A Club That Won’t Have Israel as a Member

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published October 28, 2009, issue of November 06, 2009.
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Israelis no longer seem particularly excited by the prospect of normalization with their Arab neighbors. After all, relations with Egypt and Jordan remain cold after years of peace. Indeed, as we now mark the 15th anniversary of the signing of the Israel-Jordan peace agreement, relations between the two countries are probably at their coldest ever.

Moreover, if normalization means closer economic and cultural interaction, Israelis have become skeptical that they need what Arabs have to offer. President Obama’s abortive attempt to persuade the Saudis to reward a settlement freeze with over-flight rights for El Al planes headed for India was greeted by the Israeli public with a shrug. When that’s what’s being offered to Israel in return, it isn’t hard for Prime Minister Netanyahu to rebuff American requests for a settlement freeze.

Yet normalization as acceptance, as validation of the Israeli narrative of who we are and why we’re here, is something Israelis would very much covet, if only they believed it were attainable. This explains Netanyahu’s demand that the Palestinians recognize Israel as a Jewish state as part of any peace package; he knows the public is behind him on this one. He also knows this is probably a deal-breaker: Most Arabs apparently see such recognition as a repudiation of their own religious beliefs and national narratives.

The Arab attitude toward normalization was conveyed to me in the most basic terms a few years ago by my Palestinian colleague Ghassan Khatib. Together we produce bitterlemons.org and bitterlemons-international.org, weekly Web magazines that bring together the views of Arabs, Israelis and others on Middle East issues. These sites maintain a large and diverse reading public that includes tens of thousands of Iranians, Syrians, Saudis and others who might not otherwise be exposed to such a spectrum of opinion.

Ghassan and I were planning an edition on Sudan and the Darfur conflict. It was not easy to find Sudanese experts who would agree to write. Even the few Egyptian experts on Sudan turned us down. I suggested to Ghassan that we turn to an Israeli Sudan expert who teaches at Tel Aviv University. Ghassan instantly vetoed the idea. Israelis, he explained, play no role in the Darfur conflict and are not closely affected by it. Presenting the analysis of an Israeli expert on Sudan would be perceived by our readers as normalization and would drive many of them away.

In other words, Israel is not considered part of the Middle East “club”; it’s not one of the boys on the block. To presume differently is to break the rules and assume normalization where it cannot exist. I have the highest respect for Ghassan’s wisdom on these and many other matters. Our Web project is not about normalization but about a civilized exchange of views, even among enemies. The Israeli was not invited to write about Sudan.

This exchange and the lessons it entails might have been forgotten by me were it not for a more recent, and very different, incident that again touched on issues of normalization. In early September, the Forward published my column “In Iraq, a Mess That Knows No Borders,” in which I warned of everything that could go wrong in Iraq as the United States withdraws, including threats to the integrity of the autonomous Kurdish north.

One of many responses came from Rozhnama, a newspaper based in Sulaymaniyah in Kurdistan, which asked to interview me — not about Israeli-Kurdish relations, and not even about Kurdistan itself, but about Iraq — and followed up with an offer for me to write on a weekly basis about how I view events in Iraq.

Needless to say, my interview with Rozhnama was roundly castigated by the Arab press. The “normalization” entailed in an Israeli commenting on events in a distant Arab country is rejected by Arabs but welcomed by Kurds. For Kurds, Israel is indeed one of the boys on the block.

This distinction, and in particular the Arab rejection of normalization because it legitimizes Israel as just another actor on the Middle East scene, are of more than just academic relevance. For one, they explain why back in the 1950s, when it was surrounded by a wall of Arab hostility, Israel began looking for friends among the non-Arab peoples of the Middle East, such as the Iranians, Turks and, eventually, Kurds. Some of these partnerships were killed by Islamization. The affinity with the Kurds, however, has survived to this day.

The Arab rejection of the very idea of normalization also explains why some peace schemes are dismissed out of hand by our Arab peace partners. Prominent Israelis have suggested that Egypt cede land from the Sinai to expand the territory of the overpopulated Gaza Strip; Israel would compensate Cairo with land from the Negev and give Egypt access across the Negev to Jordan. Another proposal would allow Israel to hold onto about 25% of the Golan Heights by asking Jordan to compensate Syria with land along their shared border; Israel would compensate Jordan with land from the Arava.

Supporters of such proposals point out that land swaps have in the past been used by many Arab countries to settle border disputes. Why not, they ask, use the same means between Israel and the Arab states? They don’t understand why their Egyptian and Syrian interlocutors break down in helpless laughter. They don’t understand that we’re not one of the boys on the block.

Yossi Alpher is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.

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