I recently returned from a Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations trip to the United Arab Emirates and Israel. I came away with one sweeping conclusion: The Arab-Israel conflict, as we once knew it, is over. You read that right. Notwithstanding a continuing stream of disparaging U.N. resolutions supported by Arab governments, there is a de facto peace between many Arab countries and Israel, with active collaboration at the military, intelligence and political levels.
American Jews can help this process along.
If, in the wake of the 1979 peace treaty with Egypt, there was a formal peace with Egypt but informal hostility at the societal level, today there is informal peace with several other Arab countries but formal hostility. Arab governments such as Saudi Arabia, UAE and Jordan work closely with Israel behind the scenes. But for the sake of appearances, the Jewish state is disparaged in public international forums. Still, this incongruous posture is a tremendous step forward for Israel’s quest for peace and security.
The dramatic change in the relationship between Israel and its Arab neighbors, of course, does not guarantee Israel’s security in the region. The Palestinian-Israel conflict and Iran’s threatening behavior toward Israel are still, unfortunately, alive and well, and show little sign of abating.
Paradoxically, the conflict with Iran, as ominous as it is, has provided the impetus for ending the conflict with the Arab nations. As Iran has flexed its muscles, the Arab countries and Israel see a need to join forces in standing up against an aggressive, expansionist Iranian state. Iran is attempting to establish a land bridge through the Middle East, aggravate Shiite constituencies in Sunni-dominated Arab countries, use terrorism to destabilize the existing political order, become the true defenders of Islam in the eyes of Muslims and ultimately acquire nuclear weapons to aid the above.
Fearing confrontation with Iran, Arab leaders have come to regard Israel as a reliable ally — indeed, a regional superpower — in checking Iranian aspirations. They know they can rely on a similarly imperiled Israel — and perhaps only Israel — to be steadfast against this Iranian power play.
This sense of common enemy and necessary ally is starting to trickle down from the realms of Arab leadership to the populations themselves. A recent poll taken in Arabic by Al Jazeera host Faisal al-Kassim of his five million viewers showed that 56 percent would side with Israel over Iranian-backed militias in Syria. While a far cry from total acceptance, such a result would have been unthinkable only two years ago.
Our delegation to the UAE met with numerous top officials and civic society leaders. We were struck by the growing commitment to tolerance of other religions and even to the state of Israel. It is clear that these leaders want to move in the direction of normalized relations as quickly as their politics allow.
Realistically, this will not happen in the near term. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu recently acknowledged that the relationship with the Arab countries is “deep, it’s broad: it doesn’t necessarily cross the threshold of a formal peace, and I doubt that would happen until we get some formal progress with the Palestinians.”
Indeed, Arab countries have spent decades using Israel as a scapegoat to deflect attention away from their nations’ domestic problems. The built-up resentment will not dissipate overnight.
In the meantime, we American Jews can play our part in advancing the growing Arab-Israel partnership. American Jews can stand in as a proxy for Israel while support builds among the various Arab publics for peace with Israelis.
American Jewish organizations should pay frequent visits to Arab states. The Arab countries can more openly welcome American Jewish delegations than they can Israeli officials. We should be as public in these gestures as our hosts allow. Hopefully, the presence of Jews will over time change hearts and minds of ordinary people and make it easier for them to accept Israelis.
In local communities with consulates, we can invite Arab diplomats to local programs and into our homes. We can request meetings with Arab officials when they come to the U.S. We can sponsor joint academic conferences and papers and shared resources on the Iranian threat. We can encourage Israeli officials, with US assistance, to strive for at least incremental progress in resolving the Palestinian issue.
Israel still faces many security challenges; the Iranian threat is first and foremost. However, there is an historic opportunity to close the book on the defining conflict of Israel’s first seven decades. We American Jews have a critical role to play.
Cheryl Fishbein is chair of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs.