There was a brave lone voice at the Herzliya Conference this year in Israel. It was the voice of Prince Bin Talal of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan. He mentioned that the title of the conference this year, "In the Eye of the Storm", was quite appropriate, although the second part of the title is antiquated. The tail end of the title was called "...Israel and the Middle East".
The Prince complained that it is high time we consider Israel part of the Middle East and if Israelis do not see themselves as part of the region, then how does one expect the neighbors to accept Israel in the MENA region?
He made a stark point of the fact that many Israelis do not contemplate these issues. In fact, it is easy to go through life in Israel with a westward outlook and study and work with European and American markets without desiring to interact with the immediate region. There is a psychological block of crossing physical borders and emotive borders with nearby surroundings. Only a marginal few choose to cross the borders for work or tourism, and this number is decreasing to a trickle particularly after the sparks of the Arab Spring.
I applaud Prince Bin Talal, who is a longtime peace supporter, who greeted the conference against the will of his closest advisors, and put a mirror to the Israeli sub consciousness.
“It is time to peer through the looking glass. Does Israel want to be part of this region or an outpost of the West? Does the Arab Awakening arouse anxiety or fear in Israel?” he asked. “It is time to engage with the Arab Spring and its winter offshoots. It is time that Israel reorient its definition of security away from arms and towards relationships based not on occupation, but on human dignity.”
The fact is that Israel is geographically part of the region and this is a static given which will not change. Despite Israel’s membership in the OECD and various European sport associations, the fact is that the country should be making efforts to look east and become a more interactive neighbor in positive ways, not just through conflicts.
As I visit websites dealing with the MENA region, there is usually a list of all the Arab countries while Israel is excluded. Whenever I read financial tables or economic graphs about MENA, there is a comparison of Arab countries and again an exclusion of Israel.
It was a delight to come across a new news website about MENA and to discover that the editors courageously included Israel among the list of countries. Why do we have to add courageous in front of the word include? They may be losing some readership, however they are also sharing inspiration towards a different vision with an audience who would not be reading up on various facets of Israel otherwise.
On the other hand, it was quite disappointing to see the World Economic Forum (WEF) adjust its title for the annual regional meeting in October last year to "Job Creation in the Arab World", thus excluding Israel from the invitees or reducing the participation to a blatant absence.
The insinuated message was that job creation in the Arab world should be initiated by Arab countries, and not Israel. However, since Israel is part of the region, I believe Israeli firms could become a catalyst to job creation in the MENA region and the country does have an interest that its neighbors develop robust and vibrant economies.
Firstly, Israel can set an example of how to create jobs after the influx of immigrants arrived to their shores. Secondly, there are ways to cooperate via Internet and outsource services to the region rather than to India or former eastern bloc countries. It was unfortunate that WEF did not use this opportunity to step towards a future trend but rather preferred to waver into antiquated thinking instead of leaping forward to a new reality.
However, I mainly point an accusatory finger at Israel itself for its accepted mediocre attitude; the country is reluctant to reach out to neighbors. In a sense, it is a self-fulfilling prophecy that needs to be adjusted and quickly.
Follow Prince Bin Talal's advice and start considering yourself as a part of the region and its future. If a country or people are part of a region, they start thinking and creating ways to relieve the challenges of the region. If a country feels part of a region, it desires to see the region prosper as a whole. I do not believe Israel has a stronger chance of survival as a self-proclaimed island in the region. It is not beneficial for the country's long term success and viability.
In this way, Israel can cease to be the problem in the Middle East, and rather be a solution to the shared problems the region faces.