In many ways, we should be pleased that one more Arab state is now open to Israelis, for trade, travel and normal relations. Yet, is this move in fact good for us? It removes much of the incentive, indeed the basic principle of the Arab Peace Initiative, for Israel to strive genuinely for peace. The Arab Peace Initiative in itself was an enormously promising step for us. It promised normal relations, security and most importantly end of conflict if we were to take the necessary steps for the creation of a Palestinian state, with its capital in East Jerusalem, next to Israel. Matti Steinberg, Palestinian expert in the Shin Bet, once said at a conference in Tel Aviv, that in 1988, Israel won the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. That year, the PLO accepted the two state solution, renounced its former goal of a state instead of Israel, now favoring a state next to Israel, only in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and recognizing Israel’s right to exist within secure and recognized borders. Steinberg also said that Israel won the Israeli-Arab conflict in 2002 with the Arab Peace Initiative.
But territory has remained more important than peace, apparently, for Israel, whether for ideological or religious reasons. The willingness of Arab states like the UAE and probably others (Oman, Bahrain?) to normalize relations with Israel without regard for the Palestinian issue suits today’s Israeli government to a tee. But it does not bode well for the country, for Israel and Israelis. The reason is that the Palestinian issue is still the core issue. As it has been since the beginning of the conflict. The Arab states adopted the issue for a while, even exploiting it upon occasion, but it is not a life or death for them, as it is for the Palestinians and for Israelis.
We must ask ourselves the question: can we continue with the Palestinian issue unresolved? Whether our security might be threatened, or our morality, do we really think we can continue as we are, even with good relations with many Arab states? That may be the question we really need to ask. Do we really think we can safely, or morally, rule over millions of subjects, denying them basic rights and ruling their everyday lives via the IDF? And even if it is possible, by force of arms, and apartheid laws, is this the way we want to live?
We may argue over who is right or wrong, who made mistakes or who is to blame, but these are the questions we really need to ask. We may even thrive thanks to relations with Arab states, but the core issue remains, and will remain. Until and unless we come to terms with this issue, until we work honestly to meet the basic needs of both Israelis and Palestinians, we cannot be assured security – physical or psychological. The Palestinians made their sacrifice in 1988, content to meet their national aspirations in a state next to, rather than instead of, Israel. We have no need to make a similar sacrifice; the territories do not provide the security they might once have promised. Peace with Jordan provides the strategic depth we once sought, and in the era of cyber and missile warfare our defenses can be focused in other ways.
Maybe we can achieve normal relations with Arab states, but we will still be faced with the core issue. And this will continue to be an issue for our security, but also for our souls.