The chance of Israel’s re-admittance to the Middle East lies in its ability to show initiative, originality and flexibility of thought. Only by attempting sincerely to solve the Palestinian problem will it have a chance to become a public and recognized player.
Prof. Elie Podeh
A few months ago, former Justice Minister Tzipi Livni traveled in secret to New York to a meeting attended by the foreign ministers of several Arab countries, Arab League officials and European foreign ministers. The topic of the meeting was the formulation of a regional coalition, or cooperation, against ISIS. Participation of an official Israeli representative of such a call marked a significant achievement in Israel’s foreign policy, and confirms that the post-Arab Spring developments in the region have created an opportunity for Israel to forge new alliances and coalitions with regional actors. Recently, it has been revealed that Foreign Minister Liberman secretly met Arab and Palestinians officials in Paris with the aim of promoting a regional initiative. In light of the diplomatic impasse, this is good news.
The bad news is that these exchanges are held in the dark. This once again highlights the fact that Israel is still suffering from a “mistress syndrome” in the Middle East— relations with her must be kept a secret.
Since its existence, Israel has conducted secret contracts with individuals and countries in the Middle East. Common interests led to occasional cooperation, which needed to be hidden so as not to endanger the collaborators. Jordan’s King Abdullah and his grandson King Hussein held many talks with Israeli leaders. Abdullah even paid with his life for secret contacts that almost led to the first ever peace agreement with an Arab country. Even ties in the late 1950s and early 1960s between Israel, Turkey, Iran, Ethiopia and perhaps Sudan—the so-called “Periphery Alliance”—were kept secret.
Cooperation in the 1950s was designed to combat the threat posed to the Middle East by the pan-Arab ideology under the leadership of Egypt’s Gamal Abdel Nasser. Thus, for example, Israel was covertly involved in the Yemeni civil war of the 1960s, in which it helped royalists in their struggle against the republican regime backed by Nasser. Israel also secretly helped the Kurds in Iraq in their fight against the Ba’ath regime in the mid-1960s.
Israel later aided the Maronites in Lebanon, although when that cooperation came to light in the Lebanon War in 1982, the Maronites were alienated. Even the Egyptians and Palestinians held many secret talks with Israeli before any formal agreements were signed. And since publishing of the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, there have been scattered clues of meetings between Israeli and Saudi representatives.
The only period in which Israel managed to escape the “mistress syndrome” was following the signing of the Oslo Accords in 1993. The decade of the 1990s was a golden age in Israel’s relations with countries in the region; it had diplomatic relations at various levels not only with Egypt and Jordan, but also with Morocco, Tunisia, Mauritania and a host of states in the Persian Gulf. Cooperation between Israel and Turkey reached its peak during that time, and a number of regional economic conferences brought public meetings between Israeli and Arab businessmen.
Though there were still many in the Arab world who refused to see Israel as part of the Middle East, the Oslo Accords broke the barrier of fear and allowed many Arabs to have public relations with Israel and Israelis. Yet this positive development was reversed with the failure of the Oslo and the outbreak of the Second Intifada. Israel was then relegated back to its traditional status of the concubine of the Middle East in public.
Israel has suffered from this syndrome for most of its existence; it dovetailed with the Jewish history of living in the ghetto (in Eastern Europe) or the mellah (in Morocco). However, this is not an act of fate. The history of the Oslo Accords in the 1990s shows that Israel is not doomed to isolation and boycott, but rather that isolation and boycott are also the result of its actions. No progress on the Palestinian problem, the insensitivity shown by the decision-makers in continuing settlement activity, and particularly the rejection of the Arab Peace Initiative – all these actions damage Israel interests in the Middle East.
The chance of Israel’s re-admittance to the Middle East lies in its ability to show initiative, originality and flexibility of thought. Only by attempting sincerely to solve the Palestinian problem will Israel have a chance to become a public and recognized player. It is unclear how Balaam’s biblical curse, “They are a people that shall dwell alone, and shall not be reckoned among the nations” (Numbers 23:9) has become the motto of so many in Israel. A more worthy motto comes from Israel’s second Prime Minister, Moshe Sharett, who said that “Israel shall not be a people that dwells alone, not in the Middle East and not among the nations of the world.” This should be the guiding light of Israeli policy-makers.
Professor Podeh teaches in the Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies Department at the Hebrew University, and is a Board Member at Mitvim – The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies. A Hebrew version of this article first appeared in Haaretz.