For a long time, the horizon of peace between Arabs and Israelis seemed to be mercilessly receding, and the dreams that it carried were nothing but utopia. Utopia of yesterday, truth of tomorrow, because although the geopolitical dynamics at work in the Middle East are complex, the lines are starting to shift. The events of the past few weeks – with the decision of the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain to normalize their relations with Israel – raise hopes for a wider movement which could lead, if encouraged, to the establishment of comprehensive peace between the entire Arab world and Israel.
The scope of the “Abrahamic Agreements” goes beyond the Middle East diplomatic and strategic framework. These agreements pave the way for a historic reconciliation between Jews and Arabs. They reflect profound changes that our country cannot ignore. France has a very long diplomatic experience in this region, powerful networks and privileged relations with its main players. While history is knocking on its door and a virtuous dynamic finally kicks in in the Middle East, our country cannot shirk and camp on obsolete positions which would reduce its influence in this strategic region like a shambles.
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Since its creation 72 years ago, Israel has strived to make peace with its neighbors. The hostility born of the Arab rejection of the successive partition plans for Mandatory Palestine has plunged this region into repetitive conflicts that have pitted Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Libya against Israel. The constitution and then the consolidation of Palestinian nationalism were late. It was formalized in the course of the 1960s in the wake of the creation of Fatah. The Palestinian question, which was nevertheless central in the Arab world until the 1980s, has gradually become peripheral due to the repeated failures of European and American diplomacy. The many summits and other international conferences have unfortunately not made it possible to bring about a much hoped-for peace.
Recent history has given us the main reason for this. The Palestinians had a veto over the establishment of relations between Israel and the Arab world. This lever has led Ramallah to stiffen its position, believing that it can count on the automatic support of its Arab allies and on European diplomacy from the checkbook.
“Pledge of hope for the future”
This encystment of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the growing role played by religious identity entrepreneurs have hardened everyone’s positions. The conflict has become fertile ground for radicals of all stripes. The Islamists who threaten the heart of our Western democracies today have exploited the despair and the disarray created by this impasse. Emiratis and Bahrainis have learned the lessons of these failures by taking a fresh look at this centuries-old conflict.
Beyond mutual recognition, what is playing out behind this normalization of relations between these two Gulf countries and Israel is the pacification of relations between the great monotheisms at the place of their birth. The recognition of Jewish otherness and its thousand-year-old heritage in this region by these two Muslim countries is from this point of view a major event, because peace requires the acceptance of this heritage.
During his speech at the opening of the 75e General Assembly of the United Nations, the President of the Republic welcomed the approach of the Emirates and Bahrain, which he rightly described as “a pledge of hope for the future”. He also called for “building an ambitious solution” which would allow Israelis and Palestinians to live in peace and security “while respecting the aspirations of each”.
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France is host to the largest Jewish and Muslim communities in Europe. Our country could usefully contribute to building this “ambitious solution” by widening the circle of peace to other Arab countries. We could in particular encourage Morocco and Lebanon, which are our two closest partners in the Maghreb and the Levant, to take this path.
One thing is now certain. The resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict cannot be a prerequisite for the normalization of relations between Israel and the Arab world. On the contrary, it could be its corollary. Indeed, the growing integration of Israel into its close geopolitical environment reduces the conflictuality of a region which too often offers the sad spectacle of its heartbreak. It creates a virtuous dynamic that could also benefit the Palestinians by offering them multiple opportunities for cooperation, particularly in the economic, scientific and technological fields.
We also hope that the “Abrahamic agreements” will give full place to our Christian brothers in the East. Persecuted by radical Islamism in particular in its violent jihadist form, the Christian communities of the East are disappearing before our eyes on the lands which saw the birth and development of Christianity. The Abrahamic Accords could give new impetus to Muslim intellectuals who are courageously working to reform Islam. A tolerant Islam that turns its back on obscurantism and religious violence.
The President of the Republic was right to recall during his address to the General Assembly of the United Nations that “dignity cannot be bought” and that peace is not built on “hegemony” and ” humiliation ”. However and in the present case, it is not clear how the agreement signed between the Emirates, Bahrain and Israel would humiliate the Palestinians. On the contrary, this Israeli-Arab normalization preserves the two-state solution, the signing of the agreement having been conditioned on Israel’s suspension of the application of its sovereignty over part of the West Bank.
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The abusive use of rhetoric of humiliation and hegemony is not without its dangers. It feeds victim reflexes and intransigence on the part of the parties to the conflict, which in turn removes any prospect of peace. The criminalizing demonization of the State of Israel and the litany denunciation of “American-Zionist” imperialism constitute one of the main psychological springs. This rhetoric often leads human groups who cultivate this vengeful state of mind to violent mobilization against “declared enemies” and “traitors”. It has been used by the Palestinian leadership to denounce the “Abrahamic accords”; it is a logic of war because it equates dialogue with betrayal, compromise with compromise.
In this regard, we could draw inspiration from the Jewish experience of humiliation, which carries universal significance. The Jewish people could indeed sadly claim the title of undisputed champion of the humiliation that culminated in the mass murders committed during the Shoah. Yet the survivors of this Dantesque hell refused to shut themselves up in resentment. They chose to rebuild their lives, to rebuild families, to work for a better world …
Let’s not get the wrong fight. Peace is not built by taking back the old ideological moons of the past. The latter feed into intransigent postures and lead to a dead end. Only a pragmatic and lucid approach in tune with the realities on the ground would allow our country to make its voice heard. The time has come to act with discernment and boldness. The train of history is moving. France cannot stay at the quayside. Our country must take its full place in this ongoing process of normalization between the Arab world and Israel by widening the circle of peace which alone will push back the logic of hatred and confrontation.
Jean-David Benichou and Arié Bensemhoun are respectively president and executive director of Elnet France, the think tank for strategic dialogue between France and Israel.