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Aaron Cohen-Gold
Deputy Director, ELNET UK

The winds of change are not so distant

Secretary Blinken participates in the Negev Forum involving Israel, the UAE, Bahrain, Egypt, Morocco and the USA. Copyright owned by Freddie Everett.
Regional leaders join the Negev Forum. Copyright owned by Freddie Everett.

The situation in Israel, Gaza and Lebanon stands at an inflection point. Even while the war against Hamas goes on, and even while the needs of Gaza’s civilians trigger greater global action, there is an increasing sense of frustration and endurance in the air.

A full IDF operation against Hamas positions in Rafah hasn’t yet begun but seems closer than ever. The establishment of new maritime and land corridors for the delivery of humanitarian supplies to Gaza hasn’t yet been established but the work to deliver these corridors has commenced. A full scale war between Hezbollah and Israel hasn’t yet materialised but the former’s attacks on northern Israel grow with every week. US and UK airstrikes have managed to prevent a widening of Houthi terror in the Red Sea but the latter’s months-long assault against global trade vessels remains. A Gaza ceasefire deal, largely agreed by Israel, has been on the table for weeks though Hamas has yet to sign it. In all spheres, diplomatic, military, and humanitarian, there is a sense that we’re on the cusp of a new stage of this war.

With anti-Semitism and Islamophobia also rising worldwide, it is easy and understandable to lose hope and to think that the prospects for peace between Israelis and Arabs, Israelis and Palestinians, Jews and Muslims, is further away than ever. And you can see why. This conflict has plunged Israeli Jews and Palestinian Arabs back into their deepest founding fears and traumas. The genocidal Hamas rampage of 7 October took Israelis and Jews worldwide back to Europe’s Nazi death squads, the pogroms of Russian Cossacks and the violent expulsion of Middle Eastern Jews from their homes. Israel’s response against Hamas, and its effort to move millions of Palestinian civilians out of harm’s way, vividly returned Palestinian Arabs to the days of their own displacement in 1948, ripping the band aid off painful wounds. The punches of today are landing on intergenerational injuries and suffering for both peoples. Escaping this reality, which was brutally thrust into being by Hamas on 7 October, will be painful and complex.

Yet, the recent winds of change which too many in Europe dismissed but which brought about three peace treaties between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, and Morocco, continue to be felt. These are the same winds of change that recently ushered an Israeli Arab party, whose constitution commits itself to Conservative Islam, into an Israeli government for the first time. Amidst the gloom, there are in fact fledgling reasons for optimism in this region – and it is these that may eventually pave the way out of the current war. We must now revisit these reasons to help map ourselves out of today’s tragic and deadly conflict.

Let’s take the question of Jewish-Muslim cooperation and integration within Israel, a country with two million Arab citizens. In October, the leader of Israel’s joint-largest Arab political party wrote thatsince the peace efforts have collapsed in recent years…our role under these circumstances as Palestinian Arabs and citizens of Israel has become greater and the need for us more essential. We can act as a future bridge for reconciliation and peace between the two peoples”. He has since called on armed Palestinian terror groups to disarm in order to help bring about a Palestinian state. While it is true that there remain deep pockets of hostility toward Israel in some quarters of the Israeli Arab community, and pockets of discrimination against it, such public statements were once unthinkable. And while they may not yet be mainstream, they are slowly reflecting a more popular reality in which Israel’s Arabs are taking a greater ownership of and role in their Israeli identity.

Shortly after the 7 October attacks, the Israel Democracy Institute found the highest-ever number of Israeli Arabs answering ‘yes’ to the question of whether they felt part of the State of Israel. This follows a decade of record-breaking waiting lists for joint Israeli-Jewish-Arab schools, a record high number of Arab Bedouin’s volunteering for the IDF, and an even more noteworthy number of Israeli Arab volunteers to the IDF in 2020, steadily up sixty-fold in the prior decade. It should come as no surprise then that last week, on the floor of the UN General Assembly, it was a Muslim Israeli-Arab who took the Palestinian Ambassador to task for Hamas’ failure to agree a ceasefire deal (Hamas continue to hold his family hostage and treat many Israeli Arabs as collaborators). Such public scenes, conducted by Israeli Arabs openly in the defence of Israel, are relatively unprecedented. While today’s tension has undoubtedly spurred friction, especially as the humanitarian crisis in Gaza grows and as Hamas calls on its supporters to escalate attacks over Ramadan, there are voices echoing through Israel’s Muslim society that indicate the recent winds of change haven’t dissipated. As the Director of Israel’s Sharia Courts told Israeli media last week, “we are all citizens of the same country, and we should know each other and get closer to each other. There is much in common between Judaism and Islam.”

At the same time, and in spite of the worst Israeli-Palestinian war since Israel’s founding in 1948, those Arab countries who normalised relations with Israel under the umbrella of the Abraham Accords in 2020 haven’t lost the desire for reconciliation. As the UAE’s top Presidential Advisor told a regional conference in January, the Emirates took a durable and “strategic decision” to normalise relations with Israel “and strategic decisions are [for the] long-term”. These relations have since been leveraged by Morocco to open a new aid corridor from Israel into Gaza, by the Emirati Air Force to fly over Israel and deliver aid to Gaza’s civilians in need, and by the Saudis who have suggested normalising relations with Israel if steps toward a Palestinian state can be negotiated. Little to none of this would have been possible had Hamas’ assault occurred four years earlier. The strategic spectacle of Israel being able to negotiate with powerful, influential Arab countries in order to advance regional cooperation and reconciliation with the Palestinians is an equation that could play a hugely significantly role in post-war Gaza. If Israel is able to engage regional allies on its post-war education, reconstruction, governance and border security plans in Gaza, as has been suggested by some Gulf states themselves, then the prospects for durable quiet and perhaps one day peace in the Strip and Israel would be given a huge boost.

When taken together with the forces of change in domestic Israeli-Arab society there are reasons for optimism in and out of Israel if we dare look for them. While regional Israeli-Arab normalisation is not an alternative to Israeli-Palestinian peace it could – and perhaps should – be a necessary piece of the puzzle to achieve it. And while Arab-Jewish cooperation within Israel is not universal nor a prerequisite for Israeli-Palestinian negotiations, it too could play a central role here. Rather than dismiss Israel out of hand without giving pause to reflect on its concerns, diverse society, and needs, now is the time for policymakers to better understand these forces of change and explore why they are occurring and how we can encourage them further. They are perhaps the best available route out of today’s stasis and toward the creation of a safe Israel alongside a viable Palestinian state. If this vision is our goal, then grasping a strong hold of these trends should be a top priority in the difficult months and years that lie ahead.

About the Author
Aaron Cohen-Gold is the Deputy Director of ELNET UK, which works to improve and expand UK-Israel-Europe relations. He previously worked as a Political Affairs consultant for the MHP Group (a leading UK communications agency), as Government Affairs Manager at the University of Cambridge, and for three Members of Parliament. He is also serving terms on the WJC Jewish Diplomatic Corps & Board of Deputies of British Jews.