What happened: A new group of Arab journalists, artists and politicians issued a landmark statement yesterday calling for the development of relations with Israel and the rejection of calls to boycott Israel. The statement was issued at the end of a two-day meeting which took place in London. The 32-member Arab Council for Regional Integration includes a number of prominent figures such as late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s nephew and namesake Anwar Sadat; Mustafa el-Dessouki, the Egyptian managing editor of Majalla; Lebanese cleric Saleh Hamed; and Palestinian academic Mohammed S. Dajani.
- The council met privately, although it allowed the New York Times to monitor and write up the proceedings after their conclusion. In the founding document, they urged adversaries to debate with them “rather than resort to old methods of silencing critics and demonising reformers”.
- Mohammed S. Dajani referenced Oslo when he said: “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.”
- Writing in the Wall Street Journal, Mustafa el-Dessouki said: “Boycotting Israel and its people has only strengthened both, while doing great harm to Arab countries, and not least to the Palestinians. For the sake of the region, it is long past time to move forward to a post-boycott era.” He added: “That’s where the Arab Council for Regional Integration aims to go.”
- Former UK Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the group, saying in a message to the council: “The developing Arab-Israeli relationship can, should, and must provide the critical underpinning” to peace negotiations, alongside US involvement.
Context: Israel signed peace treaties with Egypt in 1978 and with Jordan in 1994, after the landmark Oslo Accords was agreed between Israel and the PLO in 1993. But the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan have never led to a broader people-to-people relationship. There have recently been a number of reports of warming ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states as well as close intelligence and security cooperation.
- Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visited Oman earlier this year and Israeli Foreign Minister Yisrael Katz visited Abu Dhabi in the UAE in July.
- Yet the difficulties the Arab Council for Regional Integration has faced demonstrates why relations have been slow to improve.
- Many in the group have been shunned for advocating engagement with Israel, and many fear a backlash when they return.
- Husam Zomlot, who leads the Palestinian Authority mission to the UK, described the council’s members as an “extreme fringe of isolated individuals”.
Looking ahead: The Arab Council statement will kick off a debate about Arab relations with Israel and is symbolically very significant. The participants have said the London meeting is just the start of their work and they hope to announce a number of new people to people projects shortly. But the council also made it clear they reject the view that Arab countries can achieve full diplomatic relations with Israel without resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.