An outstretched hand


For those of us who had connections with Israeli intelligence, Prince Turki al-Faisal was a household name.

For more years than I can remember he lorded over the Saudi Intelligence Service, and was, undoubtedly, the most senior figure in the Arab intelligence community. His name cropped up time and again in the most unlikely circumstances. The brother of Foreign Minister Prince Faisal, he is considered to be one of the most senior – and respected – members of the Royal Household.

Perhaps people with a background in intelligence fear less to speak their minds than others. Perhaps that is the reason why nearly all the former heads of Shin Bet, our security service, have become champions of the “peace camp.” The Shin Bet head who was embroiled in the “Kav 300” bus affair, in which two terrorists who had been taken captive were killed in mysterious circumstances in 1984, now has views that can be identified with the left-wing Meretz party. His predecessor, Avraham Achituv, as well as Carmi Gillon, Ya’acov Peri and the late, mythical Amos Manor – all respected heads of our security service – have all voiced their belief in the need to make peace with our neighbors.

To that list we must now add the name of Prince Turki. He recently attended a conference in Germany on the Middle East in which another former senior intelligence official, Yossi Alpher of the Mossad, participated. Peace between Israel and the Arab countries was discussed. A Reuters journalist asked the prince if he would like to send a message to the Israeli public. This is what the prince had to say:

“The Arab world, by the Arab peace initiative, has crossed the Rubicon from hostility to Israel to peace with Israel and has extended the hand of peace to Israel, and we await the Israelis picking up our hand and joining us in what inevitably will be beneficial for Israel and the Arab world.”

He told the journalist that Israel and the Arabs could cooperate in many areas including water, agriculture, science and education.

I asked Alpher what had been discussed at the conference. In true Mossad tradition he did not want to reveal too much, but he did say that Prince Turki was surprisingly forthcoming regarding the opportunities that existed if the Arab world and Israel could work together – and that, of course, depended on the peace talks.

In the days when King Hassan II of Morocco was alive he used to say to us: “Just think of the combination – the wealth of the Arab nations coupled with the brains of the Jews! Together we could transform the entire Middle East into a Garden of Eden!”

There are today many people in the Arab world who think in similar terms to Prince Turki, but they are still hesitant to express those thoughts openly. We still tend to think that the Arab world is one monolithic bloc of hatred toward Israel, and indeed, there still exists a great deal of hostility and, for want of a better word, anti-Semitism, nowhere more than in the Arab media (surprisingly, by far the worst is the Egyptian media). The Islamists look upon us as infidels who have usurped Muslim land, while the media play continuously on anti-Israeli sentiments, publishing the most outrageous lies about us.

And, let’s face it, the editors of television shows don’t have to twist facts. All they have to do is to give maximal coverage to the pictures of the hardships suffered daily by the Palestinians at West Bank roadblocks or in Gaza, without, of course, mentioning the Kassams fired at Sderot, to fan the flames of hatred.

Yet, despite the media, there is a change of attitude to Israel, and it would be stupid of us to ignore it. That change is most marked in the Gulf states, which have developed in a very different manner from the other Arab countries. Israel, and Israelis, are being increasingly accepted in those countries. The Arab peace initiative, to which all of the Arab countries subscribed, is an expression of this change, especially the call for an “agreed” solution to the refugee problem; so was the participation of Prince Faisal at Annapolis.

Tony Blair underlined these changes in his remarks to the editor of The Jerusalem Post earlier this week when he said, “The Arab leadership, especially the younger generation, sees resolution of [the Israeli-Palestinian conflict]as an important part in making sure that their [modern]vision beats the other [Islamist] vision. But the other vision is strong in parts of the Arab street.”

WE HAVE, without quite realizing it, entered a crucial phase in the negotiations with the Palestinians. It appears that the sensitive core issues are already being debated. The negotiators are acting wisely in keeping the public in the dark about the outcome of these negotiations. In due course, when all is ready and agreed upon by the two sides, the results will be brought to the public in new elections or in a referendum if a law allowing referenda can be approved in time. The public, and not the Sages of Shas, will then decide if the proposed agreement is acceptable or not.

Despite the wall-to-wall skepticism among Israelis and Palestinians alike, the chances of an agreement being reached by the negotiators is less remote than people realize. Both the Israeli and the Palestinian leaders are determined to do their utmost to succeed. The Americans will have to play their part, which is the why Secretary of State Rice will shortly be visiting us again and President Bush will once more descend on Jerusalem this spring. But, most important, the Arab states must show they are committed to peace, by strengthening President Abbas, and by prevailing on Hamas not to sabotage the effort. A new spate of suicide bombings or an escalation of the Kassam attacks would, almost certainly, cause a massive IDF riposte and an end to the peace talks.

The Arab states have a vital role to play in the weeks and months ahead. We should be urging them to become more involved. We should be discussing their peace initiative with them. We should be seeking ways to reach out to them. Prince Turki would never have sent that message via the Reuters journalist if he did not have the backing of the Saudi king to do so.

“We await the Israelis picking up our hand,” he said. There was a time, not so long ago, when such a message from the Saudis would have been impossible. It is now on the table, and we should pick it up and run with it. After all, we do not want to learn from others never to miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity!

A former deputy head of Mossad, David Kimche was director general of Israel’s foreign ministry from 1980 to 1987. He is currently (2007) president of the Israeli Council for Foreign Relations.

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