Opinion

With Netanyahu in Oman’s Palaces, Regev in Abu Dhabi’s Mosques, Will Israelis Be Crowding Beirut’s Cafes Next?

The Israel taboo is disintegrating, at last. From BDS to the Arab and Muslim world boycott, isolating Israel has not prevented a single war, hasn't helped protect Palestinian lives or rights, hasn't brought a just solution to the conflict or reinforced moderate voices anywhere

Culture Minister Miri Regev visits the Sheikh Zayed Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, October 28, 2018.
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

A week ago, for the first time,the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, was played at an international sporting event hosted in the UAE after judoka Sagi Muki won a gold medal. 

The images of a tearful ministry of culture and sports Miri Regev in Abu Dhabi or Netanyahu shaking hands with Sultan Qaboos of Oman, that Friday might well be fodder for the current Israeli government's PR campaign.But that aside, any breach in the Arab world consensus against normalizing relations with Israel should be welcomed.

Paris BDS
THOMAS SAMSON/AFP

Almost all countries of the Arab League and many of the countries of the Organization of Islamic Cooperation take part in a systematic boycott of Israel, Israelis, and people linked to Israel. Despite the buzz over BDS in the last few years, the boycott is nothing new. 

This policy has remained an unquestioned consensus in the Arab World since its informal proclamation in 1933 with the boycott of Jewish-owned businesses in Mandatory Palestine, 15 years before Israel's establishment, and its formal enactment in 1945, one of the first decisions of the nascent Arab League. 

85 years later, the isolation of Israel and its exclusion from regional forums has not prevented a single war, hasn't helped protect Palestinian lives orrights, hasn't brought a just solution to the conflict or reinforced moderate voices anywhere. 

As a decade of a brutal blockade of Gaza proves, isolation and sanctions have never been an efficient way to push for change, yet questioning the isolation of Israel has remained one of the most absolute taboos in the region and the Muslim world, where suspected sympathies for Israel are often used as powerful conspiracist theory-fuelled arguments to discredit rivals.

From Algeria to Bangladesh, whether religious or secularists, Christian or Muslim, communists or nationalists, artists or business and STEM leaders, those openly meeting, sharing a stage, cooperating or just stating their appreciation for anything Israeli are far and few and often have to face, in addition to public shunning, concerns for their personal safety and in some cases serious legal consequences.  

Thus, athletes have preferred to step down or be eliminated rather than competing opposite Israelis, artists have preferred to have their movies or books not shown rather than having Israeli audiences, and scientists and business leaders have preferred to lose opportunities rather than collaborating with their Israeli colleagues. 

Normalization, a word abhorred in the Arab world and among many advocates of Palestinian rights, is a key to solving this "intractable conflict." Having now worked for many years on reconciliation and people to people initiatives between Israelis, Palestinians and others, in the field of economic development and science diplomacy, I can state that putting a face, a name and a voice on the "other," so often framed as "the enemy," is critical. 

Netanyahu looks at maps with Sultan Qaboos bin Said during his visit in Oman, October 2018
\ HANDOUT/ REUTERS

The Israeli-Palestinian, or Israeli-Arab, conflict, like any conflict, needs to be solved by political leaders via negotiations, concessions and sacrifices but peace can't work, and leaders can't afford to bet on peace, if the enemies haven't first learned to accept, humanize and trust each other. Those conversations might be difficult, the diverging point of views might never be reconciled but there is a lot more to gain than to lose. 

In every event I've participated, I witnessed how curious and keen people were to get to meet each other, learn about each other, and find out how similar they really are, in many ways. I saw firsthand that normalization has the power break stereotypes and the rhetoric of fear and hatred, accepted as facts by generations of Israelis, Palestinians and their Arab neighbors and used by their leaders to justify the lack of progress in the peace process. 

This experience is also supported by what’s called the intergroup contact theory, a field of study in social psychology based now on six decades of studies and empirical evidence that show the virtue of a certain form of mediated interaction between conflicting groups.

Shattering preconceived perceptions of the other and giving credence to his narrative is an important tool to overcome the zero-sum mentality, the bias that leads individuals and groups to think that they either loose it all or win it all, an characteristic of long protracted conflicts. 

Zero-sum thinking is also one of the most powerful rallying call for imposing loyalty and conformity and can explain the virulent opposition to dialogue initiatives from sections of the Israeli right and anti-normalization activists on the Palestinian side.

Israel will most likely continue to exist and prosper as a Jewish majority state in the heart of the Middle East, and it is in the Palestinian's and the Arab world's best interest that this happens in mutual exchange and cooperation among neighbors. 

It would be naïve not to see that the historical rapprochement between Gulf leaders and Israel is the result of regional realpolitik and shifting alliances more than a reconciliation of the peoples. It is also true that normalizing relations with Israel is not a priority in many parts of the Middle East in the midst of horrible and tragic wars. 

Israeli and Palestinian women march organized by the "Women Wage Peace" organization, near the Dead Sea. Oct. 8, 2017
Sebastian Scheiner/AP

However, the argument of the united front against Israel, and the commitment to an unflinching boycott, have often been used as justification for strong one-party regimes in all corners of the Middle East. Normalizing contact with Israel and Israelis, might be one of the steps towards the normalization of dissent and the building of a free public space in the Arab world. 

Lately, social media and the internet have allowed for some forms of contact between Israelis and their neighbors. Under the protection of anonymity a growing number of people in the Arab world have expressed their curiosity about Israel and Israeli culture and have started to reach a welcoming digital hand to individual Israelis. The relatively welcoming tone of many Gulf Twitter users to the recent visits by Israeli officials was another interesting indication.

Interestingly, and despite growing pressure and intimidation from anti-normalization activists, it is among Palestinians, whether citizens of Israel, East Jerusalemites or residents of the West Bank, that the boycott of Israel is less consensual. 

Palestinians, mostly Palestinian citizens of Israel, make up approximatively 20% of the student body in Israeli institutions of higher education, and the growing integration of Palestinians in the Israeli workforce at every level of responsibility, working side by side with Israeli Jews, has already shifted the perception of "the Arab other" among Israelis. 

AP/Ronen Zvulun

In my experience of organizing cooperation events with scientists and experts, Palestinians, including residents of Gaza, were much more willing to sharing a stage with their Israeli peers than residents of any other Arab state, often animated by the conviction that cooperation was necessary to tackle important issues of equal gravity and relevance to both sides.

The end goal should be that of a "warm peace," a peace of the peoples, when Israelis can openly visit the cafes of Ramallah, Cairo or Beirut, without the fear of being arrested, kidnapped or killed, and where Palestinians from Nablus, Ramallah and Hebron are free to travel to the sea in Jaffa without permits or checkpoints. Mobilizing the necessary coalitions to realize this vision requires normalization. 

I'm not under the illusion that the current Israeli government is dedicated to advancing the peace process or build trust with the Palestinians - and I don’t believe Miri Regev or Netanyahu's latest efforts were meant as a step in that direction.

But I am convinced that peace will be less unthinkable, and easier to imagine and achieve, when Israelis meeting with Palestinians, Hatikva being played in an Arab state, or an Israeli minister shaking hands with their Arab host, won’t be headline news anymore.

Jonas Moses is the Assistant Director of the Sharing Knowledge Foundation, a Swiss based non-profit that supports scientific cooperation and Science fo Peace initiatives in the Mediterranean region. Twitter: @JonasLustiger