The Perception Gap

Who is the most distrusted and despised Israeli politician in the Arab world? The answer is not to be found among the usual suspects — current and former Likud prime ministers Ariel Sharon and Binyamin Netanyahu. Rather, it is the dove incarnate: Shimon Peres.

Amid the welter of anti-Israel rhetoric that emanates from the Arab political and intellectual elites, a special measure of vitriol is reserved for Israel’s foreign minister and Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

"He is falsely and deceitfully described as a peace dove," wrote Galal Duweider, editor of Egypt’s influential state-controlled daily al-Akhbar on March 16. "In reality, he is nothing but a bird of prey, masterful in killing the innocent… this professional murderer, who is no different from the rest of the gang which rules Israel."

Such bitterness is not new, and when the negotiators, facilitators and arbitrators pick their way through the wreckage of the peace process to determine where and when it all went wrong, they will find ample evidence of anger at Israel expressed in terms of Peres-loathing.

Not that Peres is deserving of this naked hatred. He was indeed the midwife of the Oslo accords and has remained a consistent, persistent advocate of the diplomatic path, even in the midst of the most bloody Palestinian convulsions.

But the lesson to be learnt from the Arab vilification of Peres is that a huge gulf in perceptions has bedeviled almost every aspect of relations between Israel and its Arab interlocutors.

When, for example, in the euphoric aftermath of the Oslo accords, Peres suggested that Israel join the Arab League — intended as a sign of Israel’s willingness to integrate into the region and identify with its aspirations — his proposal was met with horror. However carefully calculated, however meticulously calibrated, nothing could have aroused greater anger.

Peres, they believed, was seeking no less than to transform the Jewish state into the mothership on which unsuspecting Arab states would be induced to rely for their prosperity; a narcotic on which Arab leaders would become dependent.

The Peres prescription for a "New Middle East" was intended to boost regional development, kick-start economies, deliver the benefits of sophisticated technology to a new generation, while integrating Israel into the region and the region into the global economy.

Peres saw only benefits for the region, but it was the realization of a nightmare for the Arab elites, who perceived it as a cunning plan to harness Israel’s industrial, economic and technological strength in order to humiliate and, ultimately, dominate the Arab world.

Beyond the humiliation and shame, however, the greatest danger to the Arab world — whose collective failures in modernization have been compounded by chronic unemployment, social inequality, population explosion, corruption and simmering Islamic extremism — was perceived at the very heart of the Peres vision: Israel’s integration into the region.

Arab leaders feared that such close encounters by their own people with Israeli concepts of political democracy and economic accountability would shake the ground on which they stood and directly threaten their regimes.

In a world driven by the engine of conspiracy theories, the idea of normalizing relations with Israel, blurring national borders, allowing the free exchange of goods and people must be a devious ploy by a duplicitous Peres to frog-march the region remorselessly toward Israeli hegemony.

Nor are the misperceptions all on the Arab side. While Arabs tend to demonize Israel, Israelis tend to project their own values and aspirations onto the Arab world, however unrealistic they might be.

There has been an overwhelming impulse among Israelis — weary of conflict, desperate for a normal life — to ascribe their own concept of peace to their Arab interlocutors.

Peace failed to materialize not because Israel offered too little but because it demanded too much — normal relations.

Peres never learned the lesson. Addressing the World Economic Forum in Davos last year, he again mounted his hobbyhorse, pointing out the potential value of Israel’s contribution to the region if only the Arab leaders would see the light.

This time the response came directly from Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Mousa, whose rebuke carried him beyond the bounds of diplomatic courtesy.

Israel, he told the leading Arabic daily al-Hayat, must accept that it is "just another state in the region."

"It cannot continue to be, as Peres said, an island of prosperity in a sea of poverty, or an island of cleanliness in a sea of pollution. That is absolutely wrong," he declared.

Analysts warn that it is a mistake for Israelis to continue ignoring reality and misreading the signs, insisting on seeing what they want to see and hearing what they want to hear.

If concepts such as peace and normalization are indivisible in the Israeli mind, they are infinitely divisible in the Arab world.

Arab leaders might make peace with Israel, but that does not necessarily translate into warm relations. Peace treaties might acknowledge the fact of Israel’s existence, but they do not necessarily confer legitimacy on the existence of the Jewish state.

"You might be able to force us to go to bed with you," a senior Jordanian academic told his Israeli counterpart soon after the Israeli-Jordanian peace treaty was signed. "But please, don’t expect us to enjoy it."

"Strictly speaking, what Peres says is true," concedes Lebanese academic Hussein Agha at Britain’s Oxford University. "But given the psychological context of the region, he is perceived to be talking down to the Arabs.

"He is also perceived to be attempting to continue the conflict by other means, to spread Israel’s influence and control by means other than military power. It impacts right across the region."

To Agha, it is entirely unrealistic to equate peace treaties with normalization, to conjure up images of Israelis and Arabs walking hand-in-hand into the warm glow of an harmonious future.

That, he says, could take generations to happen — and then only after Israel has achieved a genuine, comprehensive peace with all of its neighbors. Many Arabs, particularly among the elites and the chattering classes, still do not believe peace is genuine, he says. They have been in the vanguard of articulating the conflict, and they are deeply suspicious of Israeli overtures.

"They perceive peace as an Israeli ploy to expand in nonmilitary ways." And from that perspective, he adds, "we are exactly where we have been for the past 50 years."