NEW YORK (JTA) — U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry is correct to describe a new proposal by the Arab League to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks as “a very big step forward.” Yet there will be no serious movement toward peace until Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu responds to the Arab League initiative by evoking the words of the late Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat before traveling to Jerusalem in the later 1970s, vowing “to go to the ends of the earth” — even to the Qatari capital of Doha or the Saudi capital of Riyadh — in order to achieve peace.
The new peace initiative, which was presented to Kerry and Vice President Joe Biden by a Qatari-led Arab delegation in Washington on April 30, would revive — and improve, from Israel’s standpoint — the so-called Saudi Peace Initiative of 2002. That proposal, subsequently endorsed by the entire Arab League, promised Israel full peace and recognition in exchange for a return to its pre-1967 borders.
Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim Al Thani presented the new initiative, which would accept for the first time a modification of those borders. According to Al Thani, “The Arab League delegation affirms that agreement should be based on the two-state solution, on the basis of the 4th of June 1967 line” with the possibility of a “comparable and mutual agreed minor swap(s) of the land.”
This important Arab League initiative comes in the wake of another significant but little noticed development that also originated in the Gulf: an April 8 resolution by the Kingdom of Bahrain condemning Hezbollah as a terrorist organization. The outlawing of Hezbollah, overwhelmingly passed by Bahrain’s parliament, represents the first known instance that an Arab country has used the T word to describe a militant Arab organization like Hezbollah, which has rained missiles on northern Israel and last year murdered Israeli tourists in Bulgaria.
When I visited Bahrain in December 2011, becoming the first rabbi to meet with King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifah in his palace, the king told me — as widely reported by the media — that Bahrain and Israel share a common enemy in Hezbollah’s patron, Iran, which sits directly across the narrow Persian Gulf from Bahrain and other Gulf states including the United Arab Emirates, Qatar and Kuwait.
Yet nearly a month after the Bahraini statement, there has been no official response by the Government of Israel. Indeed, when a reporter for the Times of Israel asked the Israeli Foreign Ministry why it has not commended Bahrain for its anti-Hezbollah stand, a spokesman blandly responded, “If the Bahrainis had wanted Israel to say something, they could have sent us a message through diplomatic channels. Since they didn’t, we didn’t.”
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu may well have decided to err on the side of caution in responding to both the Bahraini and Arab League initiatives by waiting to see whether support will hold up across the Arab world. Yet this is one of those critical moments in Middle East history when an excess of caution may doom hopes for a breakthrough by strengthening cynicism and peace process fatigue on both sides.
Following the dramatic steps by Bahrain, Qatar and the Arab League, Netanyahu needs to respond in similarly dramatic fashion. Just as Sadat fundamentally transformed Israeli-Egyptian relations 35 years ago by declaring his willingness to travel even to Jerusalem, Netanyahu should declare his readiness to fly to Doha or Riyadh to demonstrate his genuine desire for peace — with the Palestinians as well as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states.
The Israeli government and people need to remember that Israel exists and is destined to live forever in the heart of the Middle East, not the Middle West. The Jewish state can only secure its long-term survival by reaching an accommodation with the Arab world — or at least an important part of it.
Thankfully, the positive initiatives of the past few weeks by Bahrain and the Arab League delegation led by Qatar — neither of which would have taken place without the encouragement and support of Saudi Arabia — make clear that a historic opportunity exists for Israel to build a strategic alliance with the oil-rich states of the Arabian Peninsula.
Israel and the Gulf states are endangered by Iran, a genocidal theocracy with nuclear ambitions that vows to destroy the Jewish state and has extended its reach into the heart of the Arab world through skillful manipulation of proxies such as Hezbollah in Lebanon and the tottering Bashar Assad regime in Syria.
If Netanyahu seizes the moment to reach a peace agreement with the Palestinians, thanks to the initiative put forward by the Qataris and the Arab League, there is a chance that after generations of bitter conflict, Israelis will finally live in peace and security. If, however, the Israeli prime minister spurns this opportunity, he will only empower the extremists in the Arab and larger Muslim world who are determined to destroy the Jewish state.
Now is the time for Benjamin Netanyahu to secure a better future for the people of Israel by taking a dramatic step for peace.
(Rabbi Marc Schneier, president of the Foundation for Ethnic Understanding, is co-author with Imam Shamsi Ali of “Sons of Abraham: A Candid Conversation About the Issues that Divide and Unite Jews and Muslims,” to be published by Beacon Press in September.)