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  • Politics, Identity and PeacemakingThe Arab Discourse on Peace with Israel in the 1990s
  • Avraham Sela (bio)

It is about time to think what we have not dared thinking. . . . [T]o stop portraying the future to ourselves according to the past and cease rejecting a priori everything that does not derive its justification from conditions of the past. . . . The world is rapidly changing . . . We have to learn how to overcome those things that hurt us . . . the shackles of the common creeds and the shackles of the existing rule. . . . We still live by the logic of a tribal society.

—Muhammad Sayyid Ahmad1


The passage from above was published following the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, opening a daring and controversial prescriptive analysis and vision of a future Arab-Israeli coexistence. Ahmad, an Egyptian leftist thinker and publicist, went as far as suggesting that Israel should be fully integrated in the region, assigning it a technological and economic role. This vision was to be applied, however, only after Israel had abandoned its Zionist attributes and withdrawn from all the territories occupied in 1967, and the Palestinians' national rights, including the establishment of a sovereign Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip, had been fulfilled. Ahmad suggested that such a peaceful strategy would practically abolish the rationale for Israel's very existence and would pave the road to its gradual collapse and final disappearance. Nonetheless, his analysis and prescription, especially his vision of Israel as an actor integrated in the region and having access to Arab markets, was hitherto unheard of in the Arab world. No wonder Ahmad's vision was strongly criticized by Arab commentators as a dangerous misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict with Israel and even as "treason."2

Ahmad's vision, then shared only by a handful of Arab thinkers,3 heralded the subsequent shift of Arab states from hostility to diplomatic means [End Page 15] in the conflict with Israel, which culminated in the 1979 separate Israel-Egypt peace treaty. The Arab-Israeli peace process in the 1970s reflected the growing adjustment of Arab regimes to their particular domestic and international opportunities and constraints. The result was an unprecedented inter-Arab competition over concepts and strategies in the conflict with Israel, which represented a bitter conflict over material and symbolic interests. Collective Arab rejection—though by no means complete—of Sadat's peacemaking strategy, could hardly hide the cognitive tension between popular attitudes of hostility and alienation to Israel, and self-serving pragmatism of ruling elites, which led to their gradual adoption of Egypt's concept.

With the resumption of the internationally sponsored Arab-Israeli peace process in the early 1990s, this tension erupted with unprecedented scope and energy as a magnified reminiscence of the controversy triggered by Ahmad's book two decades earlier. Ahmad's urge for a new approach to the conflict with Israel thus seems to be an appropriate point of departure for asking what traces it left on Arab thought and practice in the conflict with Israel; how different the discourse of the 1990s was from its predecessors; and, finally, what can be learned from its various representations.

This article offers a critical analysis of the intra-Arab discourse of peace with Israel during the period from the Madrid Conference (October 1991) to the al-Aqsa Intifada (October 2000), which erupted following the breakdown of the Israeli-Palestinian summit at Camp David. The period under discussion was indeed unprecedented in the annals of the contemporary Middle East, marked as it was by cataclysmic Israeli-Arab peacemaking events, which underlined a substantive shift in and of Arab-Israeli relations from hostility to negotiated settlements. Until the mid-1990s, Israel and the PLO signed the DOP (Oslo Accord) by which they exchanged mutual recognition and set a platform for a future permanent settlement between them, followed by the Cairo, Taba, and other agreements by which an interim, autonomous Palestinian Authority (PA) was formed on part of the territories Israel captured in 1967; Israel signed a peace treaty with Jordan, the second with an Arab state; and the Israeli-Syrian peace negotiations, despite repeated breakdowns, seemed for a time almost to reach fruition...


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