The Arab Joint List’s Short-Sighted Position

The Knesset approved Israel’s normalization agreements with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain by an overwhelming margin of 80 to 13 last week. All the dissenting votes were cast by the Arab Joint List, the third largest political party, though 27 parliamentarians were absent and two MK’s, both from the Arab Joint List, were unable to attend due to illness.

The short-sighted decision by the Arab Joint List to reject Israel’s historic accords with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain — Israel’s third and fourth peace treaties with Arab states  since 1979 — was disappointing, to say the least. The Arab Joint List’s rejectionist stance signifies that Arab MKs are outliers who do not share the aspirations of the vast majority of Israelis.

The Abraham agreements are beneficial for Israeli Jews and Arabs on several levels. They will most likely contribute to Israel’s economic growth and prosperity, help break down Israel’s pariah status in the region, and may well enhance regional stability and security.

Regrettably, the Arab Joint List’s hostile attitude toward the agreements will only validate the view held by some Jews in Israel that Israeli Arabs are neither completely loyal to Israel nor really care about its wellbeing. This perception runs counter to the interests of the Muslim and Christian Arab minority, which comprises one-fifth of Israel’s population.

That said, the Arab Joint List’s rejectionism is totally in line with the overall Palestinian position on this issue.

The Palestinian Authority, as well as its rival, Hamas, lambasted the accords as a betrayal of the Palestinian cause. The Palestinian leadership is outraged that neither the United Arab Emirates nor Bahrain demanded a resolution of Israel’s dispute with the Palestinians before agreeing to formally recognize Israel and establish diplomatic relations with it. Palestinian leaders are of the opinion that the agreements effectively normalize Israel’s military occupation of the West Bank, which Israel captured during the 1967 Six Day War.

All this is true, but Palestinians should not forget that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain succeeded in persuading the Israeli government to suspend its plan to annex the Jordan Valley and its network of settlements in the West Bank before normalizing relations with Israel. Nor should they forget that the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain continue to back and promote a two-state solution.

These arguments, however, carry no weight in Israeli Arab political circles.

Sondos Saleh, an Arab Joint List Knesset member, explained her party’s policy by saying, “We are part of the Palestinian people, so we will not support any agreement that would harm the Palestinians, even if it is called a ‘peace agreement.'”

Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Arab Joint List, said recently that the Abraham agreements are based on the “flawed assumption” that the “fundamental issue” in the Middle East is “the Iranian question” rather than the “Palestinian question.” As he put it, “The Israeli occupation (of the West Bank) is the fundamental problem. All this talk of ‘combating Iran,’ we cannot accept this twisted logic, either morally or nationally.”

Odeh’s belief that the long-simmering Palestinian problem should be resolved is absolutely correct. It goes without saying that the Palestinians are entitled to statehood in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip, provided that Israel’s legitimate security requirements are met.

But Odeh’s nonchalant dismissal of the Iranian threat represents a failure on his part to understand Middle Eastern realities. Iran and its allies, Hezbollah and Hamas, are dangerous and disruptive forces intent on destroying or harming Israel. Odeh acts irresponsibly when he minimizes the specter of Iranian, Hezbollah and Hamas aggression.

Nevertheless, a substantial proportion of Israeli Arabs probably subscribe to Odeh’s thinking. They assume that the Abraham agreements will perpetuate Israel’s occupation and delay the creation of Palestinian statehood. Yet a fair number of Israeli Arab citizens endorse the accords, realizing they will create new business opportunities and enable members of their community to establish mutually beneficial ties with two important Arab countries.

The leadership of the Arab Joint List should take all these considerations into account before it further demonizes the Abraham agreements. Its hostile approach is counter-productive, but it is still not too late to reassess its position.

About the Author
Sheldon Kirshner is a journalist in Toronto. He writes at his online journal, SheldonKirshner.com
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