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London – Arab intellectuals advocate stronger relations with Israel… Arab Thinkers Call to Abandon Boycotts and Engage With Israel… New Arab group says it’s time to stop boycotting Israel

The group met privately, citing security concerns, but allowed The New York Times to monitor the proceedings, which were held in Arabic, by live stream on the condition that it not report on them until the conference had concluded. The conference was funded strictly by American donors, but organizers said they planned to raise money in the region as a going concern.

They stressed that they received no aid from any government and that no Israelis were involved in any way.

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

By SAM SOKOL 21 Nov 2019

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

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

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.”

Arab Thinkers Call to Abandon Boycotts and Engage With Israel

Eglal Gheita, an Egyptian-British lawyer, speaking via video link to the Arab Council for Regional Integration in London.
Eglal Gheita, an Egyptian-British lawyer, speaking via video link to the Arab Council for Regional Integration in London.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

By David M. Halbfinger

  • Nov. 20, 2019

Boycotting Israel is a failure, and has only helped that country while damaging Arab nations that have long shunned the Jewish state, according to a small new group of liberal-minded Arab thinkers from across the Middle East who are pushing to engage with Israel on the theory that it would aid their societies and further the Palestinian cause.

The group has brought together Arab journalists, artists, politicians, diplomats, Quranic scholars and others who share a view that isolating and demonizing Israel has cost Arab nations billions in trade. They say it has also undercut Palestinian efforts to build institutions for a future state, and torn at the Arab social fabric, as rival ethnic, religious and national leaders increasingly apply tactics that were first tested against Israel.

“Arabs are the boycott’s first — and only — victims,” Eglal Gheita, an Egyptian-British lawyer, declared at an inaugural gathering this week in London.

Calling itself the Arab Council for Regional Integration, the group does not purport to be broadly representative of Arab public opinion. Its members espouse a viewpoint that is, to put it mildly, politically incorrect in their home countries: Some have already been ostracized for advocating engagement with Israel and others said they feared retribution when they return.

Still, the few dozen members include more than a few well-known figures in places as far-ranging as Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf, many of whom have begun to speak out, to varying degrees, in favor of engagement with Israel. The most recognizable name — to Western eyes, at least — may be that of Anwar Sadat, nephew and namesake of the Egyptian president who struck the first Arab peace treaty with Israel. He is also a critic of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi who was expelled from Egypt’s Parliament in 2017.

One of the council’s main organizers, Mustafa el-Dessouki, the Egyptian managing editor of an influential Saudi-funded newsmagazine, Majalla, said that as he has wandered the region in recent years he has met many like-minded Arabs “who had kind of been waiting for somebody like me to come along.”

Mustafa el-Dessouki, one the organizers, speaking at the conference.
Mustafa el-Dessouki, one the organizers, speaking at the conference.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Arab news media and entertainment have long been “programming people toward this hostility” toward Israel and Jews, he said, while political leaders were “intimidating and scaring people into manifesting it.” But many Arabs — even, to his surprise, in Lebanon, a bitter Israeli enemy — “actually want to connect with Israelis,” he added.

To a degree, the group also reflects the geopolitical alignment now linking the Persian Gulf nations and other predominantly Sunni Muslim countries with Israel, against Iran and its Shiite proxies in the region, said Mr. el-Dessouki’s co-organizer, Joseph Braude, an American author and Middle East analyst of Iraqi-Jewish descent.

“The sense of Israel being somehow a greater friend or lesser enemy than Iran is a factor here,” he said. But it is also one that will not last forever, he said, creating an urgency to build ties “based on common humanity, not some fleeting shared-security concern.”

For the Palestinians, the council’s arguments fly in the face of decades of efforts to isolate Israel in the hope that this would force it to make concessions at the negotiating table.

Even Palestinian leaders who do not support the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement oppose fully normalizing Arab relations with Israel, arguing that Israel’s diplomatic gains from the Oslo peace process had only encouraged Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to expand settlements on the West Bank.

Husam Zomlot, who leads the Palestinian mission to the United Kingdom and did the same in Washington until the Trump administration closed that office, belittled the new council’s members as an “extreme fringe of isolated individuals.” From Tunisia, whose new president has called it treasonous to engage with Israel, he said, to Lebanon, where protesters are waving the Palestinian flag alongside their own, “the sentiment of the vast majority of the Arab world is going in the other direction.”

“They are playing into the hands of Netanyahu,” Mr. Zomlot said, because Mr. Netanyahu wants to “convince the Israeli electorate that he can have the cake and eat it too: keep the occupation and still normalize relations with the Arab world.”

Mr. Netanyahu, indeed, has long posited that Arab nations are so eager to engage with Israel, culturally and commercially, that they will come around to normalizing ties even in the absence of a Palestinian state.

The Arab Council’s members, however, explicitly reject the view that it is possible for Arab countries to reach formal diplomatic relations with Israel without resolution of the Palestinian conflict. And they argue that polls show that when Israelis are offered the enticement of acceptance by Arab nations, they become more willing to compromise, even by giving up land.

Mr. Sadat, for one, heaped enormous criticism upon Israel over its treatment of the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza and of its own Arab citizens, as well as for “supporting the current autocratic regime in Egypt.” All those things, he said, were adding to what he called the “Egyptian guilt quotient” over having made peace with Israel in the first place.

Anwar Sadat at the conference of the Arab Council for Regional Integration on Tuesday.
Anwar Sadat at the conference of the Arab Council for Regional Integration on Tuesday.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Some participants urged measures like establishing a teachers college and research institute with campuses in Casablanca, Amman, Haifa and Manama. And an Iraqi counterterrorism expert living in Germany, Jassim Mohammad, urged Arab security services to stop the spread of “radicalism and hate” in the media, schools and mosques and to spread “corrective content about Israel and Jews” instead.

He called this a “matter of Arab national security.”

“The tools of scapegoating and blame deflection that initially targeted Jews and Israel have long since found new, local targets,” Mr. Mohammad wrote, like ruling elites or rival ethnicities and sects.

The attendees received piped-in encouragement from Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, who commended them for speaking out and said that nurturing stronger Arab-Israeli ties was vital to “any realistic possibility of an enduring peace” and a two-state solution.

Mr. el-Dessouki said some members were attending at considerable risk. Egyptian citizens, including Mr. Sadat, were warned not to attend by security officials, he said.

Members praised a Lebanese cleric from Tripoli, Saleh Hamed, who attended in spite of the possibility of reprisal upon his return. “We do not deny the rights of the Jews to have a country,” Sheikh Hamed said, citing the Prophet Muhammad’s kindness toward Jews. But he was careful to add that the Palestinians “should have their lands according to the 1967 borders.”

Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, addressed the Arab Council on Wednesday.
Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, addressed the Arab Council on Wednesday.Credit…Mary Turner for The New York Times

Sukayna Mushaykhis, a Saudi news anchor in Dubai, recalled seeing Lebanese officials abruptly exit a meeting in San Francisco when they learned that their hosts were Jews. “And yet today,” she said, “I hear a man of faith coming from a state that is governed by Hezbollah, and he talks with so much bravery and courage.”

The group met privately, citing security concerns, but allowed The New York Times to monitor the proceedings, which were held in Arabic, by live stream on the condition that it not report on them until the conference had concluded. The conference was funded strictly by American donors, but organizers said they planned to raise money in the region as a going concern.

They stressed that they received no aid from any government and that no Israelis were involved in any way.

In a founding document, the members urged their adversaries to debate them constructively “rather than resort to old methods of silencing critics and demonizing reformers.”

Only one Palestinian was in attendance: Mohammed S. Dajani Daoudi, an academic who said he lost his post at Al Quds University in East Jerusalem after his bridge-building efforts with Israelis led him to take a group of Palestinian students to Auschwitz to learn about the Holocaust.

Mr. Dajani called for educating a new generation of peacemakers, lamenting that the Oslo process had failed to achieve peace in part because the “peace discussed between diplomats and generals was never fully matched by preparations for a wave of peace between peoples, allowing spoilers on both sides to win the day.”

Asked why the only Palestinian participating was already something of an outcast, Mr. Braude said that younger Palestinians were interested, but that there were none well-established enough in their careers yet to withstand the blowback.

“We didn’t want to burn them,” he said.

New Arab group says it’s time to stop boycotting Israel

‘Arabs are the boycott’s first and only victims,’ Egyptian-British lawyer says.

Josefin Dolsten, JTA, 23/11/19 17:43

Boycott Israel sign in Bethlehem

Boycott Israel sign in BethlehemMiriam Alster / Flash 90

A new group of Arab thinkers is urging its countries to engage with Israel.

The Arab Council for Regional Integration group held its first conference in London this week, The New York Times reported Wednesday. Anwar Sadat, the nephew of the late Egyptian president of the same name, was among those who attended the private event, which also included journalists, artists, politicians, diplomats and Quranic scholars.

The participants say that bad ties with Israel have hurt Arab nations’ economically and Palestinian efforts to build infrastructure.

“Arabs are the boycott’s first — and only — victims,” said Egyptian-British lawyer Eglal Gheita, according to The Times.

Former British prime minister Tony Blair addressed the conference video message. The conference was funded by American donors, according to The Times.

Organizer Mustafa el-Dessouki, the Egyptian managing editor of the Saudi-owned journal Majalla, said that Arab media and political leaders were encouraging hostility toward Jews and Israel.

But many Arabs, including in Lebanon, which is an enemy state of Israel, “actually want to connect with Israelis,” he said, according to The Times.

Arab states have long shunned Israel and it is common for leaders and mainstream media outlets to promote anti-Semitic rhetoric.

A coalition of Arab countries attacked Israel after it established its independence in 1948, and then again in 1967 and 1973. However, in recent years, Israel has been growing closer with the Gulf States, which share a goal of countering Iranian influence in the Middle East, though those closer relations have not yet translated into formal ties.

But the Palestinian representative in London slammed the meeting.

“They are playing into the hands of Netanyahu,” said Husam Zomlot, who previously served as the envoy to Washington.

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