Published in the Israel Gulf Report, 04.01.2021; and Israel Hayom, 05.01.2021.
There are several ways in which the Emiratis and Bahrainis (and perhaps soon the Saudis) can bring about a slow but sea change in Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian (and Egyptian and Jordanian) attitudes towards Israel.
The speed with which Israeli ties to the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain have taken off, and the warmth experienced by every Israeli business delegation and tourist group in these countries, is astounding.
One explanation for this alacrity is that the normalization of ties between these Gulf Arabs and Israelis partially is based on something deeper than security and economic relations. From the Gulf side, it is based on a genuine discourse of religious moderation and broad-mindedness.
The Emiratis and Bahrainis explicitly want to set an example for other Arab countries in the region. The question is whether their models of moderate and mature thinking indeed can be exported to other parts of the Arab world? Can it catch on elsewhere?
In fact, every Israeli to whom I have related my conversations and experiences in the Gulf has asked me this very question. They say: Let’s assume we believe you, and stipulate that some Gulf Arabs are genuine in their pursuit of peace and partnership with Israel, based on a self-conception that prioritizes open-mindedness and non-discrimination. But how are Gulf Arab leaders going to influence the Palestinians, or the Egyptians and Jordanians?
After all, Israelis have been conditioned to hear only bitterness from Israel’s immediate Arab neighbors; a narrative of self-pity and anger marked by complaints, false allegations, vituperation, and in some cases, glorification of violence against Israel.
Some of these Arabs still maintain a border conflict with Israel; some are deeply embedded in a rejectionist narrative that denies the Jewish People’s historic and legitimate connection to Zion; and some openly seek Israel’s destruction!
So, what can the Emiratis and Bahrainis really do about changing attitudes among the Arab populations that sit on Israel’s borders?
IN MY VIEW, there are several ways in which the Emiratis and Bahrainis (and perhaps soon the Saudis) can bring about a slow but sea change in Palestinian, Lebanese and Syrian (and Egyptian and Jordanian) attitudes towards Israel.
The first and most obvious thing that the Gulf states can do is succeed in developing their security and economic ties to Israel. The greater the concrete peace benefit for the Gulf states is seen to be, the more attractive peace with Israel will be for additional Arab actors.
Second, Gulf states can offer their school curriculums on religious and ethnic tolerance, and the value of scientific and critical humanistic thinking, to Arab schools across the Middle East. There is talk of launching an Emirati distance-learning program with high school and college courses available to Arab and Moslem students from Morocco to Iran. Over time, this educational export product could have real moderating impact.
Third, Gulf states can help dial-down unrealistic Palestinian expectations in advance of renewed peace negotiations with Israel. But this means talks based on pragmatic parameters, and with pared-back, not exaggerated, Palestinians expectations. Thus, Gulf diplomatic and financial support to the Palestinians in the context of possible new talks with Israel should be conditioned on levelheaded Palestinian thinking.
Gulf leaders already have indicated that any future Israeli-Palestinian deal “will have to take broader Arab state considerations into account” – and this no longer means that Gulf Arabs necessarily will support maximum Palestinian demands. “The Palestinians need peace with Israel more than Israel needs peace with the Palestinians. They should remember this in Ramallah and Gaza,” I was told by Emiratis on my recent visit to Dubai.
Israel-Palestinian peace must be a “sustainable peace,” say Emiratis. This means that a runaway “two-state solution” as promoted ad nauseum in successive international resolutions (involving a division of Jerusalem, total Israeli withdrawals from Judea and Samaria/the West Bank, and zero Palestinian Authority compliance with any of its peace commitments) – is not necessarily the only or best option. The alternative and undeniably more realistic Trump administration proposals of February 2020 ought to be considered as well.
One way of nurturing more mature Palestinian thinking is by changing Gulf state votes at the UN on a broad range of outrageous annual resolutions that condemn Israel for everything from poisoning the wells in Judea (sic.) to a 2006 oil spill along the Lebanese shore.
Other disgraceful resolutions affirm the Temple Mount as an exclusive Moslem site (denying Jewish history), and back a so-called Palestinian “right of refugee return” to Israel. (The “right” of return is political code for backing Israel’s destruction as a Jewish and democratic state by overwhelming it with Palestinians who have been held hostage by Arab states for decades).
A series of abstentions or no votes by Gulf states over the coming year on some of these unhelpful resolutions would go a long way towards forcing a Palestinian reckoning with reality.
Le Monde reported last week that Israel and the United Arab Emirates are working together to gradually eliminate the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) – a corrupt agency that has perpetuated and exacerbated, not helped to solve, Palestinian refugee problems. UNRWA schools also have become incubators of hatred against Israel and even launching pads for rocket barrages against Israel.
Gulf state support for replacing UNRWA with other humanitarian funding routes would be another important signal to Palestinians that the time has come to truly end their conflict with Israel.
In sum, there are many ways in which Gulf Arab leaders can usefully seek to move the Palestinians (and Israel’s other immediate Arab neighbors) towards moderation and maturity.