There’s a healthy alternative to the hypocrisy of engaging Israel privately while condemning “normalization” publicly
A November 19 Thomas Friedman column that mentioned that Israeli President Shimon Peres had addressed a Gulf security conference in Abu Dhabi via satellite, and that in the audience were numerous Arab and Muslim foreign ministers, at first went relatively unnoticed.
Several days later, Middle Eastern media bubbled with conspiratorial and shocking reports of a “secret speech” given by Peres to leading Arab and Muslim diplomats.
As everyone who doesn’t live inside a warm cocoon of willful ignorance knows, the Arabs and Israel are in constant contact. They talk about everything from security to trade, intelligence to diplomacy.
Even its supposedly most implacable foes, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Syrian regime and, yes, Iran, are always in touch – somehow or another – with Israel.
One can have sympathy for Arab officials who may wish to keep these contacts discreet and even secret. They are understandably concerned about public opinion that is primed to misinterpret these contacts as untoward “normalization” rather than the normative reality in the Middle East.
And, sometimes, such as in delicate negotiations, even full-blown secrecy can be a virtue. So skittishness about acknowledging talking to Israel can be understandable, and sometimes even wise.
What’s not understandable is when those same officials condemn others for doing in public what they do in private: talk with Israelis. The hypocrisy of flinging “accusations” of “normalization,” “collaboration,” or “treason” at those who publicly and unapologetically engage in this unavoidable conversation is breathtaking.
How can the public be expected to make sense of foreign policies with such glaring contradictions hardwired into their public and private personae?
Even more reprehensible are private Arab citizens – particularly those engaged in business – who scarcely leave a European capital without intensive consultations with Israeli counterparts for the sake of maximizing profits, while rushing to condemn any political conversation with Israelis or their Jewish supporters. Such double-dealers pocket private profits and public approbation simultaneously, but only through stigmatizing publicly what they find privately indispensable.
A policy-driven Arab perspective cannot be more oblivious to the irreducible reality of Israel in the region than a profit-driven one. Arabs and Israelis need to deal with each other, and all serious people in both societies know it.
There is, of course, another option: dealing with each other publicly, unapologetically, and indeed proudly, because it is the only way to get things done.
Arab-Americans, especially, are free to do openly what many Arab officials and prominent persons feel constrained to keep private: to pursue their policy goals by engaging and building bridges with Jews and Israelis.
The American Task Force on Palestine (ATFP) – where I serve as a senior fellow under the leadership of its President, Ziad Asali – has a strategy of public, open engagement with Jewish-Americans, Israel, and Israelis, in pursuit of its mission to help end the occupation and create a Palestinian state. Hence ATFP simply cannot be intimidated or bullied by “accusations” of “normalization.”
On the contrary, ATFP has been able to demonstrate how constructive, positive dialogue with all potential partners – in the open and without any pretense – can make real headway in developing a broader, stronger constituency for the creation of an independent Palestine.
ATFP is sometimes accused of engaging in “normalization.” Its policies indeed seek to normalize all the peoples of the Middle East, above all the Palestinians, who are in the least “normal” political situation possible, living for decades on end under Israeli occupation. Resolving this abnormality will also require normalizing Israel and its diplomatic relations with the other states in the region.
“Normalization” is, in fact, the hidden norm in Arab-Israeli relations, as Peres’ Abu Dhabi speech again demonstrated. The UAE, and all those in attendance, are to be commended for doing in public what so many others prefer to keep private.
What could be a more reasonable goal, for all the peoples of the Middle East – Arabs, Israelis, Turks, Iranians, Kurds and others – than normalcy? Who would be a champion of abnormality as a permanent condition of regional political life?
Dialogue doesn’t mean accepting occupation. It doesn’t mean accepting any of the specifics of the status quo, backing down or giving up on anything. It’s the only way to achieve anything serious.
But it does mean recognizing others, listening to their perspectives, and looking for points of convergence in order to achieve a policy goal, whether it is Gulf security, Palestinian independence, or whatever. The sooner the Arab conventional wisdom is honest with itself about this, the better for the Arab world.
If Arabs doubt it’s possible to speak with Jews and Israelis with mutual respect and dignity – and with a clear, focused aim, such as ending the occupation and creating a Palestinian state – they need to take a closer look at ATFP.