Sunday, February 22, 2015

On Being Surrounded by 400 Million who Refuse to Recognize Israel and Promote Fantasies of Its Disappearance

During a bike tour through Northern Italy a few years back, I asked our tour leader about the Italian Swiss.  Living mostly south of the Alps adjacent to Italy, they make up the approximately seven percent of the population that speaks Italian.  I asked if there was any longing by the Italian Swiss to maybe one day join Italy. He said “Of course not. They have it much better to be part of Switzerland than they would have if they joined Italy. Swiss Italians thoroughly identify as Swiss.”

This came up in a discussion I had with an Israeli academic recently.  "I don’t think Swiss Italians would feel that way," I said, "if Switzerland militarily occupied Turin, Milan, and the Po Valley and if Swiss-Italians were systematically discriminated against in Switzerland." This hit a nerve with my Israeli correspondent.  "You could have just as well told a story of how the Swiss would feel towards the Italians in general if they were surrounded by 400 million of them who were refusing to recognise their right to live in their region, considered them colonialists and crusaders and promoted fantasies of their disappearance, and how that conflict would play itself."

This narrative of Israel "in a tough neighborhood" surrounded by a sea of 400 million hostile Arabs who deny Israel the right of existence is something we often hear from Israeli leaders.  But how realistic is this narrative? How realistic is it to use this narrative of victimhood as an excuse for not making peace with the Palestinians?

The Neighborhood

According to Pew Research there are 317 million Muslims in the Middle East and North Africa.  If we look at the region, it's apparent that it is unrealstic for anyone to assert that this represents a sea of Arabs monolithically fixated on Israel's destruction. 

There are 82 million Arabs in Israel's neighbor to the south, Egypt. Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel, and Egypt has declared Hamas a terrorist organization, and Egypt has blocked the tunnels in southern Gaza.  Israel has significant economic trade with Egypt, which flourished under Mubarak, increased under Morsi, and is continuing under El-Sisi.  Egypt has clearly recognized Israel’s right to live in the region.  It’s not being realistic to suggest they have not. 

There are 74 million Arabs in Turkey.  Turkey recognized Israel in 1949. Turkey continues to have strong economic relations with Israel—there was two way trade of $5.4 billion in 2014, an all time high. Turkey is not a military threat to Israel.  Turkey accepts Israel’s right to live in the region, although the relationship is frosty over the ongoing occupation of the West Bank and blockade of Gaza. But the claim that Turkey does not accept Israel's existence is false.

There are 28 million Arabs in Saudi Arabia. Saudi Arabia has common interests with Israel against both ISIS and Iran. Israel and Saudi Arabia have growing trade relations, which are clandestine, but estimated in the “several dozens of millions” by the Jerusalem Post. Saudi Arabia has proposed that Israel withdraw to the ’67 borders and  has been prepared to formally recognize Israel within those borders. Saudi Arabia is no military threat to Israel. It’s not realistic to suggest that Saudi Arabia is refusing to recognize Israel’s right to live in the region. 

There are 6.5 million Arabs living in Israel's neighbor to the East, Jordan. Jordan signed a peace treaty with Israel and the two countries have agreed to recognize each other’s sovereignty and to cooperate on tourism, trade, and they pledged that neither country would allow its territory to become a staging ground for military strikes by a third country.  Jordan and Israel established industrial zones and in 2014 signed a 15 year deal for Israel to supply natural gas to Jordan. Reuters reports that 10,589 trucks crossed with goods from Jordan into Israel last year. Israel is becoming a trade hub for the surrounding Arab world—partly spurred on by the implosion of Syria.  When I visited friends at Kibbutz Ashdot Ya'akov last year—located on the Jordanian border--they remarked how peaceful that border now is. Jordan has accepted Israel’s right to live in the region. It’s simply not realistic to suggest otherwise. 

There are 33 million Arabs living in Iraq. Many of these are Kurds, and Israel has good relations with the Kurds.  The Kurds have been selling oil to (or through?) Israel contrary to the wishes of Bagdhad. The situation has changed a lot in the wake of the Gulf War. Iraq is no longer a military threat to Israel. It’s not realistic to point to Iraq as an excuse for not making peace with the Palestinians.

There are 24 million Arabs in Yemen. Yemen is a mess, but more of a concern to the Saudi's than to Israel.  It’s not realistic to suggest Yemen is relevant to Israel’s problems in an important way. 

There are 9 million Arabs living in the United Arab Emirates.  Although the UAE maintains travel restrictions against Israeli's and officially boycotts Israeli trade, as with Saudi Arabia, there are clandestine contacts. For example, there are indications of flights from Abu Dhabi to Tel Aviv, and a French intelligence organization reported in 2012 that a Geneva based Israeli owned company, AGT International, had signed a contract worth $800 million to provide Abu Dhabi’s Critical National Infrastructure Authority with “surveillance cameras, electronic fences and sensors to monitor strategic infrastructure and oil fields.” Peace with the Palestinians would greatly assist this relationship.

There are 2 million Arabs living in Qatar, but due to its oil and gas wealth, they carry some weight.  Qatar has a GDP of $200 billion--which approaches Israel's GDP of $273 billion. Qatar is hardly monolithically hostile to Israel:  Qatar established trade relations with Israel in 1996; Qatar has co-funded a soccer stadiums in Israel; Qatar has made attempts to be instrumental in negotiations with the Palestinians; in 2013 Qatar reportedly assisted in bringing Yemenite Jews to Israel.  Although Qatar acts as host to the Hamas leadership, indications are that Qatar is willing to be constructive in finding a solution for the Israel-Palestine issue.

There are approximately 3 million Muslims in Kuwait, which has a GDP of $53 billion. Last November Kuwait authorized tourism packages for Kuwaitis to visit Israel--part of a wider trend of tourism from Arab countries to Israel.  Kuwait supports the boycott-divest-sanction movement against Israel and has ceased to do business with international companies that do business with settlements in the occupied territories.  Kuwaiti law broadly bans trade with Israeli companies. Nevertheless, there is no indication that Kuwait's stance prevents Israel from making peace with the Palestinians.

There are 23 million Arabs living in Syria, which is four years into a viscious civil war. "Israel is neutral, isn’t going to get dragged into it, and the longer it goes on, the less it threatens Israeli national security," said Barry Rubin in the Jerusalem Post last summer, and this assessments seems correct.  This seems true whether the Assad regime survives, or not. Syria is not driving the Palestinian solution, nor is it standing in the way of Israel making peace with the Palestinians today. 

Iran and Hezbollah and Hamas

Israel's northern neighbor, Lebanon, has Hezbollah, a Shi'ite faction that is hostile to Israel. Hezbollah has been strongly supported by the Assad regime in Syria and by Iran.  To the extent that the Assad regime is weakened in the current civil war, this will be a set back for Hezbollah and this can only be good for Israel. Hezbollah arose in Lebanon following Israel's 1982 invasion and subsequent 18 year occupation of Southern Lebanon.  Their antipathy towards Israel as an occupying force has served their sponsors Syria and Iran: Syria because it wants back the Golan Heights, and Iran because they are seeking influence in the region through their leadership in anti-israel policies.

Israeli Military strategists see threats on the Northern border.  Amos Horel in Haaretz worries about Hamas, seemingly out of options in Gaza, looking for a strategic alliance with Hezbollah (and Iranian support). This is complicated for Hamas because Hamas is aligned with Sunni revolutionaries in Syria against the Assad regime and against Iran.  However, to the extent that Hamas can get back in Iran's and Hezbollah's good graces and convince them to support Hamas in launching attacks on Northern Israel from Lebanon or Syria, or to find a way to assist them to launch operations in the West Bank, these are threats that must be taken seriously.  Similarly, the threat posed by Iran as a nuclear power is a threat that must be taken very seriously.  Nevertheless, it seems clear that these threats do not trace back to a monolithic refusal of the Arab world to accept Israel: these threats are a direct result of the occupation of the West Bank, the blockade of Gaza, and Israel's invasions of Syria and Lebanon.

Apocalyptic talk of “we are in a sea of 400 million who hate us and want to destroy us” (as Israeli leaders are fond of saying) is an inaccurate, and very counterproductive delusion. Surely there are different strategies to debate regarding how to deal with the threats that exist.  It is plausible that threats posed by Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran make reaching peace more difficult, but these threats provide no reason whatsoever for avoiding efforts to reach peace.

Recognition of Israel as a Jewish State

Whereas it is incorrect to say that the Arab states are united in their desire to eliminate Israel as a state (because they have accepted Israel as a political entity in the Middle East and are productively engaging with it), it is correct to say that the Arab states in the Middle East do not accept Israel as a "Jewish State." This is an important distinction. A refusal to accept Israel as an established state implies a state of war and a lack of any constructive involvement.  It's what Netanyahu speaks of when he refers to Iran and points to its most extreme rhetoric suggesting that Israel should be eliminated as a state.  A refusal to accept Israel as a "Jewish State," however, does not suggest a state of war: it is a refusal to accept Israel as an ethnocracy by and for Jews that relegates Arabs to second class status, and that privileges Jews all over the world for immigration to the country over Palestinian refugees who lived in the country. The latter is a matter of opinion; opinion about what the character of the state is, or should be.

Netanyahu telling the Palestinians that Israel won't engage in peace talks unless the Palestinians accept Israel as a Jewish state is like Soviet Russia telling the U.S. it won't enter into arms control treaties unless we accept them as a communist state. It's like Saudi Arabia telling the West that "we won't sell you oil unless you recognize us as a Wahabbist theocracy."

We have feelings about Israel as an ethnocracy that privileges Jews over all others. We have feelings about Israel permanently occupying 4 million Palestinians without giving them citizenship, the right to vote, or due process of law. We don't like it. We think Israel as a Hebrew Republic that celebrates the Hebrew language and that celebrates Jewish holidays and culture, and provides a place of refuge for Jews in distress, but that also guarantees equal rights for its minorities, is a good thing. Israel as a "Jewish state" like Netanyahu has in mind reflects the sentiments of Marine LaPen and her Front National Party in France, it reflects the sentiments of PEGIDA in Prussia, and the xenophobic policies of the British National Party and the American Tea Party. We don't like it.