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How Saudi Arabia and the UAE can really help the Palestinians

Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) seem to be acting with sincerity and in good faith in their efforts to resolve the long-standing Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

Out of the current darkness, I believe most Israelis would be joyous if these efforts yield fruit. But it is the Palestinians, especially those who are tragically experiencing enormous suffering in Gaza right now, that would be the prime beneficiaries.

However, without modification, these efforts are doomed to fail, just like all the others. 

That Saudi and UAE are sincere in their efforts may be discerned from the very reasonable basis for their actions – their own self-interest.

A more stable and secure Middle East better enables the continuing massive mobilisation of capital and expertise to complete the Gulf countries’ economic diversification away from hydrocarbons as global oil revenues decline. This ambition would benefit immeasurably from access to Israel’s intellectual property in the areas of science, technology and defense.

This is why Saudi and the UAE are the best possible mediators for a new push for peace – they stand to gain more than anyone else, Israel and the Palestinians aside. 

The UAE took a bold risk as the first country to sign the Abraham Accords in September 2020, but long before then, back in 2002, the Saudis crafted the Arab Peace Initiative, a ten-sentence proposal that offers full recognition and normalisation for Israel by all Arab and Islamic countries in return for a negotiated two-state peace.

While former Israeli President Shimon Peres called it ‘inspirational and promising’, the Initiative has never received anything more than minimal traction over the 20 years since first proposed.

The Palestinian National Charter, Article 20, states “Claims of historical or religious ties of Jews with Palestine are incompatible with the facts of history and the true conception of what constitutes statehood. Judaism, being a religion, is not an independent nationality. Nor do Jews constitute a single nation with an identity of its own; they are citizens of the states to which they belong.”

The vast majority of Jews strongly disagree. Jewish historical and religious ties with the Land are based on facts of history so widely accepted and proven, except – as we see on college campuses worldwide – in the context of polemic. Not only Jewish scripture, but Jews themselves throughout the ages, have always self-identified as a single people and a nation whose home is in this Land. That the particularist religious structure of Judaism differs from the universalist intent of Christianity and Islam cannot be the basis for externally-imposed redefinition (notwithstanding contemporary efforts of the Jewish Reform movement to do the same). A return to the ancestral homeland was not something that Jews woke up and decided about in 1896 – it has been front and center in our prayers, three times a day every day, for over 2,000 years.

Article 20 of the Charter was one among several that were supposed to have been revised in the 1990s as part of Oslo implementation. However the issue was significantly fudged by the parties at the time. It has subsequently emerged that no such revisions were ever enacted.

Why?

I think most Israelis understand this article was not amended because it is at the heart of what almost all Palestinians actually believe, and probably almost all of the Arab-Islamic world as well.     

Let us be clear. This issue is the root of the conflict.

While there may be better solutions out there than the Oslo-style two-state peace, there is only one fundamental reason that Israel today is not willing to accept the basic parameters of the two-state peace. It is because most Israelis believe Palestinians, and the vast majority of the Arab world, do not accept the legitimacy of Jewish connection to the Land, the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood, and therefore the national rights of Jews to self-determine in the Land.

The foreign secretaries of the West, Messrs Blinken, Borrell and Cameron, believe recognition of Palestinian statehood will take the oxygen out of the conflict.

Most Israelis believe the contrary. Even the many of us Jews who yearn desperately for the day when peace prevails, the many of us Jews who once sang songs of peace at Rabin’s funeral.

So long as most Palestinians, and most Arabs, believe Jewish self-determination in the Land to be fundamentally illegitimate, most Israelis know in their gut that any concession, any transition to Palestinian statehood, will simply ratchet up the conflict to a new, even more intense and bloody level of inter-state war.

This was the lesson from Israel’s Oslo-era military withdrawals from the West Bank population centers in the 1990s, from South Lebanon in 2000, and from Gaza in 2005. And it is the lesson from Netanyahu’s five years of failed effort ‘bribing’ Hamas with Qatari suitcases of cash and Israeli work permits for Gazans.

It is what large parts of the international community, and the numerically dwindling Israeli left, repeatedly gets wrong – to believe that peace can come before legitimacy. 

This is not being anti-peace – Jews are peace-loving people through and through. Almost all Jews understand and accept that Palestinians are people of this Land as well.

Rather it is common sense, strengthened with an added dose of 30 years’ reality facing Hamas’ suicide bombs and civilian-targeted rockets.

Any peace outcome in which one party fundamentally denies the legitimacy of the other will not hold.

The motives for entering into that peace arrangement will always be suspect. Implementation will be subverted, fudged or subject to reversal at any point, likely on the flimsiest of pretexts. This is why most Israelis assume ‘the day after’ in a two-state peace will involve the formalisation of an alliance between Palestine and the Iranian axis and a massive arms build-up across the new state. Even if formally demilitarised, Israel knows it will be a losing battle to enforce demilitarisation on a State of Palestine just as Hezbollah blatantly violates the disarmament requirements of UNSCR 1701 for nearly 20 years without apparent consequence.

So if Saudi Arabia and the UAE are really serious about peace, this is what they can do.

As part of the broader push for peace, Saudi Arabia and the UAE can work towards building bottom-up a true fraternal feeling between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians, stimulating profound transformation in Arab thinking about the legitimacy of the Jewish people’s connection to the Land, the legitimacy of Jewish nationhood, and therefore the legitimacy of Jewish self-determination in the Land.

It is my conviction that when Jews see that Palestinians, and the wider Arab-Islamic world, sincerely accept our existence here as legitimate that a true, deep and enduring peace will follow very soon after.

Clearly this is not a simple matter. It is a mega-project not unlike the kind for which Saudi and the UAE are famous. But it is a mega-project principally of hearts and minds, and less one of bricks and mortar.

Yes, bricks and mortar may also help. The incredible Abrahamic Family House Project in the UAE is a potent and transformative symbol of inter-religious respect and equality. It cries out for a similar monument to national respect and equality or – in this context I would argue – inter-civilisational respect and equality, between the Arab-Islamic and the Jewish civilisations. In this light, the UAE may consider the Abrahamic Family House as the first fruit of this mega-project, and now they need, with the Saudis, to keep building.

But monuments alone will not be enough. Nor will forcing the Palestinians to amend their Charter with financial incentive or threat of sanction.

Rather there needs to be a massive campaign that combines education with empathy, and it needs to be reciprocal as well – Jews, Palestinians and the wider Arab-Islamic world learning about each other in respectful dialogue.

And it is not enough to teach dry history. History must be explored together with religion, society and culture. We must find new ways of relating to each other – the language of the Abraham Accords, and the emphasis on our shared patriarchal and religious roots, is a helpful starting point.

There are organisations that already do this. The Alliance for Middle East Peace (ALLMEP) is an alliance of over 160 Palestinian and Israeli such organisations. But they are small. They are under-funded. They are geographically concentrated. And they face enormous barriers from an ‘anti-normalisation’ stigma.

This effort needs scale. It needs expansion to reach all parts of the Arab-Islamic world. It needs heavyweight Arab backing from the highest levels of state, religion and society. And it needs depth. To go beyond surface-level platitudes. To leverage the best that pedagogy, psychology, philosophy and sociology has to offer to build bottom-up a true fraternal feeling between Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians.

What does success look like? How will we know when enough has been done?

I think it will be when we see a change in language, a change in emphasis. We will know it has happened when we see it in the media, in the classrooms, in the international institutions, and on the college campuses too. And not as a result of global worldwide censorship or opprobium, but rather as a genuine bottom-up transformation.

Without this change, no peace can be possible.

With this change, perhaps we may discover a more satisfying, sustainable and far-reaching outcome than the Oslo two-state solution.

About the Author
Adam Gross is a strategist that specialises in solving complex problems in the international arena. Adam made aliyah with his family in 2019 to live in northern Israel.
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