Following a brutal summer in the Middle East, the story that journalist Amir Tibon brought from Israel to Pittsburgh was one of cautious optimism and hope.
Events during and after the war in Gaza have shown that the relationship between the Jewish state and many of its Arab neighbors actually is improving, posited Tibon, the diplomatic correspondent for the popular Israeli website Walla News who was in town earlier this month speaking at Rodef Shalom Congregation, Beth El Congregation and Temple Sinai.
Israel and several of the Arab countries surrounding it, said Tibon, are being brought together in the face of such common threats as Iran’s nuclear ambitions, the so-called Islamic State, and the chaos in Syria.
“At a very dark time in the Middle East, there are some interesting signs as the situation gets worse, that how Israel is relating to the Arab countries is actually getting better,” he explained. “And we can see a few signs of that in the last few weeks.”
Tibon was in Pittsburgh the weekend of Oct. 10 to visit his mother, Gali Tibon, who is doing post-doctoral work on the Holocaust at Carnegie Mellon University. While here, Tibon was able to arrange some impromptu talks on Israel.
Tibon described to each congregation the vast difference in the larger Arab response to Operation Protective Edge compared with the Arab response to past Israeli incursions into Gaza. While protests against Operation Protective Edge were waged all across Europe, he noted in an interview, they were “very few, and very small in the Arab capitals.”
Tibon is fluent in Arabic, and closely follows Arabic media.
“In a country like Egypt, the popular media was actually praising Israel and bashing Hamas,” he said. “From the regimes’ point of view, and from the popular media that reflect the governments’ position, you could really feel that this time, it was not about Israel.”
And it was not only the Arabic news reports that indicated the possibility of a new paradigm between Israel and its neighbors.
“Behind the scenes there were some very interesting coordinations taking place between Israel, Jordan and other Arab countries,” explained Tibon.
Many of the Arab countries are beginning to realize that “Israel may not be their biggest problem.
“They look out the window in the morning to the east and see Iran with its imperialistic vision and nuclear ambitions, and that frightens them,” he continued. “They turn their heads around and see [the Islamic State] and Hamas and all these terrorists groups tearing the region apart and threatening their own rule. On these issues, there’s mainly an alignment of interests.”
While Tibon does not see an all-out alliance between Israel and its neighbors coming to fruition quickly, he does see the possibility of it forming over time.
“This is like something you cook for Shabbat,” he said. “It has to cook very slowly; you can’t just microwave it.”
A new Arab/Israeli alliance, begun in the face of common threats, also could prove in time to be a means to resolving Israel’s conflict with the Palestinians, he said, echoing statements that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made to news outlets during his recent visit to the United States.
The Palestinian issue is “very, very important” to the Arab countries, said Tibon. “Maybe they will try to find new ways to solve it.”
One possible path to peace instigated in the Arab world, Tibon said, could be based on the Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed in 2002 at the Beirut Summit of the Arab League by then-Crown Prince King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and re-endorsed at the Riyadh Summit in 2007.
“The Saudis proposed it in 2002, but never made a serious effort to sell it to the Israelis; they just put it out there,” Tibon said. Three months ago, however, Prince Turki Al Faisal, Saudi Arabia’s former ambassador to the U.S., published an article in Haaretz trying to sell the initiative to the Israeli public.
Unfortunately, Tibon, said, that publication happened to coincide with the commencement of the war in Gaza and may not have garnered the support it could have if the timing had been better. But, he said, it ultimately could serve as a framework for a solution.
The Arab Peace Initiative proposes that, in exchange for normalized relations between Arab countries and Israel, Israel will withdraw from the territories it has occupied since the June 1967 war, and accept an independent Palestinian state with its capital in East Jerusalem, with exact borders and the refugee issue to be worked out through negotiation.
The fact that a Saudi leader published this proposal in an Israeli news source was remarkable, according to Tibon.
“This has never happened before,” he said.
Even some Israeli leaders who are considered to be hawks are making “some interesting comments” in regard to the peace initiative, Tibon added, noting that Israeli Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has even said “it’s a good idea.”
Another promising sign, Tibon said, was the coming together of several Arab foreign ministers with Israeli Minister of Justice Tzipi Livni at a secret dinner in New York City earlier this month.
“This is very rare for people without an official relationship with us,” Tibon remarked, adding that the group discussed issues such as the Israeli/Palestinian situation and Iran. “The importance is that they were sitting together and discussing these issues.”
After the repeated failure of the U.S. to broker peace between Israel and the Palestinians — most recently earlier this year despite the efforts of Secretary of State John Kerry — Tibon sees the possibility of a new regional alliance of having success.
“After the Americans tried for the 200th time bilateral Palestinian/Israeli talks — putting an Israeli, a Palestinian and an American in the same room and waiting for white smoke to rise from the ceiling, and that failed — the next step could maybe be trying a regional approach in which these Arab states will be more involved and more influential,” he posed.
One example of this type of regional approach was seen last summer during the Gaza war, he said. “It was not solved with American diplomacy or mediation, but with Egyptian mediation, with the silent backing of Jordan, Saudi Arabia and other parties. Thanks to them, we have a cease-fire that’s been holding for two months.
“The big debate inside the Israeli government right now,” Tibon continued, “is how to materialize this regional opportunity, and how important the Palestinians are in the picture.”
Tibon was impressed with Pittsburgh, he said, and looks forward to returning in the future.
“It was my first-ever visit in Pittsburgh, and I will definitely be back,” he said. “I was touched by how much the people I met care for Israel and was impressed by their openness in discussing new ideas and directions for the country. Many people told me that my lectures gave them a tiny bit of hope; well, I also left town with a dose of optimism.”
Toby Tabachnick can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.