The Gulf Should Normalize Ties With Israeli-Arabs | Opinion

As talk of Israel "annexing" territory in the West Bank has temporarily died down, attention ought to shift to other lingering issues in the broader Arab-Israeli reconciliation process—most notably, the role Israel's 1.7 million Arab inhabitants play the region.

While Israel increasingly coordinates with key Arab actors in ways unimaginable just years ago, not all of Israel is along for the ride. The greater Arab world continues to pretend that Israeli-Arabs do not exist. Recent acts of Palestinian self-sabotage, however, provide an opportunity to begin correcting this course.

Last week, an Etihad Airways plane carrying coronavirus aid for the Palestinians made history, with the first direct flight between Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Shortly thereafter, and keeping true to their history of rejectionism, the Palestinians made history as the only population to turn away such aid. Accepting the aid, the Palestinian Authority argued, would affirm increasingly normalized ties between the UAE and Israel. As they wish.

Instead of joining the Titanic-sized club of those who have tried cajoling the Palestinians to act in their best interest, the UAE should consider immediately redirecting the aid to Israeli-Arab communities. Not all will accept, but those who do can begin forging ties with one of the most important forces in the region.

In recent years, contact between Israel and the Sunni Gulf states has grown increasingly warm. Shared opposition to Iran's regional menacing, bolstered by shared disappointment over the Obama administration's conciliatory response, provided fertile grounds for the growing partnership of today.

But while security has been the driving force in bridging the gap between Jewish nationalism and moderate Sunni Islam, loftier aims of true coexistence have also emerged. In a 2018 interview with Jeffrey Goldberg of The Atlantic, Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman unequivocally affirmed Israel's right to exist—and some Saudi intellectuals, such as Abd-al-Hamid al-Ghabin, have already jumped into the fray, sketching out a convincing roadmap for formalizing Saudi-Israeli relations.

These are welcome developments for a region too often embroiled in ethnic conflict, but Israeli-Arabs should not get left behind as Jewish Israel integrates into the greater Middle East.

With their coronavirus aid currently collecting dust, the Emiratis can take the first small steps of building bridges with Israeli-Arabs. Ignoring this community, which is larger than the native populations of many Gulf states, makes little sense in an era when the Gulf increasingly embraces Jewish Israel.

Moving forward, more substantial ways to build ties should also be considered. For example, the Israeli-Arab village of Abu Ghosh, seen as a model of coexistence between Arab localities and neighboring Jewish communities, can establish "sister city" ties with Dubai or Abu Dhabi. And while Israel is home to the best universities in the region, the Gulf states can begin offering scholarships to talented Israeli-Arabs who wish to be at the forefront of the emerging Israeli-Gulf relationship.

Cultural and educational ties will be pivotal, but economic ties will be key. This year, for example, Israel will participate in Dubai's Expo 2020, slated to be the largest trade fair in the world. While it's imperative that there be some Israeli-Arab representation at this key event, the Gulf should think bigger than a trade fair.

Dubai, U.A.E.
Dubai, U.A.E. KARIM SAHIB/AFP via Getty Images

Numerous Israeli-Arab towns would welcome establishing free trade zones with the Gulf states, which could be incorporated into the Israeli government's current objectives for developing Arab communities. Likewise, the Gulf should consider recruiting Israeli-Arab-owned companies for their own free trade zones, particularly in the UAE, which has been a regional pioneer for this economic practice.

Traditional thinking often held that the Palestinians would serve as Israel's gateway to the Gulf and greater Arab world following a final status agreement, but with no bilateral solution to the Palestinian-Israeli confict in sight, it makes sense for Israel to pursue other avenues. Likewise, the Gulf is increasingly losing patience with the Palestinians, and the charade of rejecting the coronavirus aid has only reinforced this sentiment. Israeli-Arabs, not the Palestinians, should be considered the possible bridging community for establishing stronger regional ties.

Whether all Israeli-Arabs ultimately remain part of Israel, or some alternative arrangements are also considered as contemplated by President Trump's unveiled peace plan, they will regardless remain part of the Arab world. The Gulf should begin building ties.

Matthew Mainen is a Washington resident fellow at the Middle East Forum.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.