I just returned from a few weeks in America, where the only thing from Israel that makes the news is the ongoing Palestinian violence. So it was a pleasant surprise to come home and discover that the peace process is actually progressing quite nicely. I don’t, of course, mean the one the West is fixated on, the consistently fruitless and currently nonexistent “peace process” with the Palestinians. I mean the far more important process of creeping normalization with the rest of the Arab world, which will not only improve Israel’s long-term security, but is probably essential for any progress on the Palestinian track.
As the Jerusalem Post reported last week, Israel is becoming an increasingly important player in the Arab world’s trade with Europe. Until a few years ago, the main overland route for this trade was through Syria. But with the Syrian civil war having made that impossible, a growing proportion now comes by ferry from Turkey to Haifa, then trucks across Israel to Jordan. This route is cheaper than the other main alternative, which involves shipping from Europe to Egypt.
Last year, some 13,000 trucks used the Israel route, up more than 25 percent from the previous year. And next month, a new shipping line between Turkey and Israel is slated to be inaugurated, enabling another 150 trucks per month. Israel’s Sheikh Hussein border crossing with Jordan is being expanded to handle the increase.
All this obviously benefits Israel’s economy, since Israel collects duties on every truckload. More importantly, however, it means that Israel – for virtually the first time since its establishment in 1948 – is playing a useful role in the broader regional economy rather than being largely isolated from it. And the more Israel’s Arab neighbors benefit from Israel’s stability, the more they will have an interest in trying to maintain that stability rather than disrupting it.
No less noteworthy was last week’s decision by an Egyptian parliamentarian and media personality to publicly challenge his country’s longstanding opposition to “normalization” with Israel. Though the two countries signed a peace treaty in 1979, Egyptian politicians, journalists, cultural figures and other elites have long opposed turning the cold peace into a “normal” relationship. Hence despite the exchange of ambassadors, bilateral relations have long been limited and kept largely under the radar, even as security cooperation has grown increasingly close over the last few years.
But last week, parliamentarian and television mogul Tawfik Okasha decided to shatter this taboo in the most public manner possible: He announced on live TV, on his own television show, that he had invited Israeli Ambassador Haim Koren to dinner. He even promised to take a photo of himself with Koren and send it to the media. Moreover, he announced that he had issued the invitation for an unprecedented purpose: to ask Israel to mediate between Egypt and Ethiopia in an explosive dispute over allocating water from the Nile River, on the sensible grounds that Israel has good relations with both countries.
Needless to say, an uproar ensued. Two other parliamentarians promptly demanded Okasha’s expulsion from parliament, and over 100 signed a statement rejecting normalization with Israel and demanding an investigation into his actions. (In the media world, he’s less vulnerable to repercussions, since he owns the TV station on which his show is broadcast.)
But when challenging a longstanding norm, someone always has to be first. And despite the inevitable backlash, pioneers like Okasha pave the way for others to follow.
Meanwhile, Okasha isn’t backing down. He did indeed have Koren to dinner, where he proposed various ideas for how Israel could help Egypt in the fields of water, agriculture and education – all areas where Israel excels and Egypt desperately needs to improve.
In the current Egyptian climate, Okasha’s proposal for Israeli mediation is an obvious nonstarter, and whether anything will come of his other proposals remains to be seen. But his willingness to buck the consensus in order to try is already a step forward.
Finally, there was last week’s fascinating Associated Press profile of Hossam Haick, an Israeli Arab professor at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology and a global leader in the field of nanotechnology (yes, Israel has Arab professors at its top universities). In 2013, with the Technion’s cooperation, Haick launched one of the world’s first online courses in Arabic, a course in nanotechnology. Since then, he said, about 14,000 students have enrolled, from Syria, Yemen, Qatar and elsewhere. Some dropped out when they discovered that Haick is Israeli. But most didn’t care.
Haick said he sees the course as a way of building bridges between Israel and the Arab world. And he’s right; this is an online version of the Haifa-Jordan trade route. Just as that route for the first time enables the broader regional economy to benefit from Israel, Haick’s course for the first time enables the broader region to benefit from Israel’s world-class universities and high-tech expertise. And the more Israel’s neighbors benefit from its existence, the greater their interest will be in reaching an accommodation with it rather than destroying it.
All of the above may seem like baby steps. Yet the series of baby steps that have been taken over the last few years not only represents a major shift from the utter stagnation of previous decades, but is slowly adding up to significant progress, even if there’s still a long way left to go.
Ultimately, this progress is also crucial for any hope of Israeli-Palestinian peace. Barring the unexpected emergence of a Palestinian Anwar Sadat, Palestinians will need serious backing from the broader Arab world – and probably serious pressure as well – to make the kind of compromises any peace agreement with Israel would entail. So far, the Arab world hasn’t had any interest in applying such pressure. But if Arab countries become convinced that Israel’s continued existence and stability benefits them, they will finally have an interest in pressing the Palestinians to end the century-old conflict.
Originally published in Commentary on February 29, 2016