LONDON, UK – In a groundbreaking event in London on Nov. 19 and 20, 30 public figures from 15 countries in the Arab world came together to repudiate the boycott, divestment and sanctions movement (BDS) against Israel and to call for direct civil relations between the Jewish state and their respective societies.
In an intensive two-day conference, concluded with a signing ceremony, the group, now formed as the Arab Council for Regional Integration, discussed — and sought solutions to — some of the most intransigent issues in the Middle East, calling for reconciliation both as a way to mend relations with Israel and also to heal some of the greatest internal problems in their own countries. The delegates addressed problems in the “cold peace” treaties between Israel and Egypt and Israel and Jordan, as well as expressing hope for further future cooperation elsewhere in the region.
Key figures taking part included Egyptian MP Mohammed Anwar Sadat, nephew of the late president, and leader of his country’s Reform and Development Party; the former Kuwaiti Minister of Information, Sami Abdul-Latif Al-Nisf, who spoke passionately of the “mistakes” made in the Arab-Israel conflict, declaring also that “it is a mistake to insist on Israel’s being a racist apartheid state when it clearly is not”; and two important religious figures, Hassen Chalghoumi, a Paris-based Tunisian cleric, and Lebanese imam Saleh Hamed, each of whom had faced serious personal security issues in order to attend.
The participants came from all over the Arab world, and were young and old, men and women, diplomats, media and arts personalities, often at odds with the leadership of their states but taking a nuanced and independent route to talking about the resolution of the Arab-Israel conflict.
Some of the delegates, such as Mohammed Dajani, a Palestinian academic who shocked the Arab world by taking a group of his students to Auschwitz, were already well known to Israeli activists. But many of the opinions were highly significant, not just because they are music to Jewish and Israeli ears, but because this is the first time that such declarations have been made in public and on the record.
Taking place, by coincidence, on the anniversary of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat’s historic 1977 visit to Israel, the conference, warmly commended by US diplomat and long time Middle East peace negotiator Dennis Ross, produced some revelatory discussions and presentations. Not least were numerous personal stories about good relations with Jews, and a plea from several participants for Jews to return to Arab countries and work there for reconciliation. Professor Dajani suggested that the stories of close interaction with Jews could be collected and published by the new Arab Council.
“You represent the voices who say enough. The more voices like yours who are prepared to speak out, the more you will build your voice [in talking] with Israel, and the more you will influence Israel’s leaders.” – U.S. Ambassador Dennis Ross
Extremism and terrorism were deplored, and concern expressed about “brainwashing” of children in school and of students at university level; and, remarkably, from the clerics Hassen Chalghoumi, a condemnation of the “politicization” of Islam, and from Lebanon’s Saleh Hamed, a plea to Europe to crack down on the number of mosques in which imams were preaching hatred.
In a video link from Washington D.C., Ambassador Ross told the participants that their deliberations “would have been wonderful if they had happened years ago,” but nevertheless he welcomed the initiative. He said, “You represent the voices who say enough. The more voices like yours who are prepared to speak out, the more you will build your voice [in talking] with Israel, and the more you will influence Israel’s leaders. You represent a ray of hope: it is a courageous endeavor, but also the right endeavor, and I am inspired by your example. You know you are on the right path.”
The event was sponsored by the US-based Center for Peace Communications, whose board of directors is headed by Dennis Ross. The CPC describes itself as “a group of Americans who believe that security and prosperity in the Middle East and North Africa require a peace between peoples.” Joseph Braude, the convenor of the conference, is a senior fellow at the Middle East Program of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, in Washington D.C., and is CPC’s founder and president.
No Israelis were present, because some of the delegates could have been subject to prosecution in their home countries for the “crime” of normalizing relations. It was clearly, Braude said, “a civil initiative in which no government had a hand,” but the views expressed are bound to resonate throughout the Middle East.
Former Middle East envoy and British prime minister Tony Blair made a surprise appearance by video link at the conclusion of the event to commend the conference and its aims.
In its founding statement, read by British peace activist the Marquis of Reading, the delegates said they sought “to support every effort to strengthen peace, coexistence, and reconciliation as well as integration among the countries of the region.”
To benefit their countries, they said they wanted to “break the barrier of boycotting within the region — in particular, the Arab boycott of Israelis — which hindered partnership in technology, medicine, infrastructure, business, economy, and the expanse of human aspiration.”
The boycott, they said, “also stymied hopes for peace between the Israeli and Palestinian peoples: prevented from engaging either of the two peoples directly, Arabs were unable to cultivate ties that could have enabled us to foster conciliation and compromise on both sides. In sum, the boycott increased the suffering of our societies and weakened our capacities.”
But the delegates, while applauding “the emergence of fair, level-headed voices calling for change” in the Middle East, also acknowledged “a range of actors, both within the region and outside it, [who] have been applying pressure to intensify the culture of exclusion and spread hate… these tragic campaigns have arrested development, prosperity and progress in Arab nations, led to the spread of terrorism, extremism, and economic collapse, and hindered national reconciliation and economic peace.”
Braude told the Journal that the gathering had been “an opportunity for voices that share the same convictions, but had been denied an organizational platform to express them”.
The council is now establishing a series of dedicated committees for arts, politics, and a separate social media platform, and plans another meeting in Washington in two months’ time to review progress.
Jenni Frazer is a London-based freelance journalist, and former assistant editor of the London Jewish Chronicle and its bureau chief in Israel.