Agreements with Israel are increasing in frequency, and while some choose to diminish their significance for different reasons, I do think it would be folly to ignore them. Both the implications of the individual changes they spark and their potential aggregate impact for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are worth taking a closer look at.
Each agreement takes on its own trajectory. With the United Arab Emirates has come trade and tourism activity. People from each country’s business sector are looking to work with the other. Israeli CEOs (including a Palestinian businessman) went to Dubai to see what they could do there. Emirati business leaders and Israeli investors met online to learn about UAE startups. The largest banks in both countries signed agreements. And in one of the more intriguing stories, a UAE royal bought half of Jerusalem’s Beitar soccer club. Why intriguing? Because Beitar’s fans, known as La Familia, are known as being anti-Arab and anti-Muslim.
I saw this purchase as being an interesting step forward. If Israelis are embracing cooperation with Arabs from Gulf and other countries, then it should be easier to move Beitar fans and likeminded people more towards a spectrum of tolerance. They may still not trust Palestinians, but they will be unable to hold the same biases against all Arabs or all Muslims. And this could be a first step towards humanizing the “other.” I think that is what Sheikh Hamad bin Khalifa sees too. In a joint press conference with Israeli co-owner Moshe Hogeg, the Sheikh said, ““We want to set an example to both nations that Jews and Muslims can work together.” I asked one lifelong Beitar fan what he thought of the purchase, and he saw it in a very favorable light.
In the aftermath of Israel’s agreement with Bahrain, Bahrain’s small Jewish community (with an interesting history) felt happier, that they could now visit relatives in Israel. And while the country’s move to accept Israeli imports from the West Bank met with Palestinian criticism, Bahrain has also offered to host new talks between Israelis and Palestinians in order to renew peace talks, signaling their willingness to help move things forward.
The next country to sign an agreement was Morocco. El Al and Israir both want to launch direct flights and Morocco’s Royal Air Maroc is also likely to do the same. Israel’s Moroccan Jewish community is thrilled. Palestinians are not. Morocco’s Foreign Minister tried to reassure them that the country’s commitment to the Palestinian cause has not diminished. In the same article, it is noted that the King explained that part of the reason for the agreement was in recognition of the ties that Moroccan Jews have to the country. And in fact, in one of the more surprising (and I think, encouraging) moves, schools in Morocco will begin teaching Jewish history and culture. Breaking down preconceptions starts with education.
The most recent country to sign an agreement is Bhutan. Located in the Himalayas, in the opposite direction from Morocco and the Gulf countries, this small country’s absence of a relationship was unrelated to the Palestinian issue but due to its isolationist policies. But its timing is part of what is appearing to be a trend as more countries create agreements. In fact, it is reported that Oman and Indonesia may sign agreements with Israel next.
As the pace picks up, it seems to me that the Palestinians have a few choices to make. If they understand that these agreements will take place whether or not they object, then it would make sense for Palestinian leadership to figure out how to take advantage of this changed landscape, i.e., work with each country in parallel. I think this is an opportunity. But they need to see that too.
If the Palestinian Authority chooses, it can promote including Palestinian concerns as a part of these countries’ concerns. The PA could ask these new trade and diplomatic partners of Israel’s to exact concessions, to speak on their behalf, to leverage their new power, to promote taking steps to get both sides back to the negotiating table…to do something. Perhaps the PA should convene a conference and invite all these countries to discuss how they can band together to use their power to help Palestinians.
I see potential. Hope I’m not the only one.