South African-born journalist, Benjamin Pogrund, immigrated to Israel from the UK in 1997. He is currently writing a book about Israel and apartheid. The following is from his Ha’aretz Online article, “How Israel can return to the Middle East”:
At a dinner event in London I sat next to a Syrian. During the evening I had a long talk with someone from Bahrain who told me about his fight at home for human rights. I spoke to a man from Afghanistan who told me his hopes for his country’s future. Also at the dinner were people from Iraq, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Saudi Arabia.
To an Israeli it was an unusual and strange experience. All these people from our neighborhood, friendly and wanting to talk, to share information and thoughts. Yet … we know little about their aspirations and day-to-day lives. They are ‘the enemy’.
We know that there are surreptitious contacts behind the scenes. Limited trade continues: in shops we can buy dates from Iran and dried lemons that come from Basra in Iraq. Israeli products make their way to countries in the region. Israeli tourists go to Petra in Jordan. …
[Yet] The Middle East … barely exists in our consciousness. ... That is our loss and everyone’s loss. We could be so enriched by contact with people, by two-way tourism and by trade.….
Of course it would be naïve and silly to put all the blame on ourselves for the lack of connection. Arab states have shunned us since 1948. Their formal boycott dating from that time continues up to now, and they incessantly harass and condemn us in international forums. Iranian leaders want to eliminate us. We have signed peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan which help to keep us out of war but we do not enjoy normal relations.
It goes without saying that a primary reason for what we don’t have is the continuing conflict with Palestinians. That is such an overwhelming factor in our lives that we should be exhausting every possible opportunity to resolve it. That starts with getting out of the occupation, whose moral and material costs are as catastrophic for us as for Palestinians.
The cynical will say that we will never achieve closeness with our neighbors because they deny our very existence. … But it does not apply to everyone and evidence of that is in the overtures made through the Arab Peace Initiative proposed by Saudi Arabia in 2002. Then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon looked the other way and pretended it had never happened. The Arab League took it over … We have remained indifferent.
It certainly does not offer everything we want. … But the mere fact that it was put forward and 11 years later is still on the table is crucial – and even more because it was affirmed as recently as April this year with an amendment that limited exchanges of land would be acceptable.
The Arab Peace Initiative must not be viewed as a final take-it-or-leave declaration. It is an opening statement. It opens up the possibility of dialogue, negotiation and compromise. If we genuinely want peace we must seize the chance – and then put the Arab states to the test.