On May 20th 2012, during the Doha Forum, Qatar’s ruler, Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, was quoted as saying that Israel’s leaders should “view the Middle East uprisings as an opportunity for serious peace talks with Palestinians.”

He added that “the region’s new governments will press Israel harder over its policies, including a widely suspected nuclear arms program.”

Unsurprisingly, Israel did not file an official response to this intriguing statement. Since the start of the Arab Spring, Israel has maintained a low-profile policy that aims to maintain the status quo as much as possible, so as not to support or defy any development before a clearer picture of the nature of the new Arab regimes emerge. The main fear in the Israeli government, and among many in the Israeli public, is that the Arab Spring will turn out to be an “Islamic Winter” in which Israel’s strategic situation will worsen. As this option remains valid, such passive behavior could turn out to be counterproductive, with Israel missing an opportunity to engage in shaping a new Middle Eastern environment. Since predicting the future is futile, a better way for Israel to approach these uncertainties is to discover how it is perceived through the eyes of the Arab countries and Arab peoples.

Kamal Hassan, a policy fellow at Mitvim: The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, and a member of Mitvim’s task-team on “Opportunities in Change – A Fresh Israeli Approach to the Arab Spring”, recently participated at “The Arab Spring One Year After: Challenges, Prospects and Strategies for Change” conference in Brussels. Hassan provides a unique glance into how Israel and Israeli policies are seen from the Arab world.

An intriguing statement. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (photo credit: public domain via Wikipedia)

An intriguing statement. Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani (photo credit: public domain via Wikipedia)

The conference was held in March 2012, hosting prominent European and Arab state and civil society representatives in working sessions and discussions. “I was anxious to see how the Arab and other participants would accept me as the Israeli representative who brings a new approach in regards to Israel’s integration in the region,” said Hassan, who noted that Israel is perceived mainly through the prism of its foreign policies, which reflect a Western-American approach to the Middle East.

“The Arab representatives stated clearly that Israel is a key country in the Middle East and its integration would benefit the region,” he said, adding, however, that this would only take place once Israel demonstrated willingness to progress in the peace process with the Palestinians:

The Arab participants stressed that if Israel initiates confidence-building measures such as supporting the processes of democratization in the Arab world, promoting the peace process and better treating the Palestinian-Israeli citizens, it will promote Israel’s integration in the region.

Nonetheless, when trying to analyze how Israel is perceived in the Arab world, the Arab Spring has made one big change: The voice of the Arab peoples is now more important in shaping domestic and foreign policy decisions, and therefore, so is their perception of Israel. In the past, Israel conducted its relations with (some of) its neighbors according to common interests with the Arab leaders, not the Arab peoples. As the Arab world turns democratic, Israel must now consider the opinion of the Arab citizen. In this respect, the Arab Spring stands as an opportunity and a risk for Israel. The voices Hassan heard at the conference expressed the same idea as Qatar’s ruler: “As more Arab countries turn democratic, Israel will be under more public pressure to promote the peace process.” This rend can already be seen in Egypt, where the popular unsatisfactory approach that Mubarak took toward Israel is widely condemned by the people in the streets and their presidential candidates.

The flip-side is the opportunity for Israel to reach out to the Arab peoples.

For decades, Arab dictators used Israel to increase domestic coherence, blaming Israel and portrayed it as the ultimate evil. In the aftermath of the Arab Spring, and even in the absence of an ongoing peace process, Israel should use its soft power to start a dialogue with the Arab peoples. Said Hassan:

The Arab participants were keen to know and learn about the Israeli economy and technological achievements. There is respect in the Arab world for the Israeli sense of creativity, ingenuity, and social welfare, and for the Israelis’ strong belief and unity in creating their homeland.

Under current political constraints, such dialogue could be facilitated mainly through backchannels and on the sub-state level, where government criticism and intervention is less viable. Such unofficial dialogue between the Israeli and Arab civil societies is of course not a substitute to diplomatic discussion. Rather, it is a complimentary channel, which, in the current diplomatic deadlock, seems to be the most relevant form of communication.

In addition to academics, a dialogue with Arab civil society should include civil society representatives, social protest activists and Palestinians citizens of Israel, as evidenced by Hassan’s firsthand experience:

The Palestinians who are Israeli citizens should take a larger role in the dialogue with the Arab world for two reasons. First, the Israeli-Arabs are aware of both circles of identity and could contribute more to the discussion. Second, integrating Arab citizens of Israel will demonstrate to the Arab world that Israel is a true democracy that treats all of its citizens equitably.

The insights that Kamal Hassan has gained from the representatives of the Arab world serves as a significant stepping stone for understanding how Israel could become more integrated in the Middle East. As hard as it may be for some to grasp, there is a willingness within the Arab world to see Israel as part of the Middle East after a peace agreement with the Palestinians is signed – as spelled out by the Arab Peace Initiative.

However, many Israelis do not see an interest in being a part of their neighborhood. The violence of the past decade has eroded much of the trust Israelis had in the option of peace with the Arab world. This view has been reflected in the actions of the Israeli government, which has pursued a policy of separation since the failure of the Oslo peace process. The risks and opportunities resulting from the Arab Spring should refresh this view, and make Israeli decision-makers and civilians realize that the current status quo cannot last for the long term.

Israel will have to choose: Risk a opportunity of integration, or maintain a policy of separation that will only increase the risk of more isolation and conflict.

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