Are Arabs the new Zionists?

Long after his death, the wisdom of Abba Eban lives on - no nugget more frequently dug up than his observation that "the Palestinians never miss an opportunity to miss an opportunity."

If the veteran Foreign Minister were around today, I suspect he would be reversing the maxim, observing that it is now his own people, the Israelis, who have become the masters of having a chance - and then blowing it.

The revolutionary spirit currently sweeping the Arab world provides the latest example. With despotic regimes across the Middle East either tumbling or under threat, now we can see quite how much of an opportunity Israel has just missed. I say 'just", even though Israel has spent the best part of nine years missing it.

I'm referring to the Arab Peace Initiative, or API, unanimously endorsed in 2002 by all 22 Arab nations - including Saddam's Iraq, Assad's Syria and Gaddafi's Libya - and further backed by 35 more Islamic states.

Israel had the chance to come to terms with Arab rulers and let it slip away

This proposed fully normalised relations with Israel, in return for an Israeli withdrawal to the 1967 borders and a solution to the question of Palestinian refugees. Of course, such an offer was not perfect as it stood, but it did represent a promising starting point for negotiations whose ultimate prize would be the regional acceptance Israel has long craved.

So did Israel seize on the API, opening talks with its neighbours based on a "Yes, but…"? It did not. It did not even say no. It simply ignored the initiative, pretending it did not exist. It did the same when the Arab states renewed their offer in 2007.

And now it is surely too late. The autocratic rulers who backed the API - and who could have forced it through, imposing it on their peoples if necessary - are now tottering or have already been toppled. The moment has passed. Israel had the chance to come to terms with the Arab world's rulers and it let the chance slip away. Now, if democracy spreads and takes root - a big if, admittedly - Israel will have to make peace with the Arab world's peoples. And that will be infinitely harder.

That might be one reason why Israelis have been slow to join the ecstatic global chorus that has greeted the unfolding Arab Spring.

Where those watching from afar can afford to feel only hope for Arab democracy, it is understandable that Israelis feel mainly fear. They look to their border with Egypt, quiet for 30 years, and naturally wonder what the future holds and whether radical Islam might play a part in it.

When Cairo's new military rulers allow Iranian ships to pass through the Suez canal for the first time in three decades, those Israeli fears become all the more rational.

And yet, Israel cannot place itself on the wrong side of the current democracy wave. Most trivially, to adopt such a stance is terrible PR. The world sympathises with those Egyptians, Bahrainis or Tunisians brave enough to risk death or injury by marching in the streets to demand their freedom. When Israel expresses a preference for stability over change, the country is lining up with the region's bad guys.

More substantially, while peace might be easier to achieve with despots, it is surely only sustainable with democracies. The cold peace with Hosni Mubarak was better than war, but it could not hold forever. If Israel wants a lasting peace with Egypt, it will have to make peace with Egyptians themselves.

But there is a larger reason why Jews and Israelis should welcome, not suspect, this extraordinary upheaval. For those crowds in Tripoli, Manama or Sana'a are seeking nothing but their own self-determination, the right to decide their own destinies.

And wasn't that what Zionism was all about, too?

It can be easy to forget, sometimes, but democracy was always meant to be a Zionist value - central to a movement that was all about a long-oppressed people seizing control over their own lives. The true Zionist has to be moved by the sight of Arab men and women making that same demand for themselves.

Abba Eban's many successors have always stressed that "Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East." We should remember that this was meant not as a boast, but a lament. If there is a chance that situation is now changing, we should give a hopeful cheer.

Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist

    Last updated: 12:36pm, February 28 2011