Why Is the Israeli Left Still Turning a Cold Shoulder to Gulf States?

Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East

This past April 28, Holocaust Remembrance Day, Dan Feferman stood at the entrance to Auschwitz. With him were the members of the multinational delegation he had brought to the annual March of the Living event in Poland – Saudis, Syrians, Lebanese, Moroccans, Emiratis and Bahrainis. There was also a Palestinian, Mohammed Dajani, who eight years earlier had been the first to take Palestinian students to visit the death camp. All of these travelers were visibly moved.

A visit to Auschwitz “is usually a definitive moment in the Jewish journey,” Feferman, an American-Israeli who is director of communications and global affairs at the Sharaka (“partnership,” in Arabic) NGO, wrote after the visit. But this year, he experienced it “in a dramatically different way, surrounded by Arab Muslims” who had come to learn, to open their hearts and minds and to put their own safety at risk at home in order to teach their societies about the calamity experienced by the Jews in Europe. A few days later, Feferman was in the United States, where he spoke about the peace accords between Israel and the Gulf states with a group of Muslim-American leaders of Pakistani origin.

Sharaka, an Israeli-Emirati organization, was founded immediately after the signing of the Abraham Accords, in September 2020. In the short time since then, the group has brought together hundreds of Israelis and hundreds of Arabs and Muslims from around the world, and not all of them from countries that are signatories to the accords. Its board of directors consists of Arabs and Jews, many of the latter of whom are identified with the Israeli right wing. Among them, for example, are Amit Deri, who heads the organization Reservists on Duty, which clashed with Breaking the Silence in the past; and David Brog, an American Jew who was formerly the executive director of the Evangelical organization Christians United for Israel. Feferman does not term Sharaka a right-wing organization, because, he says, it integrates Israelis from many different backgrounds.

Sharaka’s declared goal is to take advantage of the positive atmosphere generated by the Abraham Accords to forge close ties between Israelis and Arabs and create a common language between future leaders in the Middle East. “People from all sections of Israeli society are showing an interest – young and older, Jews and Arabs, secular and religious,” Feferman, who was an intelligence officer in the Israel Defense Forces, says in a phone call from Ben-Gurion Airport, when he’s on the way to another meeting abroad designed to bring people closer together. “Some of them are skeptical at first, but when they get there they understand what true peace, a warm peace, should look like.”

Like Sharaka, there are many other groups and individuals working industriously in this field, organizing young people who lead delegations, as well as mayors and other senior figures in local governments who pay frequent visits to the United Arab Emirates. The large majority identify with the right. Fleur Hassan-Nahoum, for example, a deputy mayor of Jerusalem who describes herself as a right-center Likud supporter, leads the UAE-Israel Business Council and the Gulf-Israel Women’s Business Forum. Youssef Hadad, a Christian Arab who served in the Golani infantry brigade and became a well-oiled, one-man hasbara (Israeli PR) machine, took part last year in the Holocaust Remembrance Day ceremony in the UAE.

Other examples abound. One of them is the organization Habayit (The Home), whose members include Yishai Fleisher, the spokesman for the Jewish settlement in Hebron. The group, which advocates the application of Israeli sovereignty in the West Bank, seeks to promote what it calls “new political solutions that will make possible acceptance of Palestinians in Israel, not from concessions but from strength.” Its members constantly speak about human rights, though not about civil rights.

In the wake of the Abraham Accords, members of Habayit also arrived in the Gulf and made contact with Emiratis who are sympathetic to Israel. Rudy Rochman, one of the nonprofit’s leaders, is also promoting a project called Sudra, referring to an Ancient Israelite headdress that recalls the Arab keffiyeh, but in blue-and-white.

Twitter and Facebook have also seen the formation of large groups of social media influencers – Israelis, Emiratis and Bahrainis – some of whom proudly style themselves “Arab Zionists.” They are mutually empathetic, talk about coexistence, send one another greetings on the Jewish holidays and express solidarity at times of mourning or terrorist attacks. For example, on the day of the terrorist attack in Be’er Sheva on March 22, an Emirati blogger named Hassan Sajwani tweeted: “Heartfelt condolences, thoughts and prayers with the victims of today’s horrendous terrorist attack that murdered 4 innocent Israelis in #Beersheba, Israel. Prayers for the injured.”

In contrast to the Israeli right, which connected in a natural way with the Abraham Accords and has been working full-steam since to promote partnership with the Gulf states, the left in Israel cold-shouldered the agreements. The initial responses by Israeli left-wing politicians, journalists, commentators and societal organizations offered various reasons for this approach. It’s not a true peace, they said, because we were never at war with the UAE; it’s a dubious deal in which undemocratic regimes are receiving Israeli weapons, aircraft and spyware. Numerous articles have been written about the systematic violation of human rights in the Emirates, which are concealed beneath smiles and a glittering façade. Quite a few spokespersons from the left refused to view the accords as peace agreements because of their mistrust of the leaders who devised them. It’s essentially a business deal, whose main beneficiaries are people close to Benjamin Netanyahu and former U.S. President Donald Trump, they said.

The prism of suspicion and criticism through which left-wingers viewed the agreements at the time of their signing is understandable. However, in the nearly two years that have passed since then, the relationships have developed and grown with content: Trade has increased, and genuine academic and research cooperation has developed. In the past year, for example, trade between Israel and the UAE was valued at $1.2 billion (by comparison, trade with Egypt that year totaled $330 million). Cooperation agreements were signed between universities in the Emirates and Tel Aviv University, the University of Haifa and Reichman University, as well as other Israeli research institutions. At the beginning of 2022, the Israeli government approved creation of a fund dedicated to development of Israeli-Emirati research projects.

Nevertheless, the Israeli left remains entrenched in its posture. Organizations that have been traditionally involved in furthering peace and coexistence (for example, the Mitvim Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, with which I am associated, and the Forum for Regional Thinking) continue to ignore the momentum of the Abraham Accords, are not participating in them and are not trying to give voice to their approach; in short, these groups are leaving the entire arena to the right-wing camp.

In fact, human rights activists in the Gulf states have told me they are completely unaware of the existence of an Israeli left. Ideological circles in the Emirates would be delighted to meet with Israeli left-wingers, but no such encounters are taking place. Israel is fashioning ever more ties with Arab states, but members of left-wing civil society in Israel are barely gaining anything from this development. They’re not in the game. Are they missing out on a rare opportunity?

What is really behind the left’s opposition to the Abraham Accords? To try to answer this question, which has been bothering me for months, I called former Labor MK Daniel Ben Simon. His answer surprised me, because he did not begin with an explanation about “white elites” who are opposed to rapprochement with the Arab world, but rather about the gut feeling of regular Israelis, who are traveling in large numbers to Dubai and to Abu Dhabi. “Israelis look at this peace quite opportunistically,” Ben Simon says. “They ask themselves: Is the conflict approaching its end? And the more they think about it, the more they grasp that it’s an economic transaction, so it’s best to benefit from it. But the coveted peace, which the founding generations of Zionism prayed for – it’s not that.”

But in what way does this economic transaction differ from the agreements with Egypt and Jordan, I ask Ben Simon – after all, those agreements also received significant boosts from the United States. And why the emphasis on human rights violations in the Gulf states, when the same problem also exists in Egypt, in Jordan, in the Palestinian Authority and in dozens of other countries with which Israel maintains close ties?

“I see a vast difference between those two processes,” Ben Simon says. “When [Egyptian President Anwar] Sadat came to Israel, the feeling was that we were within arm’s length of peace with the world. Here we have a deal that was put together far from the eyes of the Israeli people, through a mediator who’s a nut-case. We have no border with them, it’s all amorphous, it’s an economic peace. It’s a Netanyahu peace.

There is no doubt that the identities of the signers of the Abraham Accords shaped the attitudes of some toward them. But beyond the opposition to the personalities involved, in the view of many on the Israeli and American left, the main flaw of the accords is that they ignore the Palestinians, who seem to have been thrown by the wayside.

Former Meretz leader Zehava Galon, who is now the head of Zulat, an organization that advocates equality and human rights for all Israelis (and whose steering committee I belong to), says, “We cannot disregard the importance of these accords. They are important geopolitically, economically and diplomatically.” And in fact, included among the public figures who lost no time in developing ties with their Gulf counterparts are members of the outgoing government, including from Meretz and Labor, and notably Regional Cooperation Minister Esawi Freige, of Meretz.

“However,” Galon continues, “what bothers me is that the problem of the State of Israel was and remains that Israel is ruling over millions of people, and these agreements provided legitimacy for skipping over them.”

Indeed, on August 13, 2020, when Abu Dhabi declared its readiness to normalize relations with Israel, the lead headline of the newspaper Israel Hayom was, “Peace for peace: Agreement with UAE alters historical equation.” That was also Netanyahu’s mantra: We can sidestep the Palestinians – even the Arab states are no longer taking an interest in them.

That same year, I came across Gulf-based internet campaigns that besmirched the Palestinian people and sought to ostracize them. Social media influencers also hopped on the bandwagon. The most prominent of them was Mohammed Saud, known in Israel as “the Saudi blogger,” who expressed support for Netanyahu and lambasted the Palestinians. Many Israelis enthused over Saud. For them, he was proof that there are other Arabs – Arabs who don’t demand anything of Israel and only ply us with warmth and love.

When Israelis were able to fly directly to Dubai and Abu Dhabi, many of those who visited related that they felt very much wanted there and that indications of support for the agreement were visible everywhere. My attention was caught by an Emirati woman who adorned her fingernails with Israeli and UAE flags; photos of her manicure made the rounds in WhatsApp and Instagram.

Is this truly the reality? It’s actually Dan Feferman, who is in daily touch with people in the UAE who support relations with Israel, who casts things in a more realistic light. The Emiratis are taking an interest in Israel, he says, but public opinion polls show that only a third of them have a liking for Israel and support the accords. However, he notes, even if they are against the agreements, it is not “in the political culture of the Emirates to go out to demonstrate against them.”

In general, he adds, “the Palestinian issue is not being abandoned here. There is disgust at the Palestinian leadership in Ramallah and at the extremism of Hamas. The attempt by some in the Israeli right to ‘disappear’ the Palestinian story is disconnected from the reality of what the Arab side is bringing in here.”

“The notion that the Gulf Arabs don’t care about the Palestinians is nonsense taken from talking points,” adds Ben Birnbaum. I first met Birnbaum, a young Jewish-American journalist, in the United States a few years before the Abraham Accords saw the light of day. Already then, he believed that an acute need existed to forge ties between the next generation of Israeli and Arab leaders in the Middle East. It was a volatile period, Trump had just been elected president and the Gulf states were sending Israel complex messages. It was precisely then that he, along with Arab citizens of Israel, founded the Regional Organization for Peace, Economics and Security, an NGO engaged in connecting the ties between Israel and the Gulf states to the Palestinian issue. That organization is one of the few currently operating in the Gulf states that has openly support the two-state solution – if not the only one.

“I think that the left is losing out here,” Birnbaum says. “When you look at the countries of the Abraham Accords, you understand that conceptually, they are far closer to the Israeli left-center than to the right. I have often heard my friends in the Emirates and Bahrain say that they would like to meet Israelis who support the two-state solution, but that those who come there are mainly from the right.”

In an overseas conference organized by the regional peace and economics NGO a few months ago, I met a young Emirati woman who terms herself a human rights activist. She told me that she and her friends were not even aware that different voices exist in Israel in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. She added that she would be very happy to host and hold meetings with peace activists and peace advocates from Israel.

Officials in the U.S.-based liberal advocacy group J Street agree that the Abraham Accords constitute an opportunity for anyone who wants to promote a solution for the Palestinian question. “Even if they were born in negative circumstances, the Abraham Accords can serve our agenda,” says Nadav Tamir, executive director of J Street Israel, and formerly a senior adviser to President Shimon Peres. “We need to take advantage of this regional context also to further a move vis-à-vis Iran, but also one that will help on the Palestinian issue. American leadership could create shared interests here, that’s relatively easy.”

If so, is there a way to connect the Palestinian issue to the agreements with the Gulf states and the spirit of normalization in the region? Could a new paradigm come into existence here that can connect between all the poles?

“We are used to dichotomies in everything having to do with the Middle East: Arabs versus Jews, Shi’ites versus Sunnis, if you’re for Israel you’re against the Palestinians, etc.,” says Dr. Nir Boms, a research fellow at the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University. “But our region is changing rapidly. Instead of the sharp turns and the flagrant contradictions, in the near future we will see a far more complex picture. We see it already now. Abu Dhabi is developing good relations with Israel, but also strengthening ties with Iran and with Turkey. A new regional order is emerging here.”

In the past two years, Boms has paid frequent visits to Arab and Muslim countries ranging from North Africa across the region to the Indian subcontinent, and has maintained extensive ties with researchers, journalists and political activists from Pakistan to Iraq. The “axis of opposition” in the region, he says, which is led by radicals in both the Sunni and Shi’ite worlds, is being perceived as a growing challenge by the Gulf states. Against it they are leading a new “renaissance axis” with an alternative vision that seeks to change the face of the Middle East.

That vision is described by Riyad Hamad, a Palestinian expert on regional politics who lives in the UAE. Hamad says he “can say with certainty that the accords go beyond an economic or military deal alone.” He too looks at the broad context and sees the Middle East as one neighborhood, whose population is ever growing, while its resources are ever dwindling. From his perspective and that of many Emiratis, it’s ridiculous to see the Abraham Accords as an economic deal and no more.

“These agreements are consistent with the approach that human development is the central goal for the region in the coming decades,” Hamad says. “The Middle East population will grow by another 200 million, reaching 700 million, by the year 2050, and the coronavirus crisis showed that the only solution is regional and international cooperation, including small, advanced countries. So, whether we are for an economic and political policy of left or right, the success of this initiative will provide hope that our future can be better, amid the use of creative solutions.”

 year ago, when an exhibition about the Holocaust opened at Dubai’s Museum of Civilizations, I remembered an article that had been published in a Saudi newspaper on Purim in 2002. Dr. Umaima al-Jalama, a researcher from a Saudi university, writing about the Jewish holiday, stated that it was the custom to eat a special pastry that included blood from Christian and Muslim infants. This was at the height of the second intifada, and the crass antisemitism of the message astounded me. Back then, 20 years ago, I had the feeling that there was no hope, that not a ray of hope could be found within all that hatred.

In the two decades that followed, I followed tenaciously the many changes that occurred and are occurring in the Arab world with regard to the Jews and Israel. These transformations, whose pinnacle is the Abraham Accords, reflected tectonic shifts in the Middle East. The Arab system of states was weakened, Iranian hegemony intensified, and the Arab Spring shook the region, leading many to recalculate.

The United Arab Emirates, which was the first to sign the Abraham Accords, became one of the dominant countries in the Middle East. Israel, which began its existence as a small, isolated country, worked hard to warm up relations with Gulf and North African countries. Twenty years of diplomatic activity preceded these agreements, which friends of mine on the left frequently refer to disparagingly as “the Bibi and Trump agreements.”

I don’t know where either Netanyahu or Trump will be in another decade, but I hope that the agreements they cobbled together in 2020 will still be with us – just as the treaties with Egypt and Jordan are still in place too, despite the complexities and the tensions. Will the spirit of normalization also reach our corner of the Middle East, namely Israel and Palestine? At the moment it’s still early to say.

But even so, with so much uncertainly on the horizon, we Israelis would do well to look again at the Abraham Accords and examine whether we can exploit them optimally, so that we don’t do what the Israelis always accuse the Palestinians of doing – missing an opportunity.

The op-ed was published in Haaretz in July 2022.

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