Gathering in London, Arab intellectuals advocate stronger relations with Israel

At inaugural meeting of the Arab Council for Regional Integration, participants decry boycotts of Jewish state as harming the Arab world economically and politically

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Illustrative: Demonstrators protesting outside the Spanish government delegation in Barcelona, October 20, 2015. (Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via JTA)
Illustrative: Demonstrators protesting outside the Spanish government delegation in Barcelona, October 20, 2015. (Albert Llop/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images via JTA)

Dozens of representatives of Arab civil society from 15 countries gathered in London on Tuesday and Wednesday for a remarkable two-day conference calling for the end of Israel’s isolation in the Arab world.

Calling itself the Arab Council for Regional Integration, the newly established forum’s members have repudiated the BDS movement against the Jewish state, asserting that efforts to prevent normalization between their respective nations and Israel has caused more harm than good.

“Arabs are the boycott’s first — and only — victims,” Egyptian attorney Eglal Gheita told attendees, The New York Times reported.

According to the Jewish Journal, a number of the 32 initial participants took a significant risk by taking part, and despite the conference’s emphasis on building ties, no Israelis were present, a measure taken in order to prevent attendees’ prosecution for fraternization.

In this January 15, 2018, photo, Mohammed Anwar Sadat, nephew of Egypt’s late leader Anwar Sadat and the leader of Reform and Development Party, during a press conference at the party headquarters, in Cairo, Egypt. (AP Photo/Amr Nabil, File)

In an op-ed published in The Wall Street Journal on Wednesday, Gheita and Arab journalist Mostafa El-Dessouki explained that they believed that “boycotting Israel and its people has only strengthened both, while doing great harm to Arab countries, and not least to the Palestinians” and that “for the sake of the region, it is long past time to move forward to a post-boycott era.”

Arabs, they asserted, “lost the economic benefits of forming partnerships with Israelis” such as obtaining desalinization technology, and the boycott “impeded Arabs from resolving tensions between Israelis and Palestinians” and empowered hardliners like Hamas while marginalizing “Palestinians striving justly and peacefully to build institutions for a future state.”

“Worse still, the regional boycott of Israel became a template for excluding and marginalizing opposition in the Arab world. Ethnic and sectarian divisions hardened, hastening the disintegration of Syria, Iraq, Libya and Yemen.”

While the movement’s members admit to being marginal within their own societies, with only two politicians (one current and one former) attending, they expressed hope that their position would eventually influence the thinking of their contemporaries.

They also rejected the establishment of complete and full diplomatic relations prior to the end of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

While there has been an increasingly openness to engagement with Israel in some quarters of the Arab world, there has also been a hardening of attitudes in others.

In March, United Arab Emirates Minister of State for Foreign Affairs Anwar Gargash called for a “strategic shift” in Israel-Arab ties, saying that Arab world’s decades-old decision to boycott the Jewish state had been a mistake and arguing that Arab boycott has complicated efforts to find a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In June Bahrain’s Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmed al Khalifa said his country recognizes Israel’s right to exist, knows that it is “there to stay,” and wants peace with it.

Tunisia’s new President Kais Saied takes the oath of office at the parliament in Tunis, October 23, 2019. (Fethi Belaid/AFP)

But earlier this year, Tunisia’s newly elected President Kais Saied called moves toward relations with the Jewish state “high treason.” And ties with Jordan, which signed a peace deal with Israel in 1994, have also become strained in recent years, with the kingdom’s first envoy to Israel recently stating that the accord should be reexamined because Jerusalem could be planning a mass expulsion of millions of Palestinians.

One of the participants in this week’s conference was the namesake nephew of Anwar Sadat, the Egyptian president who signed the first Arab peace treaty with Israel in 1979. And while he advocated a new approach to Israel, he also harshly condemned Israel for how it treats the Palestinians and its support for “the current autocratic regime in Egypt,” the Times reported.

Sadat said that these factors contributed to the “Egyptian guilt quotient” regarding its peace treaty with Jerusalem.

Writing in the WSJ, El-Dessouki and Gheita claimed that “shortly before the conference, Egyptian officials warned several Arab Council members not to attend. That’s right: Egypt, a US ally formally at peace with Israel, tried to block a step toward a broader peace.”

However, they continued, “We’re determined to push for cooperation between the Arab world and Israel, firm in our belief that the benefits of partnership must replace the ravages of exclusion.”

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