When speaking with liberal-minded folks about solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, including the recently revealed “Deal of the Century,” inevitably the question of Arab buy-in arises. “Will the Palestinians accept it?” is the oft-heard refrain.
While this may seem to be a pretty reasonable question, it actually reveals a fundamental lack of understanding of the Middle East.
Here is a true story involving one of my mentors, Dr. Mordechai Kedar. It helpfully illustrates Middle East thinking.
Kedar has crafted an alternative vision to the “two-state solution” that is called the “emirates plan.” He presented it to a well-known sheikh in Judea and Samaria (i.e., the “West Bank”). The sheikh listened attentively to Kedar and in the end, announced: “I like it. It is good for us. Now you will have to force it upon me.”
Why did the sheikh, who liked the plan and thought it was good for his people, say this strange phrase, “now you will have to force it upon me?”
For a knower of the Middle Eastern mind, the answer is obvious. No self-respecting Arab can publicly proclaim support for a plan that recognizes Israel a regional sovereign. It’s simply against a basic tenet of Islamic law: No non-Islamic entity may exercise jurisdiction over a landmass once controlled by Islam.
Moreover, there is Islam’s corollary: Arab nationalism. The jingoistic Arab world has tried to defeat Israel in numerous wars and attacks. They lost, and they know it — but the dream of Arab nationalism lives on in their hearts.
So, what the sheikh was saying to Kedar was: While I like your plan, please respect my honor and my need to avoid looking weak to my nation or disloyal to my religion by publicly surrendering to your plan. Help me save face by forcing your plan on me — that way I maintain my dignity and we can move forward together.
Israel is a small Jewish enclave within the massive, and predominantly Arab, Middle East. It is therefore important to understand the regional mindset. While in the West, seeking consent and acquiescence is a sign of respect, equality, and moral uprightness, in the Middle East that same attitude may be insensitive. Trying to elicit public Arab buy-in can inadvertently put Arabs in the uncomfortable position of having to openly repudiate their religion and their nationalism — even if they like the plan.
Ironically, we have arrived at a time where much of the Arab world is looking for an excuse to wind down the 100-year war against Israel, which, they realize is fruitless and continues only to their own detriment. Moreover, there is real pressure. The Egyptians fear both the ISIS presence in the Sinai and the threat of homegrown Muslim Brotherhood jihadis overthrowing the Sisi government. Even more urgently, the threat of Iran is very real for the Saudis, who are facing Shiite incursions on all of their borders. As strange as it sounds, today both Egypt and Saudi Arabia desperately need Israel for their own security reasons.
However, while these Arab countries feel pressure to line up with Israel to defend their strategic positions, as leaders of Arab nationalism and authentic Islam, they still need to publicly save face.
That is why the Trump plan smartly kept the “two-state solution” on the table so that Arab states could pay lip service to the creation of a Palestine. This allowed Arab representatives to sit at the White House in their traditional robes as the deal was being unveiled. Yet the real effect of Arab states accepting the tenets of the deal was not the creation of an independent Palestine at all. Rather, it was the recognition of Israel as a legitimate Jewish entity in the Middle East — with its capital in Jerusalem and with rights in Judea and Samaria.
Shocking! And with regard to Palestine, the Arab states heard and acquiesced to the call on Palestinians to disarm, to stop paying for terror, to stop incitement — to basically give up the war with Israel. This was truly revolutionary. By agreeing to an Israel in the “West Bank” and also a defanged Palestine, the Arab states, quietly and without public pronouncement, essentially agreed to an end of hostilities with the Jewish state.
The Palestinian leadership, naturally, is up in arms. But it is not only their former Sunni Arab state allies who have turned their backs on them — it is also the proverbial Arab street. Many “West Bank” Arabs are tired of the pointless war with Israel and are tired of the corrupt Palestinian Authority. It is for this reason that there have barely been any protests against the “Deal of the Century” — just as there was a muted reaction to the recognition of Jerusalem as Israel’s capital by the Trump administration.
Yet, while many Arabs want to end hostilities, it is a mistake to pine for public Arab buy-in. Israel is anathema to both their Arab nationalism and a core tenet of Islam — and if they must swallow the existence of Israel, they prefer it play out as coercion, or at least a gradual and quiet acceptance rather than voluntary proclamations of “peace in our time.” In the end, helping the Arab world transition from war to cooperation is a delicate task and it will surely benefit Israel. But the Muslim world, which is hungry for prosperity, modernity, and reform, stands to gain even more.
Yishai Fleisher is the International Spokesman for the Jewish Community of Hebron.