Opinion |

With anti-Palestinian Hostility Surging, Can Israel’s Peace Camp Find Allies in the Gulf?

As normalization sweeps the Gulf, Israeli anti-occupation activists face a new fight for relevance, influence and partnerships in an unfamiliar, often dissonant environment. It won’t be easy

Katie Wachsberger
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1,000 pro-peace, anti-occupation activists block the road in front of the Likud headquarters building in Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. April 8, 2018
1,000 pro-peace, anti-occupation activists block the road in front of the Likud headquarters building in Tel Aviv to protest Israel’s conflict with Hamas in Gaza. April 8, 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod
Katie Wachsberger

Since the signing of the Abraham Accords, activists and institutions from the Israeli peace camp have been forced to reconsider their approach to the conflict.

With the normalization of relations between Israel and two Gulf states, with more states waiting in the wings, the dynamics of Middle East politics are changing, and old paradigms and ways of working need to be rethought. The ambitions of the United Arab Emirates and other GCC states to play an increasingly critical role in regional conflicts, and not only Israel-Palestine, mean this is a crucial and ongoing necessity.

To engage with this new reality, and ensure its relevance and influence, the Israeli peace camp – Israeli and joint Israeli-Palestinian initiatives that work towards ending the occupation and promote peace between Israel and the Palestinians – needs to upgrade its understanding of the Gulf, its external and domestic politics, its civil society, how the issues of the occupation and Palestinian rights plays out in those societies, and how to build common ground.

What local needs and interests intersect with the peace camp's goals? Can Israeli groups effectively engage with Gulf partners without compromising their own liberal democratic values, or jeopardizing the credibility of those Arab partners? 

Israeli PM Netanyahu, U.S. President Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Al Khalifa and United Arab Emirates Foreign Minister al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House. Sept. 15, 2020
Israeli PM Netanyahu, US President Trump, Bahrain Foreign Minister Al Khalifa and UAE Foreign Minister al-Nahyan after signing the Abraham Accords at the White House. September 15, 2020.Credit: Alex Brandon,AP

Traditionally, anti-occupation initiatives have focused their outreach almost exclusively on policy circles in the U.S. and the EU. They have neglected the social, cultural, and even political phenomena shaking the region's most powerful players. 

That’s not surprising. There is a deep dissonance between the democratic values of the peace camp and the top-down structures of many Middle Eastern regimes.

To a large extent, the peace camp has dismissed the utility of coalition-building with undemocratic states and their people, on the basis that only democratic nations can support peace building. But that approach crucially disregards the agency of social actors and enterprise that function independently of government entities. 

And it disregards momentous sociocultural changes taking place in the Gulf, particularly in the UAE and Saudi Arabia.

A new generation of highly educated, informed, and internationally-minded young people are rising to influential positions, and their rejection of old, claustrophobic orthodoxies mean they’re willing to break discursive and ideological boundaries and offer innovative social and cultural change. Because these people act within the boundaries of their societies, it is easy, yet simplistic, to regard them as ineffective.

There is a wider fault to the peace camp’s sole focus on thought-leaders and influencers in Europe and the U.S, rather than in the Middle East. It essentially reinforced Israel's isolation in the region, and failed to engage with the connection between the Israeli-Palestinian and the Israeli-Arab world conflicts.

So how can Israel’s peace camp explore potential partnerships and establish its influence in this newly reconfigured region?

Firstly, it’s essential to understand how the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and peace-building, is talked about in the Gulf. And it’s essential to think about how new ideas are introduced into Khaleeji (Gulf) discourse. 

Israel's national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani after signing an agreement establishing formal diplomatic relations in Bahrain. Oct. 18, 2020
Israel's national security adviser Meir Ben-Shabbat with Bahrain's Foreign Minister Abdullatif al-Zayani after signing an agreement establishing formal diplomatic relations in Bahrain. Oct. 18, 2020.Credit: Ronen Zvulun,AP

The official stances of the Emirates and Bahrain, as of now, embrace reconciliation with Israel, while urging justice and self determination for Palestinians. While it is still unclear whether and how their official pro-two state solution policies will translate into policy, this position could effectively act as a green light for government-affiliated organizations to become involved in peace-building activities.

However, as the Palestinian leadership continually publicizes official statements attacking Gulf leaders, this official stance is becoming increasingly difficult to maintain. In response, hostility in the Gulf toward the Palestinian cause is becoming more vocal, and more brutal

If the tension between Palestinian and Gulf leaders is subdued, and this official policy is maintained, we may witness the gradual involvement of government-sponsored academia, cultural organizations, and social initiatives in people-to-people projects between the Gulf and both Israel and Palestine, with direct Khaleeji government support for such efforts further down the line.

But if this tension continues to build and eventually manifest in mutual boycotting, any attempts at official Emirati or Bahraini involvement in peace initiatives may be jeopardized to the point of no return.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the heavyweight boxing match between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in Diriya, near the Saudi capital. December 07, 2019
Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman attending the heavyweight boxing match between Andy Ruiz Jr. and Anthony Joshua in Diriya, near the Saudi capital. December 7, 2019.Credit: BANDAR AL-JALOUD - AFP

As economic partnerships and the joint execution of research and industrial projects ramp up, the opportunity for the involvement of private Gulf individuals and collectives with Israeli civil society may also materialize.

But there will be constraints: those efforts will need to fit with the centralized messaging of Gulf governments, seen as backing their national interest, burnishing their international image and fitting in with their regional geopolitics. 

These efforts would also need to align with current GCC frameworks for philanthropic and charitable initiatives, which are shaped to keep such projects in sync with official interests at home and overseas. 

There are other obstacles to incorporating Gulf actors into Israel-Palestine peacebuilding initiatives.

Firstly, and most significantly, the Palestinian leadership, as well as many Palestinians in the West Bank, Gaza and abroad, consistently reject unconditional Gulf normalization with Israel. Palestinians cannot see how this bold new Middle East will help them, tangibly, achieve statehood or equal rights, and thus, many of them refuse to engage. 

Palestinian protesters tear apart a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound at a protest against the Israel - UAE agreement, August 14, 2020.
Palestinian protesters tear apart a portrait of Abu Dhabi Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahyan at the al-Aqsa mosque compound at a protest against the agreement, August 14, 2020. Credit: AFP

That will make it extremely difficult for any organization seeking to build bridges and trust between Israelis and Palestinians to extend their scope to the Gulf. Unless it is very clear to them how a given regional initiative will help Palestinians to achieve their collective aspirations, such collaboration will be difficult to carry out.  

Secondly, there is a barrier of knowledge and awareness. The majority of Emiratis and Bahrainis have little information of exposure even to the existence of Israeli peacebuilding efforts, and of those that do, many express doubt and apprehension regarding their true intentions. 

The notion that a steadfast political minority in Israel rejects the occupation of Palestinian territory remains far fetched for most Middle East neighbors. There are very few initiatives to raise awareness of Israeli efforts to end the occupation; a firmer knowledge and familiarity with the Israel peace camp’s history and activism could entice pro-Palestinian Gulf citizens to see these Israeli groups as an important channel for solidarity and cooperation to bring about a just solution. 

Thirdly, there has been an upsurge of popular anti-Palestinian sentiment throughout the UAE and Saudi Arabia and, to a lesser extent, Bahrain. There are many regional factors that fuel these sentiments, expressed mostly in social media, but they are also encouraged by big domestic efforts to support online campaigns that push the legitimacy of new policies. 

Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan during an October 2020 Al Arabiya TV series in which he called Palestinians 'liars, cheats and ungrateful'
Former Saudi intelligence chief and ex-ambassador to the U.S. Prince Bandar bin Sultan during an October 2020 Al Arabiya TV series in which he called Palestinians 'liars, cheats and ungrateful' Credit: Screenshot

The regional factors for anti-Palestinian sentiment are significant. Turkey and Qatar, portrayed as opponents of the pro-normalization Gulf states, present themselves as keen backers of the Palestinian cause and of Palestinian leaders opposed to normalization (despite their official and unofficial ties with Israel, respectively). President Trump, a popular figure in normalizing states, is a vocal supporter of hawkish Israeli policies. 

When Gulf state allies line up on Israel’s side, and Gulf state opponents stand with the Palestinians, it’s not a big jump for Gulf popular sentiment to adopt harsh condemnation of the Palestinian cause, juxtaposed with praise for normalization with Israel. This is a reality over which Israeli peace camp has little influence. 

Fourthly, Israel’s peace camp needs to confront the wide and deep restrictions on free expression that is characteristic of the Gulf. The lack of a public square with anything like the energetic, argumentative character of the Israeli political environment is just one part of the equation. 

Gulf publics have long been inculcated with a binary view of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, as Palestine vs Israel, a zero-sum game. Now the official narrative has reversed, with ‘ally’ Israel vs Palestine, but it’s still perceived as a binary. The whole purpose of the peace camp is to shake those dichotomies and elevate peace-making where there is no single distinct winner or loser, and to create coalitions which cross national lines. 

This 'messiness,' multilateralism and complexity, generates apprehension among Gulf locals. Because Israeli anti-occupation initiatives do not fit neatly into binary perceptions of the occupation, those who can’t afford to be ideological pioneers – meaning, the majority of the population – will choose to identify with the official state stance (which has reserved the right to remain silent, so far at least, in terms of anti-occupation activism) or, alternatively, with existing pro-Palestinian movements.

Those who have the economic or cultural capital to afford novel and pioneering ideas – intellectuals, diplomats, social entrepreneurs or wealthy business people – could represent important foundational partnerships. 

Given the lack of political pluralism in the GCC, most Khaleejis do not consider non-state actors, organizations and individuals working outside of the official realm, to be significant or reliable in affecting change.

Moreover, the image of civil society organizations has been badly affected by the precedent of the Muslim Brotherhood, which coopted influential civil society tools and educational initiatives to inculcate radical Islamist ideology. That created an association of non-state actors with a threat to national unity, identity and security: several Gulf states, including the UAE and Saudi Arabia, have designated the Muslim Brotherhood as a terrorist organization.

A man reading the UAE-based newspaper The National, headlined with news of the U.S.-brokered UAE-Israel normalization deal. Near the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, August 14, 2020.
A man reading the UAE-based newspaper The National, headlined with news of the U.S.-brokered UAE-Israel normalization deal. Near the Burj Khalifa, Dubai, August 14, 2020.Credit: AFP

It is too early to predict whether the peacebuilding initiatives that have existed for decades between Israelis and Palestinians will gain traction with Gulf governments and societies, and how far they will be tolerated. It is clear that the first step toward expanding Israel’s peace camp to include cooperation with the Gulf requires a major effort to raise awareness of what Israeli-Palestinian coalition-building actually looks like. 

But all of this will also require some degree of pushback against the disappearance of the Palestinian issue in the rush to normalization.

It’s quite an irony that after more than half a century of the Arab world’s pro-Palestinian advocacy, solidarity boycotts and wars with Israel, one of the Israeli peace camp’s key basic tasks must be pushing the region’s leaders and people to partner in advocating the centrality of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and how its continued conflict will damage, if not upend, the fine visions of a normalized future. 

One of the most effective ways to begin this partnership-building would be framing the resolution of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as in the national interest of both Israel and the Gulf states. In the interest of Israelis, who want to live without the threat of war and violence, and in the interest of its new Gulf allies – as a way to bring genuinely lasting peace and security to their people, and to the entire region.

Katie Wachsberger is an expert on the GCC and a research associate at the Forum for Regional Thinking. She is a consultant on regional trade and technology collaboration, and is a co-founder of the Jesour Cultural Foundation for Israel-Khaleej collaboration 

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