Mossad head Yossi Cohen, speaking at a conference in Herzliya, told the audience that Israel faces unique opportunities at this time to reach peace in the entire region. As some of the online comments to my articles here in The Jerusalem Post write, “Give me some of what he’s smoking.” Cohen knows just as well as you readers that the basic truths about peace in the Middle East have not changed since March 2002, when the Arab League first issued the Arab Peace Initiative.
I really suggest that we not be deceived by the embrace that some leaders in the Arab world appear to be providing Israel. The Arab Peace Initiative placed a welcome mat to the State of the Israel in the Middle East, but it is still waiting to be stepped on, which can happen only after Israel withdraws from territories it conquered in the June 1967 war, allows an independent Palestinian state to be established in the West Bank and Gaza, with east Jerusalem as its capital, and there is “an agreed and just resolution to the Palestinian refugee issue.”
Those positions of the entire Arab world have not really changed since 2002. Egypt and Jordan, which already had peace treaties with Israel, were appointed by the Arab League to coordinate and negotiate with Israel, along with the Palestine Liberation Organization. But even the relations with Egypt and Jordan remain strategic, with high-level security and intelligence cooperation but not much beyond that.
There have been geopolitical changes in the region that we all recognize. There are elements of the Arab Peace Initiative that no one expects Israel to fulfill at this time. It was never a “take it or leave it” document. Withdrawing from the Golan Heights without a peace treaty with Syria will not happen, and Syria is still not a country that is functioning and in control and worthy of recognizing, after the genocide the Assad regime has committed against his own people. No one expects Libya to be included in any future peace deal, should Israel adhere to the conditions of the Arab Peace Initiative. Yemen is also off the table.
What appears to be warming relations between Israel and Gulf states such as the UAE, Oman, Bahrain, and Saudi Arabia should not be confused by what is really happening – which is a convergence of interests primarily facing the challenges of Iran and its proxies in Yemen, Lebanon and elsewhere.
The Arab countries, meaning the peoples of those countries, have no desire or willingness to make peace with Israel, leaving the Palestinians behind under continued Israeli occupation. Even if it is true that the Palestinian people and the cause of Palestine have become far less popular in the Arab world – and as one Egyptian journalist friend said to me, “Wherever the Palestinians go they make problems” – even so, the Arab leaders who embrace Netanyahu have stated quite clearly that without ending the occupation of the Palestinians and allowing them to establish their state, there will be no normalization and recognition of Israel.
There is no great love for the Palestinians throughout the Arab world, but Israel is loved even less. There may be increased admiration for Israel among many in the region, particularly for its hi-tech achievements, but there remains great distance between that admiration and the willingness to make peace with Israel.
THIS REALITY must be known to Cohen, unless he is confusing his private secret affairs with some Arab leaders and what is really happening on the Arab streets. I can imagine that when Cohen, as head of the Mossad, travels around the region to Arab and Muslim countries that do not have diplomatic relations with Israel, he is received by his counterparts in the intelligence community with open arms and with great respect. Royal visits can be quite intoxicating, even without alcohol. I presume that in these times he is also received by the leaders of those countries, as opposed to the past when he could meet only with his counterparts in the various spy agencies.
I wonder whether this is what is blinding him to imagine that he is seeing the dawn of a new era of peace with those countries.
I, too, have traveled around the region to Arab and Muslim countries with which we have no diplomatic relations. I have entered those countries on my Israeli passport either as a guest of those governments or of the United Nations. The treatment I received was truly royal.
But even when I was in the small Kingdom of Bahrain as a guest of the kingdom, I was told by my hosts to hide my real identity. In Tunis I was told not to wander around the city by myself, in case someone would identify who I really am. In Malaysia, even after meeting the president and the prime minister, I and several other Israelis were given a guide and a driver, who were nothing more than intelligence agents to watch us carefully.
When I travel to Egypt and to Jordan not on official or royal visits, using my Israeli passport, which I can do without any special pre-treatment (other than needing to get a visa in advance for Egypt), the treatment I receive at the border and throughout my stay is very tense compared to when I enter on my American passport. When I use my Israeli passport in those Arab countries with which we have peace, I get a much better sense of the animosity still felt toward Israel on the ground, not in the Royal Palaces.
It is essential to understand that there will never be real peace with the Arab world as long as Israel controls al-Aqsa/al-Haram al-Sharif/the Temple Mount. Even if it seems that the Arab world has discarded the Palestinians and the issue of Palestine, it will not really embrace Israel while the Palestinian people remain under Israeli occupation.
Even if it seems that some of the Arab leaders embrace Netanyahu and his good friend President Donald Trump, because of their positions against Iran, the sight of the US ambassador in Israel and Trump’s “peace” envoy using “sledgehammer diplomacy” in a tunnel underneath Silwan leading to al-Aqsa boils their blood, and if Iran wasn’t a threat to them, the Arab streets would be burning American and Israeli flags and shouting “Death to America and Israel” just as it happens in Iran.
In the past, the heads of the Mossad usually provided sound and cautious political advice to the leaders of Israel. Their assessments and knowledge of the region were based on real intelligence, and their advice was carefully constructed to enable the leaders to make the right choices. Most of the past heads of the Mossad have also been strongly in favor of Israel pursuing every opportunity that could lead to better relations between Israel and its Arab neighbors. Most of them also had nothing to do with the Palestinians and the Palestinian issue – that was left to Military Intelligence and the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency).
Until recently, most of the graduates of the various intelligence community branches, after they leave their positions, have been strongly in favor of Israel negotiating an end to the occupation and encouraging the establishment of a Palestinian state next to Israel.
There is a danger that the advice now being received by the leaders from the head of the Mossad is based more on “the spirit of the leader” (as we say in Hebrew) than on his real assessment. If that is what is happening to Cohen, there is a real and present danger to the State of Israel.
Gershon is an advisor to Israeli, Palestinian and International Prime Ministers on the Middle East Peace Process and the founder and director of IPCRI, the Israeli-Palestinian Public Policy Institute. He was the initiator and negotiator of the secret back channel between Israel and Hamas for the release of 1,027 prisoners – mainly Palestinians and Arab-Israelis of which 280 were sentenced to life in prison for planning and perpetrating various attacks against Jewish targets that resulted in the killing of 569 Israelis in exchange for one Israeli soldier, Gilad Schalit. Gershon is actively involved in research and advocacy concerning topics such as social policy, environmental security, political strategy, peace education, economics, culture and in the development of affordable solar projects with the goal of providing clean electricity for 50 million people by 2020.