It is frequently reported that Israel and Sunni Arab states coordinate privately to confront security challenges from Iran, its proxies, and Sunni jihadists. But beyond the narrow realm of government, the conceptual fault lines of Arab-Israeli conflict remain largely in place. In most Arab countries, entrenched sociopolitical forces opposed to better ties still dominate the discourse and cripple dissenting voices, drawing their mandate from Israeli settlement construction and their lifeblood from the pains of terrorism and occupation. Inside Israel, most of the population has grown indifferent to the surrounding region and lacks the language tools necessary to engage Arabs intimately even if they could. The impasse is especially tragic for those areas wracked by proxy war and mass killing, from Yemen to Syria and Iraq, which stand to benefit the most from the pooling of Arab and Israeli resources, civil technology, and expertise. As long as the discourse itself remains a battlefield, it is not feasible to build public consent for Arab-Israeli partnership in the areas where it is most greatly needed—from mitigating drought to creating jobs. Nor will Israel’s dormant “peace camp” likely regain a footing domestically without a resounding show of support from the country’s neighbors.
All of this points to the need for a shakeup in the public discussion region-wide. But where to begin?
One man who wants to know is Cairo-born, London-based Essam Abdel Samad—an anesthesiologist with decades of experience easing people out of their slumber. In 2012, as Chair of the Union of Egyptians in Europe, the largest Egyptian diaspora organization, he built a transnational movement to enshrine voting rights for Egyptian émigrés and their descendants in the country’s post-Arab Spring constitution. He is a fixture on Egyptian media, where he lends a voice to the diaspora’s more liberal, reformist sensibilities in publications and television shows that are often skewed toward conservatives. By all accounts a maverick, Samad is no dissident: When establishment figures in Cairo need advice on fraught relations with European allies, they often call “Dr. Essam.”
Last Tuesday in a conference room at London’s Millennium Gloucester Hotel, Samad and his peers at the Union of Egyptians in Europe welcomed forty guests spanning seven Arab countries, Israel, and the United Kingdom to a panel discussion called “The Regional Approach to Arab-Israeli Partnership: Ancient Dreams, New Horizons.” Samad shared the rostrum with Israeli social entrepreneur Koby Huberman, co-founder of an NGO called the Israeli Regional Initiative, and, via Skype, veteran American peace envoy Dennis Ross, who shaped U.S. involvement in regional conflict resolution efforts under the George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton Administrations. Joseph Braude, an American Middle East specialist, was invited to moderate the give-and-take among the three and then bring the audience into the conversation.
A British journalist in attendance later remarked that, with respect to his own audience, no headlines emerged from the evening. But that was not the point. Viewed through the prism of media in Iraq, Syria, and other countries represented, the scene, in its civility, amounted to an act of defiance: It was the kind of gathering Arabs and Israelis are often rumored to have behind closed doors—except the doors were open, there were no “Chatham House Rules,” and even media attended. The initiative itself, moreover, came neither from Israel nor any Western endowment but rather from a group of self-funded Egyptian patriots.
“Call it a thought experiment,” explained Gamal Abdel Maaboud, Vice Chairman of the Union of Egyptians in Europe. “We wanted to test our belief that if we create our own safe space for give-and-take, Arabs from the Strait of Gibraltar to the Strait of Hormuz will frankly and constructively engage all their neighbors, including Israelis. We hope that if they do so, they will encourage Israelis to look more favorably at a solution along the lines of the Arab Peace Initiative.”
“Frank and constructive” doesn’t have to mean indulgent. When the moderator asked Samad and Huberman to assess their respective countries’ internal impediments to a “peace between peoples,” Samad started off by conveying his deep disappointment at a new Israeli law legitimizing dozens of illegally built settlement outposts in the West Bank. “The Knesset does not have a right to do that,” he said. “If it is not struck down by the Israeli Supreme Court, then perhaps it will be addressed by the International Criminal Court.” He then pivoted to the Egyptian interior: The country’s media is “not fully formed,” he said, and stands in urgent need of an overhaul—particularly with respect to how it narrates diversity and portrays the distant “other.” “Civil encounters like this one are all too rare,” he said. “They need to happen out in the open and win a receptive ear.”
The parallel question to Huberman was posed differently: Given that there are 140 Israeli NGOs committed in one way or another to fostering rapprochement with Arabs, what did he feel they were all missing that made it necessary for him and his peers to found a new one? “We have many organizations that deal with peace,” Huberman said. “Most speak about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which we know is at the heart of the Israeli-Arab conflict. We felt that the best way to address that conflict is through a regional approach—by engaging more Arab players in the equation. We also felt that there was a need to relate to the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which was for many years not addressed by the Israeli organizations. We vowed to quietly debate and discuss these ideas with like-minded people from the entire region. And while most of the Israeli organizations opposed Israeli government policies, we felt the need to impact the policies: to try and convince the Israeli government, of whatever composition or coalition, that there is value in making progress toward the regional approach.”
Ambassador Ross, asked to reflect on Samad’s and Huberman’s remarks, said part of the challenge in peacemaking has always been for Israelis and Arabs to better understand and address each other’s needs and concerns. Both Samad and Huberman seemed to be doing so more forthrightly, he observed. Perhaps the new confluence in regional security interests, in light of Iranian and trans-state adversaries, is mitigating in favor of greater empathy between Arabs and Israelis. As this trend grows, Ross said, he hoped that American foreign policy would acknowledge and support it, leveraging advantages both sides seek from Washington.
Braude asked the audience to respond to all three panelists. Dr. Nabil Mustapha, a dual Egyptian-British national and Chair of the Elmbridge Multi-Faith Forum, suggested that a further basis for intraregional engagement might be the widespread hunger, in light of sectarian conflict, for a dialogue among Jewish, Christian, and Muslim denominations, as well as his own Bahai faith. Omar Ismail, a pan-Arab media figure, suggested that all such efforts have the potential to play well in at least some quarters of the region’s public discussion.
Samad and Huberman proceeded to think out loud about new ways in which elements within Arab and Israeli societies, acting either independently or in consort with government, could breach the barriers that had long divided them. Samad, responding to Mustapha, stressed the role of non-profit groups. Huberman emphasized the need for Arab-Israeli economic development: He noted the promise of Israeli technologies in desalination, pushing water upstream, and reusing water, as well as the success of the multilateral “Qualified Industrial Zones” among Israel and a few of its neighbors. “This model can be migrated to peripheral areas: Gaza. The northern part of Palestine. The nearby Saudi islands of Tiran and Sanafir. These are the areas that have the highest degree of unemployment and the greatest potential for business cooperation.”
After the panel concluded, I surveyed the audience for their reactions. Nadia Subeih, a Palestinian journalist, said, “The little I’ve seen of such gatherings in the past usually ended in acrimony. I was pleasantly surprised that this one was almost entirely convivial and forward-looking.” Ayman Dwidar, a Syrian-British national who works in higher education, said that if people in his own country tuned in, they might begin to at least imagine a better future for their country. Ali Huri, a Kurdish journalist from Baghdad, pledged to raise awareness of the event among his colleagues. Also present were prominent figures from the UK’s Iraqi Jewish and Libyan Jewish communities: A Baghdad native who maintains deep personal and business ties with his motherland said, “These ideas have long been in the air. As they find expression more openly, I think we’ll see many players on the ground emboldened to join in and act.”
For a region drenched in blood, was the “Samad Initiative,” convened in the safety of faraway London, so idealistic as to be irrelevant? Time will tell whether it reverberates into Egypt and Israel. But it is noteworthy that last month in Morocco, where a tradition of Jewish-Muslim amity prevails, the popular daily newspaper Al-Ahdath al-Maghrebiya published an article by a co-founder of Huberman’s “Israeli Regional Initiative”—Yuval Rabin, son of the late Israeli Prime Minister—on its front page. Huberman added that colleagues in the Israeli private sector have in recent months seen a significant uptick in business overtures from potential Arab partners.
Americans, for their part, should be looking for any signs that the Samad Initiative is growing. Wherever it surfaces, it merits support.