When Secretary of State Mike Pompeo announced last week a pivot from the international consensus that Israeli settlements violate international law, we got another indication that the Trump administration’s still-secret Middle East peace plan will not promote a two-state solution. Official recognition of Israeli control over territory that includes land anticipated to become part of a Palestinian state is viewed by two-state proponents as another ill-considered step by the Trump administration. And almost immediately after Pompeo’s announcement, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu gave his public support to a Knesset bill authorizing annexation of the Jordan Valley.

Netanyahu’s support for the bill came on the heels of a controversial statement at a Likud rally, broadcast on Israeli TV, when he said it would be an “existential threat to the State of Israel” if Knesset members from the Arab Joint List were to sit in a future coalition government.

To his credit, Israeli President Reuven Rivlin criticized such remarks, emphasizing that they “deepen the already existing divisions” within the state. He rightly acknowledged that comments by certain Arab MKs “regarding Israeli society, and particularly about IDF soldiers, are severe, shocking and unacceptable,” but added that characterizing Arab Israelis as a “fifth column” to discourage the Arab Joint List’s presence in a governing coalition is also wrong.

“We, who live as sovereigns in our country, the Jewish and democratic State of Israel, must ensure equal rights and respectful and meaningful discourse with all Israelis,” Rivlin said.

Cynics and realists could call Rivlin naïve and his stance of moderation an outlier in the region’s politics. Yet a group of marginal but brave Arab liberals recently put themselves in danger by opposing the Arab boycott of Israel — a fixture in Arab states. 

According to reports, the Arab Council for Regional Integration is made up of a few dozen members — some well-known intellectuals and public figures — from places as far ranging as Morocco, Libya, Sudan, Egypt, Lebanon, Iraq and the Persian Gulf. Many have begun to speak out, to varying degrees, in favor of engagement with Israel. That is clearly a promising development.

If Israel wants to become an integrated neighbor in the Middle East, it needs to engage the Arab citizens at home and the willing Arabs beyond its borders, and develop a plan that gives Palestinians meaningful opportunity and some path toward independence. That cannot be accomplished through the repeated wholesale demonization of Israel’s Arab minority; nor can engagement be cultivated in an environment that is perceived to be repressive, restrictive or unfair. 

We are not suggesting that Israel compromise on security or safety of her citizenry. But we are suggesting that any path toward peace will have to include meaningful engagement and mutual respect. Israel has historically shown a willingness to make compromises in the pursuit of peace. We encourage the continuation of that approach. JN

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