In a recent piece for the Begin-Sadat Center on Strategic Studies, Dr. Mordechai Kedar discussed the various threats, conflicts, and tensions challenging Middle Eastern and North African states, and outlined a bleak future of instability, sectarianism, and colonization by Iran. The Arab world, Dr. Kedar argued, will never accept Israel, and thus, any defense alliance with it will be short-lived. Arab states, insecure and unstable, he posited, are inherently untrustworthy, and Israel should not dream of long term peace, productive coexistence, or even the deepening of relationships.
While Dr. Kedar’s analysis of the many troubles that are plaguing the region are richly on point, as usual, his overall conclusions are not only excessively pessimistic, but counterproductive. Self-fulfilling policy of isolationism in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles has never been the Israeli way, nor should it be now.
The rich irony of such pronouncements from an organization wielding Anwar Sadat’s name is hard to ignore. Sadat, too, appeared trapped in a hopeless situation in a country that had fought multiple wars against Israel, and engaged in several other conflicts. Yet, rather than allowing himself to be engulfed by the gloomy prospects and inescapable tensions, Sadat dared to take a step that would prevent future casualties, bring Egypt aid and support from the United States, and over time engage Israel and Egypt not only in important defense and security collaborations, but trade as well.
Israel’s very anthem, “HaTikvah”, means hope – hope against all odds, hope of a nation that has arisen again and again like phoenix from the centuries of persecution, the Inquistion, the pogroms, the ashes of the Holocaust, the bitter battles for independence that had to be re-fought time after time, the expulsion from the Arab lands, and terrorist attacks.
Each time, the Jews, and what later became the State of Israel, not only managed to survive and prosper, but also to advance their relations with the world around them. Jew hatred, propaganda, and incitement have not magically vanished overnight, and they will not. However, to say that through it all Israel has been alone, friendless, in the Middle East is inaccurate. Up until the Islamic Revolution brought forth the Khomeinist regime in Iran, Israel enjoyed a cordial relationship with the Shah of Iran. Defense ties were strong, and the Shah took Israel’s side against the Gulf States, even to the point of political sacrifice. Israelis traveled to Iran for business, where the Jewish community was living in peace.
The Iran under Shah was far from a liberal democracy, and Israelis at the time chose not to take advantage of the opportunity to build people-to-people relations with Iranians. That was a mistake, that may have cost vital morale and motivation after the Revolution.
However, that mistake was not permanent, and Prime Minister Netanyahu was quite correct when he sent a message of support to the Iranian people, many of them increasingly pro-Western, educated, curious and increasingly tired of the regime’s genocidal propaganda.
This generation, once it tastes freedom, will make different choices. It will engage with the world, engage with the West, and learn to use its own judgment in exploring the neighborhood including Israel. From a threat, Iran can easily become a friend. And what is even more interesting, for all the many shortcomings of the various Arab states, events show that where there is a political will, there can be a depth to the relationship that seems initially unforeseeable.
Morocco, for instance, despite having no official diplomatic relations with Israel, for the time being, has been a loyal ally for many years, having tipped Israel off about an oncoming attack in the War of 1967. That is an action not of a temporary ally, but a real friend. Judaism is embraced by the new Moroccan constitution as part of its pluralistic identity; Jewish cemeteries have been restored and protected by the king; and while the education system is far from perfect, there are schools where Muslim children can learn Hebrew alongside Jewish students.
Most importantly, there is a wide opportunity for contacts, as Israelis and Moroccans can and do visit each other’s countries. Israelis of Moroccan descent have retained their citizenship and visit Morocco on pilgrimages, holidays, and vacations – not something one would do under duress. And Moroccans, increasingly are interested in visiting Israel, and are open to discussions. Islamism has been a challenge to Morocco, and yet, there is no better cure for bigotry and false impressions than personal interactions, good experiences, and humanization of the “other.”
For instance, Bahrain recently sent a religious delegation as a gesture of peace. It was not merely an entreaty for defense, which could have been handled behind the scenes and diplomatically. It shows understanding and a shift towards a humanizing attitude. This is exactly the sort of benevolent and friendly outreach that leads to stronger relations. And it signals a shift towards modernity and a different attitude.
The United Arab Emirates has been hosting Israelis for low key business dealings beyond strict defense treaties for some time, again, acting out of enlightened self-interest rather than mere desperation for allies against Iran. Business, capitalism, and a vision of a better future where prosperity is more important than bigotry is bringing Israelis and Emiratis together.
Finally, even Saudis, who have not actually fought against Israelis, recently issued a voluntary, and welcome statement, slamming Holocaust denial to the US Holocaust museum. One may question the self-serving agenda of the step the Saudis took to contrast themselves against the Holocaust-denying Islamic Republic, but in reality this was a courageous move, given that most of Saudi Arabia’s population is significantly more conservative than the current dynamic government, which, for the time being, won the first round of internal political battles, particularly with respect to anything concerning Jews or Israel. Cultural shifts in closed societies do not happen overnight; rather than undermining the first flowers of springtime in that country with prognostications of doom, we should be supportive, encouraging, and ready to accept the extended hand.
Trust takes time and hard work to build; there is no guarantee that these shifts and movements in the direction of bridge building will take root or will not be disrupted by some calamity. However, exercising vigilance and caution, while keeping a close watch on these developments should not keep Israel from exploring the arising opportunities. Israel has a rare window to bring its former adversaries away from hateful ideologies and, in fulfillment of their own individual as well as joint potential, towards a much better, and inspiring vision for the entire region.
Hope is contagious. There is hope for the many young people Middle Eastern countries who may have the opportunities to become artists, writers, scientists, entrepreneurs, and architects of forward-looking societies. These states may not all become liberal democracies, and that’s okay. So long as they choose to respect their neighbors, benefit from diverse cultures, find better avenues for resolving internal issues, they will have much to offer to the world.
We may yet see Hatikvah one day be shared with joy by Israel’s neighbors, and may see Israel and the other countries in the region form a more united, more open-minded, and a more mutually beneficial front that will last well beyond the immediate threat of Iranian encroachment. With hard work and through difficult choices, these alliance can over time build a world where everyone has more to gain from productive collaboration than from suspicions, distractions, and accusations. There will have to be much needed internal reform, growing pangs, and dialogue – but so long as Israel remains open to the possibility of such social movements inspired by strong and courageous leadership, Dr. Kedar may yet be surprised by how much good people can accomplish when we support the best in and among them.
[Photo: ali javid / YouTube ]