gone and cannot be restored.
Despite the Holocaust, Germany is today one of Israel’s closest friends, but this was possible only because Germany admitted its moral failure. Although our refusal to accept Israel is not morally equivalent to the Holocaust, it was undeniably a moral failure, and moving past it would allow us to establish constructive relations with Israel.
Resolving the Palestinian Question
For a successful resolution of the Palestinian question, we must understand the few fundamental issues on which Israel cannot compromise. At present, the Arab world, and particularly the Palestinians, shows so little understanding of Israel’s fundamental issues that the Israeli public’s faith in peace negotiations is low. As reported in the Jerusalem Post, “most Israelis (67.7%) do not believe that negotiations will bring peace in the coming years and less than a third (29.1%) think it will ever yield such a result”.
Israel’s ability to remain a Jewish state and a haven for Jews worldwide is its most basic existential necessity. Without it, Israel would be only a name. For this reason, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu stated unequivocally that there is “no room to maneuver” on the Palestinian claim of a “right of return” for the descendants of Palestinian refugees. It may be unreasonable to expect relatively small and weak countries like Lebanon, Syria, and Jordan to absorb all the refugees residing there, but rich Gulf countries have the ability to help. If Europe can absorb millions of Muslim refugees, why could we not do it too?
A second existential necessity for Israel is its need for defensible borders, as explained in an extensive report. Israel has been defending its very existence against Arab attacks for seven decades. It has been attacked from all sides using all methods imaginable, from missiles to suicide belts to tunnels. Israel does not see the pre-1967 armistice lines as defensible, as was explained as far back as 1977 by then Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, widely considered a pro-peace moderate.
A third fundamental point is Jewish access to holy sites, starting with the most important one, the Old City in East Jerusalem. Jews see their win in East Jerusalem in the war of 1967 not as a conquest, but as the liberation and reunification of their historic home since the time of King David, ca. 1000 BCE. Although Israeli governments, both in 2000 and in 2008, offered to give up control over part of Jerusalem, one should not assume that a similar offer will be likely in the future. In June of this year, PM Netanyahu pledged that, “The idea of a divided, split, wounded city is one we will never return to.” Other issues such as borders, compensation for refugees, removal of some settlements, and the level of Palestinian sovereignty appear to be negotiable. Netanyahu further stated, “Israel wants peace. I want peace. I want to renew the diplomatic process to achieve peace”.
But we Arabs must understand that this can only be possible within the constraints of the three fundamental issues.
The Arab League’s Peace Initiative
A peace initiative was endorsed by the Arab League in 2002 and again in 2007, but this initiative falls short in two ways, first in its substance and second in its form.
The initiative demands that Israel go back to the pre-1967 armistice lines. Not only does Israel not consider those borders defensible, but during the fifty years that elapsed since then, Israel has built large settlement blocks in the West Bank. We Arabs had previously expelled the Jews who were native to that land, and it is unrealistic to expect that Israel would agree to victimize its own Jewish citizens yet again.
The initiative declares that Arab states reject “all forms of Palestinian patriation which conflict with the special circumstances of the Arab host countries”, implying that Israel and the new Palestinian state would be responsible for absorbing the descendants of all Palestinian refugees. For the new Palestinian state, it would be a huge burden to add to the task of building a new state, as it would mean an increase to its population from 6 million to 9 million. This would leave Israel to receive the refugees, which it will not do.
Equally unrealistic is the initiative’s casual reference to “the establishment of a Sovereign Independent Palestinian State”. The creation of such a state under today’s conditions is likely to result in a Hamas-dominated state that is violently hostile towards Israel. The Palestinian Authority must be transitioned into a peaceful and stable entity before it can be expected to run a state.
The biggest problem with the Arab League’s peace initiative, however, is the way that it was delivered. It was presented as a fait accompli and was thrown at Israel without discussion. The Arab League did not even respond to then Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s offer to attend the 2002 Arab League summit. More recently, Netanyahu suggested an approach to make the peace initiative work, but Arab League Secretary-General Nabil al-Arabi rejected it out of hand. This is not how harmonious relationships between nations are built, especially after decades of Arab animosity towards Israel.
There was no need to write this document at all. All that the Arab League had to do was to declare that Arab states are open to making peace with Israel, accept Sharon’s offer to attend, then send a delegation to Israel as a sign of goodwill. There would be no commitment in such a gesture, but it would show that the Arab League is serious. This is how Egyptian President Anwar El Sadat approached peace with Israel.
Sadat in His Own Words
We should take inspiration from and follow the lead of Sadat, an Arab leader who took a bold step towards peace and achieved a peace agreement that even the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt felt compelled to respect 35 years later.
We should take inspiration from and follow the lead of Sadat, an Arab leader who took a bold step towards peace and achieved a peace agreement that even the Muslim Brotherhood government of Egypt felt compelled to respect. Pictured: Egyptian President Anwar Sadat (left) and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin (right) acknowledge applause during a Joint Session of Congress in which U.S. President Jimmy Carter announced the results of the Camp David Accords, September 18, 1978. (Image source: Warren K. Leffler/Library of Congress)
Sadat knew that taking steps towards peace requires more than simply writing documents and speaking from afar, which is why he went to Israel to present his vision. He said to the Israeli Knesset, “There are moments in the life of nations and peoples when it is incumbent on those known for their wisdom and clarity of vision to overlook the past, with all its complexities and weighing memories, in a bold drive towards new horizons”.
Sadat demonstrated that he understood some of Israel’s fundamental issues when he said, “What is peace for Israel? It means that Israel lives in the region with her Arab neighbors, in security and safety”.
Sadat understood the benefit of peace to all people of the Middle East, including Arabs, and he understood the duty of leaders in making peace a reality. He said, “We owe it to this generation and the generations to come, not to leave a stone unturned in our pursuit of peace. … Peace and prosperity in our area are closely linked and interrelated”.
A New Page
The Arab world has an abysmal record on human rights, is mired in internal wars, and continues pointless hostility towards Israel, a neighbor that is far ahead of us scientifically and economically, and from which we could benefit greatly.
We must take ownership of our past actions towards Israel, and we must make the changes needed to turn the page. In the words of Sadat, “We must all rise above all forms of fanaticism, self-deception and obsolete theories of superiority”. It is up to us.
Fred Maroun is a Canadian of Arab origin who lived in Lebanon until 1984, including during 10 years of civil war. He supports Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state, and supports a liberal and democratic Middle East where all religions and nationalities, including Palestinians, can co-exist in peace with each other.