A new council comprising senior figures in the Arab world has called for more direct relations with Israelis while repudiating those calling for a boycott of Israeli goods.
At the culmination of a landmark two-day meeting in London, the 30-member Arab Council for Regional Integration issued a landmark statement on Wednesday urging a breakdown of barriers and an increase in dialogue.
In a message sent to the council, former Prime Minister Tony Blair praised the group, saying “the developing Arab-Israeli relationship can, should, and must provide the critical underpinning” to peace negotiations, alongside US involvement.
“Integrating Israel in the region will benefit all parties and not only Israel,” said Blair, who acted as the Middle East envoy for a ‘quartet’ comprising the UN, EU, US and Russia from 2007-15. “Far from distancing peace, it will bring peace between Israel and the Palestinians, in my judgment, closer.”
Some participants at the two-day council, including Sheikh Saleh Hamed, risked their lives to attend, according to Sukayna Mushaykhis, a Dubai-based Shi’ite Saudi national who works as an anchor at the Arabic-language Al-Hurra TV channel.
Hamed, from Lebanon, told the closing of the conference on Wednesday that “we do not deny the rights of the Jews to have a country because they are a nation. They have their religion, language, culture, art and heritage.”
He urged Jews “to return to Lebanon, take back their homes and live side by side with Muslims and Christians and all constituents of the Lebanese mosaic”.
He added: “We need the Jews of the Arab world to know that we need their efforts and presence, because nation building is not complete without them. In return, the Arab countries should protect the citizens, their economic rights and their right to build their holy places, to pray, and to ensure their freedoms.”
Mushaykhis, a fellow participant, said Hamed had shown “courage and bravery” to attend “from a state governed by Hezbollah,” adding: “He took a chance to come here and participate in this even though his life may be in danger.”
The council comprises clerics, activists, journalists, diplomats and parliamentarians attended from countries including Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, Tunisia, Iraq and the Palestinian territories.
Among them is the leader of an Egyptian political party, a former Kuwaiti minister, a leading Yemeni TV commentator and the head of a human rights group in Bahrain. “These are not fringe players,” said James Sorene, chief executive of Middle East think-tank BICOM. “They’re thought leaders in their societies.”
Addressing Arab-Israeli relations, Blair said: “Ironically, it is the countries that have never had a war with Israel – in the Gulf and North Africa – that still do not have a peace treaty or official relations with Israel.”