The Arab world is extending a hand to Israel. Will it reciprocate

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The Arab world is extending a hand to Israel. Will it reciprocate?

By Fouad Siniora and Basem Shabb

The Washington Post

January 2, 2024

The eventual end of the war in Gaza can be a catalyst for a comprehensive peace with the Arab world based on a two-state solution. The opportunity for a meaningful and broad peace is real and should not be obscured by the fog of war, and discussions about the future must not be restricted to the future of Gaza. The Arab world has been ready to make peace since it proposed the Arab Peace Initiative in Beirut in 2002. This commitment is still very much alive today. Israel should embrace this opportunity and, in doing so, usher in a new era in the Middle East.

Despite the ferocity of the bombing and the great loss of innocent civilian lives in Gaza, the conflct remains largely contained to an Israeli-Palestinian confrontation — and more specifically, is broadly understood in the Arab world to be a conflict with Hamas, a non-state actor. This is significant, especially as the situation in the West Bank remains combustible.

Arab states have wagered on a peaceful settlement, and still do. In a first, 57 Arab and Islamic countries recently assembled in Saudi Arabia and called for a peaceful resolution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict based on a two-state solution, reaffirming their commitment to the Arab Peace Initiative. (Iran, although subsequently voicing reservations through its Foreign Ministry, approved the final communiqué.)

In response to Israel’s atrocities in Gaza, the Arab world responded with denunciation — but, more importantly, with diplomacy. No military threats were issued by any of the Arab states toward Israel. A peaceful solution to the conflict was recently outlined by Jordanian King Abdullah II in an op-ed for The Post. And during the recent COP28 meeting in Dubai, the emir of Qatar, Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, and Mohamed bin Zayed al-Nahyan, president of the United Arab Emirates, met with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, even though their citizens are dismayed by what is happening in Gaza.

Jordan and Egypt, both bordering Israel, are committed to lasting and durable peace with Israel, resisting domestic anger. Syria shows no willingness to join the fray. In fact, even the Syrian regime has been passive, paying only lip service to Hamas, its nemesis throughout the Syrian civil war. And in Lebanon, government officials, as well as many Lebanese, are against escalation.

A low-intensity conflict with Hezbollah is ongoing, and it might escalate without active American diplomacy. But wider war can be avoided. Before Oct. 7, Israel and Hezbollah had agreed to implicit rules of engagement that kept Israel’s border with Lebanon relatively quiet and saw Hezbollah facilitating a maritime agreement with Israel. Statements by Hezbollah’s secretary general, Hasan Nasrallah, and Iran’s supreme leader, Ali Khamenei, indicate that Iran and Hezbollah are not willing to go all the way in support of Hamas. Hezbollah poses real dangers to Israel but is not an existential threat.

To label a threat as nonexistential is not to discount it. Israelis know Iran and its proxies pose a similar or even a greater threat to Arab states. The several Houthi missiles fired at Israel pale in comparison to the hundreds fired at Saudi Arabia. Iraqi Shiite militias under Iranian control pose a greater danger to the Iraqi state than they do to Israel. Iran’s embrace of radical Islam destabilizes moderate leaders. And Israelis and Arabs are on the same page as far as the Iranian nuclear program is concerned. This shared understanding of the regional strategic picture undergirds the Abraham Accords.

But Israelis need to grasp that the best antidote to Iranian expansionism is a two-state solution with the Palestinians.

Before Oct. 7, few Israelis believed that the status quo posed an existential threat. Even fewer believed that the repeated transgressions in the al-Aqsa Mosque and unbridled settler provocations in the West Bank could trigger the kind of response we saw. Israel had a false belief that economic incentives and appeasement would turn Hamas away from a major military confrontation. Israel believed economic peace with the Arab world, while keeping the occupation, could be a substitute for a comprehensive and lasting peace in the region. The status quo was thought to be sustainable, and any serious effort to tackle the unresolved conflict was thought unnecessary.

tragic events of Oct. 7 and the ensuing carnage in Gaza are the consequence of failed diplomacy, Western complicity, and Israel’s wishful thinking that time will erode what is left of Palestinians’ identity and aspiration for an independent state. Though the heavy death toll on Oct. 7 convinced Israelis that they are militarily vulnerable, their real vulnerability will not disappear without an equitable and just settlement.

President Biden, in an op-ed in The Post, categorically stated that “a two-state solution is the only way to ensure the long-term security of both the Israeli and Palestinian people.” He might have added, “as well as the whole region.” The hand of the Arab world is extended to Israel. A farsighted Israeli leadership would do well to reciprocate — and start working with its partners on fashioning a durable and meaningful peace.

Fouad Siniora was prime minister of Lebanon from 2005 to 2009 and served in the Lebanese parliament from 2009 to 2018. Basem Shabb served in the Lebanese parliament from 2005 to 2018.

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