COLUMN ONE : Arabs See There’s No Turning Back Now : Slowly, harmony is replacing hatred as Israel’s old foes accept that peace is inevitable. Tourists and trade missions are crossing once-forbidden borders.


However traumatic the journey has been, the Arab world has crossed a psychological barrier and come to accept what few Arabs would have dared say 10 years ago: Peace with Israel is inevitable.

Even in front-line states such as Syria and traditional holdouts such as Saudi Arabia, people now speak of regional integration in terms of when, not if.

The Arab press refers to “Israel” these days, not the “Zionist entity.”

Hardly an echo remains of the vow of Gamal Abdel Nasser, the Egyptian leader who 40 years ago promised to “drive the Jews into the sea.”


“Returning to the traditional Arab-Israeli conflict is virtually impossible,” said Nabil Fahmy, a senior official in the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. “So many mistakes would have to be made on both sides for that to happen that the question is really hypothetical.”

Andre Azoulay, the top adviser to King Hassan II of Morocco, observed, “The momentum toward peace is irreversible.” And a Saudi Arabian diplomat in Washington said: “The deal is done. Yes, it will take time before peace is official. But the fundamental issue has changed--we’re talking about bargaining now, not warring.”

Indeed, the Israeli Cabinet on Wednesday took yet another significant step in the peace process, voting 18 to 0 with two abstentions to approve a 460-page accord with Palestine Liberation Organization chief Yasser Arafat to hand over to Palestinians much of the West Bank that Israel has occupied for 28 years. But much of the Arab world remains, officially, in a self-declared state of war with the Jewish state (Egypt, Jordan and Morocco are exceptions).

But contacts with and public acceptance of Israel are growing in significant, if subtle, ways in the Arab world. These include Saudi Arabia permitting an Israeli commercial airliner to fly over the kingdom several months ago and direct Israeli-Moroccan trade in which Israel last year purchased Morocco’s entire crop of tomato seeds. The issue will be further underscored, possibly as soon as today, when Israeli and Palestinian leaders, with American and Arab dignitaries watching, sign their latest accord in Washington.

“Egypt, in the mainstream, prides itself on having taken the leadership role in making peace, and now it looks at Jordan and the others with a sort of ‘see-I-told-you-so’ attitude,” observed Ali Hillal Dessouki, dean of political science at Cairo University. “Yes, there’s opposition to normalizing relations with Israel from the Nasserites and Islamists. But you don’t hear that from intellectuals or others. No political party in Egypt, for instance, has as part of its official platform scrapping the Camp David accords [the 1978 agreement that brought peace between Egypt and Israel]. With the exception of the crazies, the debate now isn’t whether to normalize relations, but the terms of normalization. It’s a new ballgame.”

The move toward peace has come piecemeal, in incremental steps that have, over time, gradually changed the climate and public opinion in the Middle East.


As a result, Egyptians, Jordanians and some people in the Persian Gulf states today can view Israeli television. More tourists from Israel--about 150,000--will visit Egypt this year than from any other nation (though most go to Red Sea resorts and have little meaningful contact with Egyptians). Arab children no longer hear their rulers and teachers deliver tirades on the evil of Israel.

“Let’s face it,” said Saad Ibrahim, chairman of the Ibn Khaldoun Center, a private Egyptian think tank, “all this hasn’t been sudden and dramatic like the end of the Cold War. This has been in the making for nearly 20 years. So people have been prepared for the postwar period. Those who are for and against normalization have already stated their cases.”

With priorities changed, the Arab League boycott of firms that do business in Israel has crumbled, freeing multinational corporations from earlier political concerns; consider that Timex is said to be planning to open a research and development center in Jerusalem and a marketing office in Dubai, in the United Arab Emirates.

Nearly 30,000 Israelis of Moroccan origin will visit their former homeland this year. Oman and Qatar have held discreet talks with Israel about low-level relations. Tunisia is likely to permit the opening of an Israeli interest section in the Belgian Embassy in Tunis. Israeli officials have participated at regional conferences in Morocco, Tunisia and Qatar.

“It doesn’t seem like much progress,” an Israeli Foreign Ministry official in Jerusalem said. “But if I’d told you 10 years ago this would be happening today, you’d have said I was crazy.”

Esmat Abdel-Meguid, the Arab League secretary general, said that economic cooperation--the real payoff for both Israelis and Arabs--would be impossible until all political issues relating to the “Palestinian cause” have been settled and a “comprehensive peace” established.


But most observers dismiss the comment as irrelevant to the realities of the new Arab order.

The Arab League has not been able to put together a summit since before the 1991 Persian Gulf War, and the Arabs--whose leaders in 1967 adopted an official policy toward Israel of no peace, no negotiations, no recognition--are most definitely willing to cut separate deals. In the new order, policy is based on self-interest and lip service is paid to the Palestinians and the “unity” of the “Arab nation,” analysts say.

The late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat shocked his Arab brethren in 1979 when, after making a separate peace with Israel, he said: “Egypt first, Egypt last.” Today, such a remark, in an Arab world increasingly less ideological, more pragmatic and painfully aware of how few of the promises of the “Arab revolution” were ever fulfilled, wouldn’t even cause an eyebrow to be raised. As oil revenues decline in the Persian Gulf and on the Arabian Peninsula and economies teeter all the way to Morocco, Israel and regional unity have simply ceased to be issues that occupy prominence in the Arab world.

“Our economy has collapsed,” a Lebanese jeweler in Beirut noted. “So I say it’s time to live and let live. Does that mean I want to embrace Israel? No. Does it mean I want to end the hostilities and see our standard of living improve? Yes.”

But Waddah Abd Rabbo, 30, a Syrian magazine publisher, saw it this way: “I’ve got no problem with Israel. Most of the people my age who lived a long time in France, like I did, feel that way. But friends who never left Syria are a lot less charitable toward Israel.”

Indeed, although there has not been an Arab-Israeli war in 13 years, the longest period without major conflict since the Jewish state’s creation in 1948, hating Israel over the generations became institutionalized, as much a part of the Arab psyche as the Koran or Friday worship, analysts say. If Israel isn’t the enemy, Arabs wonder, then who is? Could it be other Arabs? Or the social and economic injustice of illegitimate Arab regimes?


Israel, in fact, was a handy tool for Arab leaders, historians and analysts say. It enabled them to divert attention from domestic problems to purported external ones; it justified the creation of huge armies and the absence of democracy; it was a hole card in inter-Arab rivalry, as one Arab dictator could always disgrace another by calling him soft on Israel. We must sacrifice to destroy Israel, Arab leaders told the masses well into the 1970s.

But few Arabs ever saw what those sacrifices had achieved. “Every pothole in our streets,” a Cairo film director said, “is a reminder that we spent our money buying tanks instead of building an infrastructure.”

Arab leaders, historians note, refused to make concessions for peace through the mid-1970s because they were in a position of relative weakness--a qualitative, not quantitative, weakness caused by disunity, historical failures and ineffective military commands. “How can I negotiate when I am flat on my back with a sword at my throat?” Egypt’s Nasser once asked.

Arabs thought--incorrectly, it turned out--that patience and time would bring them strength, and over three decades, the Middle East became a cemetery of failed peace missions bearing the names of men, cities, countries and continents. Among them: the Australian Plan (1957), the Bourguiba Plan (1965), the Yugoslav Plan (1967), the Rogers Plan (1969), the African “Wise Men” Mission (1971), the Johnson Initiative (1972), the Fahd Plan (1981), the Franco-Egyptian Plan (1982), the Reagan Initiative (1982) and the Brezhnev Plan (1982).

None got off the ground, if for no other reason than the time for peace wasn’t right.

But analysts say that the collapse of the Soviet Union created a climate in which peace could gain momentum, and pull along public opinion with it. The collapse left Moscow’s Arab allies--Syria, Yemen, Algeria, Libya and the Palestine Liberation Organization--in an awkward position. Syria, Algeria and the PLO responded by moderating their positions, leaving Libya and Yemen as the only true “radical” rejectionists. The role of both in Arab affairs is irrelevant.

Though the war may be over, normalization of Arab-Israeli relations will remain elusive, Arab and Western analysts believe. The Nasserites, a small, enfeebled Pan-Arab movement, and militant Islamists--who remain dangerous but isolated from power or widespread public support--continue their hostility to Israel, and at least three meetings have been held in Lebanon this year to formulate plans to wreck progress toward normalization.


A generation ago, the current would have been with the dissidents; now it is against them.

The phrase “peace dividend” is not heard here and one finds an ambivalence in Arab attitudes toward the prospect of peace. Most seem ready to accept the Israelis as neighbors--if the peace is honorable and fair--but not yet as friends.

Many Arabs look at the lives and resources expended in five wars and wonder what was achieved; the terms for peace now are more or less the same ones offered in 1948 and probably not as generous as the Israelis would have agreed to after the Yom Kippur War of 1973. Others express pride in fighting Israel--and her American allies--to a standoff and have a sense of resignation toward peace, as if to say, “Well, we gave it our best shot.”

“Peace in the Middle East,” said an Egyptian sociologist, “is going to raise serious social questions: Does the idea of a Jewish state--bringing together so many people of diverse cultures--really work if there is no common enemy? Are the Arabs willing to redirect their energies and examine political structures that have not matured or permitted democracy or made room for social equality?

“In the end, I think, both sides are going to find they have a lot to answer for.”

* A NATION DIVIDED: Whether for or against peace process, Israelis worry. A8

* CHANGED PLO CHIEF: Yasser Arafat has gone from life on the lam to a desk job. A8