American Jews should work with the Arabs, not against them

American Jews should work with the Arabs, not against them
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As Henry Ford once said, “Coming together is a beginning; keeping together is progress; working together is success.” When it comes to relations between the U.S., Israel and the Arab world, while governments set the tone, American Jewish leaders can play an important role in fostering a culture of mutual understanding between both sides. Rather than stoking tensions, America’s Jews should recognize the encouraging signs of progress that are being made.

There is only one way to bring positive change to the Middle-East and the Gulf, and that is through dialogue and diplomacy. Although there is much to criticize and there are wrongs to right, we need to engage with all parties in the neighborhood if progress is to be achieved. If the ultimate goal is peace between Israel and the Palestinians, then the other countries in the region need to be on board. The Arab world needs to help bring the Palestinians to the table and support an agreement. They will do this if they are convinced it is in their best interests, both domestically on the Arab street and internationally when it comes to trade with the U.S. and other countries.

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The signs that peace is achievable are there. In the past month alone, I have travelled to both Qatar and Saudi Arabia and have spoken extensively with leaders and high-level officials there. They are all clear that positive relations with the U.S., be it with lawmakers, business leaders or opinion-formers, is something all Arab countries see as valuable. The signs are also there that rejuvenating the Middle East Peace Process will continue to be a priority for the Trump administration.

 

The Trump administration is crafting a plan for Israeli-Palestinian peace to be unveiled “by early next year,” according to The New York Times. Following his recent weeklong trip to the region, U.S. Middle East envoy Jason Greenblatt declared the U.S. “will never impose a deal — our goal is to facilitate, not dictate a lasting peace agreement”.

Those that say Trump’s recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital is a barrier to this peace are misguided. What matters is not the location of an embassy, which is trivial on a greater scale. What matters is the political will on both sides to come to the table and negotiate. This has to be the focus if we are to progress. Kushner’s efforts behind the scenes will hopefully also help achieve this. The number of visits he has taken to the Arab world can only be a good thing, and will hopefully contribute towards new channels of dialogue and a refreshed vision of optimism opening up amongst Arab countries. 

The question is, can American Jews play a part in this process and make peace more achievable? I believe so. Our contribution starts from a diplomatic level. There are signs of diplomacy emerging on both sides. Attitudes in many of the Arab States are going through a gradual metamorphosis and becoming more aligned with America’s position in many areas. How the administration and Congress speak about the Arab world makes a real difference in promoting dialogue. Americans, and American Jews, can help support this process. 

However, diplomacy requires two players, there needs to be a feeling of reciprocity. If there is a sense that neither side is willing to communicate effectively, they have no time for each other’s opinion and there is no appetite for cooperation, then dialogue has no chance of succeeding. 

For the first time in a long time, the Arab world is now making efforts to show they want to engage.

They may only be taking small steps, but they are no less significant for that. In the last couple of months UNESCO, a thorn in Israel’s side, has delayed a negative vote on Israel and not objected to a Jew becoming its new director-general.

Further afield, Qatar has made it clear that Israelis (and Jews) are welcome at its World Cup. Israel Judo Association officials also “shared greetings and positive discussion” with officials from their UAE counterparts following last month’s Abu Dhabi Judo Grand Slam. When taken together these developments represent the signs that a significant movement may be underway. I believe the tide is turning and American Jews need to play their part. 

Many argue that Qatar is different, that they support terrorist groups such as Hamas which refutes Israel’s right to exist and we should act to condemn them where their interests run contrary to Israel’s. The situation is extremely complex and nuanced and Qatar is viewed by many as an outlier in the region. But the fact remains that America is heavily invested in Qatar and Israel is engaging with them. There are shared interests between Israel and Qatar and both countries want to take those interests forward. Where Israel and America are aligned, American Jewry should be following suit. We should be sending a message to Qatari officials that we are ready to communicate and open to engagement. American Jewry is equally well-equipped to help support diplomatic mechanisms, by creating a positive environment conducive to peace.

Engaging in a comprehensive dialogue with the Arab world is sometimes delicate but stability will only be brought through mutual cooperation and that requires making tough and often difficult decisions. If we foster a climate of collaboration, welcoming the positive changes and opening the door to greater dialogue the rewards could be immense.  Attitudes are changing, but profound change doesn’t happen overnight and what’s needed now is some level heads, time and care to allow these small changes to develop and see where they lead.

Jack Rosen is president of the American Jewish Congress and chairman of the American Council for World Jewry.