David I. Roytenberg
David I. Roytenberg

Beginning of a new era in Israeli-Arab relations?

On January 13, 2021, a rather unusual event took place in the predominantly Israeli Arab city of Nazareth. Ali Salam, the mayor of Nazareth appeared publicly with Benjamin Netanyahu. At the meeting, Mayor Salam said, “I am declaring from here, to the whole world, from Nazareth … it’s good here for us, and we will continue to live together in our country and our request is that you don’t forget to make peace with the Palestinians.”

The mayor expressed his disappointment with the Joint List, the party that attracts many Israeli Arab voters. “We voted for them, and with all due respect, the Arab community is disappointed with them.  They got our votes and they did nothing.” Recent polls show the Joint List, which won 15 seats in March of 2020 losing a third of their vote. Mr. Salam has been Mayor of Nazareth since 2013.

Israeli Arab participation in Israeli elections has grown recently, with a historically high 67% of eligible Arab and Druze voting in the election last March. In addition to the Joint List, Israeli Arabs, especially Druze also vote for Zionist parties.

After so many years of Israeli Arab wars, it is easy to forget that over 20% of Israeli citizens are Arabs and that they have full civil and political rights. In spite of the lengthy conflict, Israel’s founding Prime Minister, David Ben Gurion, wrote frequently about the desirability and even the inevitability of good relations between Arabs and Jews in the Middle East.

On October 2, 1947, weeks before the partition vote that would signal the beginning of an Arab war against the Jews of Palestine, Ben Gurion wrote, “This is our native land; it is not as birds of passage that we return to it.  But it is situated in an area engulfed by Arabic-speaking peoples, mainly followers of Islam. Now, if ever, we must do more than make peace with them; we must achieve collaboration and alliance on equal terms …. Talk of Arab Jewish amity sounds fantastic, for the Arabs do not wish it… they want to treat us as they do the Jews of Baghdad, Cairo and Damascus.  (Nevertheless) history has … set conditions … which will compel Arab and Jew to work together…

For most of the past seven decades, Ben Gurion’s words have seemed hopelessly optimistic as one war followed another and Arab acceptance of Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state seemed forever out of reach. But in spite of ongoing conflict, there are signs that the situation may be starting to change.

Reasons for cynicism have been many. While Israel’s cold peace with Egypt and Jordan has held, all attempts to come to terms with the Palestinian Arabs have foundered in bloodshed and mutual recrimination. For those of us who believed that a new era was at hand in 1993 as Yasser Arafat and Yitzchak Rabin shook hands on the white house lawn, the disillusionment has been particularly bitter.  The murder of Yitzchak Rabin and the upsurge of terrorism emerging from the Palestinian Territories after 2000 were coupled with the Durban declaration and a renewed attempt to convince the world that Zionism was colonialist and racist and to turn Israel into an international pariah.

Now, in just a few months, we have seen dramatic and encouraging developments in Israeli Arab relations. The normalization agreement with the United Arab Emirates has led with lightning speed to booming economic and political contacts. The dissatisfaction of Israeli Arabs with the Joint List as articulated by the Mayor of Nazareth has been fuelled in part by their stand against the UAE peace agreement, which is popular with many of their Israeli Arab supporters. As the new ambassador from the United Arab Emirates takes up his post and Israelis prepare once again to go to the polls, perhaps at long last we are seeing the beginning of that era of Arab Israeli collaboration foreseen by David Ben Gurion.

About the Author
David Roytenberg is a Canadian living in Ottawa, Canada, with a lifelong interest in Israel and Zionism. He spent 9 months in Israel in 1974-75 on Kibbutz Kfar Glickson and is a frequent visitor to friends and family in Israel. He is married and the father of two sons. David is Secretary of MERCAZ Canada and the chair of Adult Education for Kehillat Beth Israel in Ottawa. He wrote monthly about Israel and Zionism for the Canadian Jewish News from 2017 to 2020.
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