“Today I tell you, and I declare it to the whole world, that we accept to live with you in permanent peace based on justice.” These momentous words, uttered by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat on November 20, 1977, in the Israeli Knesset were addressed to the Israeli public after four wars between the Arab States and Israel.
Since then, no Arab politician has dared to repeat Sadat’s courageous words. Addressing Israelis has become taboo; in fact, it’s the worst sin an Arab could commit. In the intervening years since Sadat’s declaration, the Arabs have invented an even more grievous sin; it’s called “normalization with Israel”. Anyone who has dared advocate talking to Israelis or negotiating a peace deal with them is labeled a “traitor”.
However, in spite of the taboo on negotiating with Israel, 43 years later, an Emirati diplomat has dared to follow Sadat’s path, and written an article in an Israeli newspaper warning Israel against annexation of the West Bank.
With a rational, calm style, Ambassador Youssef Al-Otaiba, the United Arab Emirates’s ambassador in Washington, wrote an article in the Israeli newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth, in which he addressed the Israelis with logic and reason, explaining the dangers of annexing the West Bank.
Choosing a popular Israeli newspaper is a message in itself. Al-Otaiba could have published his article in any major American newspaper, but he opted for an Israeli one. Perhaps because he understood what Sadat was smartly cognizant of decades ago. Sadat opted to visit Jerusalem, not Washington, because he understood the importance of public opinion in Israel and its impact on Israeli decision makers. He also understood that despair over the chances of achieving peace had been the main driver behind the desire of ordinary Israeli citizens to retain the land Israel occupied in 1967.
The Emirati article confirmed that the chances for peace still exist, but they may end if Israeli politicians decide to annex the West Bank. In my reading, I see three focal points raised by the article:
First is the specific reference to Jordan, and the potentially dangerous impacts of annexing the West Bank on that country’s stability. Ambasador Oteiba’s stern warning is in line with a similar warning from the Jordanian monarch. Only days ago, the Jordanian king warned that Israel’s planned move to annex parts of the Israeli-occupied West Bank next month would threaten stability in the Middle East.
As the vast majority of Israeli citizens are understandbly obsessed with their security and safety, such a warning could serve as an alarm bell. Israelis understand all too well that any collapse in the stability of Jordan will have dire consequences for the Israelis, even if Israel controls the Jordanian Valley. Israeli citizens also realize that cold peace is better than hot enmity, and that peace between the two neighboring countries, Jordan and Israel, is hanging by a delicate thread, which, once broken, will be impossible to repair.
Second, the Emirati ambassador aptly highlighted the benefits of peace to Israel. The average Israeli citizen is used to the so-called “cold peace” with the Arabs, as is the case with Egypt and Jordan. Now the UAE is reinventing the terms of peace, steering away from the hot/cold formula. It is calling for practical and realistic peaceful cooperation that benefits both countries. A peace that can provide multiple opportunities for cooperation in various fields, from tourism to renewable energy. Such a pragmatic attitude will resonate well in Israeli society and make every Israeli ponder whether they should risk the prospect of an unadulterated open relationship with Gulf partners for the sake of gaining disputed land.
Third is the Iranian danger. Although the Emirati Ambassador did not mention Iran directly in his article, its omission is significant, as he smartly refuted what some Western observers have suggested that Iran is the reason behind the rapproachment between Isreal and the some Gulf states such as the UAE –Such a misguided interpretation by these observers has led to a growing misconception among the Israeli right, which has led them to believe annexing the West Bank will not harm the chances of warming relationships with the Gulf States. With such a background, it was important to see the article’s focus on the Palestinian-Israeli front without deviating to any side issues. The article made it clear that the Arabs will not give up on demanding the Palestinians’ right to their lands, and how any communication with Israel must be within that framework. The Emirati ambassador’s message was later reaffirmed by The UAE Minister of State for Foreign Affairs, Dr Anwar Gargash, who asserted his country’s support for a two-state solution to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict. While he rejected the proposed annexation, he also favoured keeping open communications with Israel.
It was refreshing to read such a rational, direct, fully-fledged message from a top Emirati diplomat. On the one hand, one can only hope that the Israelis will reflect on his wise words and stop the self-inflicted damage that will likely happen if they insist on annexing the West Bank. The path toward peace is not easy in our neighborhood; it needs courage and strong commitment. History, however, has proven how Egyptian President Sadat was right, and it will also prove that the UAE is wise to embrace peace as a strategic choice.
An Arabic version of this article is published in Al-Hurra