Are Arab-Israeli Relations Ready to Come out of the Closet?

Aaron Zucker
on December 9, 2013

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By Aaron Zucker

It was something we only expected to see in science fiction movies–Israeli and Arab leaders overcoming old grudges to tackle their security challenges together. But two weeks after Tom Friedman teased it in his New York Times column, the truth started to leak out: broadcasting from his office in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres made an unprecedented appearance at the Gulf States Security Summit last month in Abu Dhabi.

The excited audience included the foreign ministers of Yemen, Kuwait, Oman–even a son of Saudi King Abdullah. According to the report, “When the president spoke, no minister left the room, and when he finished they even gave him a round of applause.”

shimon peres

In the corner stood Middle East Envoy Martin Indyk, who has become a permanent fixture in the region since he was given the herculean task of ending the Arab-Israeli conflict with a two-state peace accord. Indyk’s part in the Abu Dhabi event has not yet been divulged. But it must have occurred to many in the room: if Indyk and his team are successful, the cooperation between Israel and Arab states that today occurs in secret could soon become the new normal. And a speech from the Israeli president would only be the tip of the iceberg.

It’s no coincidence that when Secretary of State Kerry was looking to reignite the peace process earlier this year, he turned to the Arab League. After decades of rejecting Israel, 57 Arab and Islamic states had extended a hand with the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative–promising peace with Israel in exchange for a two-state solution. It was a stunning reversal, and an historic missed opportunity. But in consultation with Arab officials earlier this year, Kerry not only put the initiative back on the table, he convinced them to revise a key sticking point: the plan now allows for minor land swaps from the 1967 borders, in line with the Obama administration’s own position.

For Israel, the offer may prove too good to pass up. It has benefited tremendously from its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, which transformed old foes into allies in cooperating against terrorism and other mutual threats. Especially now, as Israel and its neighbors unite in concern over Iran’s nuclear program, full normalization could reshape the region and revolutionize Israel’s security position.

Yet Iran by itself may not be enough. As security expert Bruce Riedel indicated earlier this week, there’s a reason Saudi Arabia and Israel aren’t friends. Arab states are not likely to strengthen their ties with Israel so long as the Palestinian issue remains an obstacle.

When Kerry announced the updated API back in April, a survey of Israelis found a whopping 69 percent who said they would support Prime Minister Netanyahu if he chose to embrace the initiative. But that was after its details were described to them–according to the poll, only a quarter of Israelis were familiar with the Arab proposal.

It’s a sad fact: the parties of the conflict have shown far more flexibility regarding the core issues of negotiations than their people realize. That’s the foundation of J Street’s 2 Campaign, to help our own community here in the US understand that ending the conflict will require hard choices, but the solutions are there.

Over Thanksgivukkah, I had the opportunity to discuss the campaign with my family in Philadelphia. Like most American Jews, they support a two-state solution and are grateful for Kerry’s efforts. But it’s also tough to move past the notion that this whole mess could have been avoided if Arab states had just accepted Israel’s right to exist in the 1947 Partition Plan.

Why, asked one family member, can’t they just move on and work with us to end this conflict?

The answer is that they might be ready to do just that, and the Arab Peace Initiative is living proof–or at least, a real chance to test their seriousness. It is certainly testing ours. But if we pass that test, a televised speech from Shimon Peres is only the beginning.

Aaron Zucker is a communications and media assistant at J Street.