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A Deal With UAE? If Israeli Settlers Are Mad, It Must Be Good

Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy
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A view of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates
A view of Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab EmiratesCredit: Hamad I Mohammed/Reuters
Gideon Levy
Gideon Levy

The first instinct was apparently the healthier one: Right after the announcement that Israel and the United Arab Emirates would be establishing diplomatic relations, West Bank settlement activists swept through the broadcast studios and “expressed rage” – lamenting, threatening and whining, as is their custom. That was the moment when every justice-seeking Israeli would think that perhaps something positive had been done here.

True, settler activists whine and complain all the time – some of them even whined about the annexation; and granted, the practice of inviting them to a studio every time something happens is flawed. Why not also call on a human rights activist or a member of the Arab community in Israel? Might they not have something to say about the suspension of the annexation? In Israel, they talk only to settlers about the future of the occupation, as if it involves only them.

All that was followed by the grumpy responses from the left: It was peace with a country that we are not at war with, a corrupt regime, Deputy Prime Minister Benny Gantz was not informed, Shimon Peres had already been to Oman, and of course, this was a series of election tricks and diversions on the part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.

In addition, there was one important and serious claim, that this was a move that would bury resolution of the Palestinian problem. The Palestinians have once again been tossed bleeding on the sidelines of history, another Arab betrayal of them and another victory for those who believe that the occupation can continue forever while new alliances are forged in the Middle East. It's a weighty argument that can’t be ignored. When Israelis fly to Dubai to shop, Gaza cancer patients will continue to die for lack of treatment in Rafah, and in Jenin, Israeli soldiers will continue to shoot Palestinian women standing at their windows.

And yet, give credit where credit is due for this diplomatic step. In Israel today, not one statesman has the slightest intention of bringing about the end of the occupation. The Palestinians are at their lowest point since their disaster in 1948, and the cure for their situation is more distant than ever before. This is a given that can’t be changed in the current domestic and international reality. But that being said, we may still see a faint, weak glimmer of light in the suspension of the annexation and the establishment of ties with the Emirates.

Any attempt by Israel to be accepted by non-violent means in the neighborhood that it stomped into about a century ago is a positive development. If the neighborhood bully shows signs of different, non-violent behavior, this is a good thing. Large parts of the neighborhood have long been ready to accept Israel, but Israel turned its back on its neighbors, whether through violence or arrogance or by ignoring their needs.

Open relations with the Gulf states, wealthy and corrupt as they are, is not the ultimate wish, but it could produce positive results. Every Arab flag that flies in Tel Aviv and every Israeli who witnesses Arab progress in Abu Dhabi will help root out deeply held stereotypes.

An Arab country that has sent a satellite into space and whose skyscrapers are the most sophisticated in the world can astound those who know only two types of Arabs, terrorists and construction workers. Suddenly, there’s Arab innovation. Prime Minister Netanyahu has already talked about this.

Nor can Israel treat the pilgrims from Dubai the way it treats pilgrims from Nablus. All of a sudden, it will have to show respect to Arabs and treat them like human beings. The days when tens of thousands of Israelis visited the Khan el-Khalili market in Cairo were also good for peace and bad for hatred.

The people who suspect that Netanyahu cooked up this move out of selfish motives are probably also right. This is another reason to be in favor of it: If Netanyahu thinks that the establishment of ties with an Arab country is a move that serves him, there’s a chance he wouldl make additional similar moves.

Netanyahu will never allow the establishment of a Palestinian state or democracy in the occupied territories. But better a Netanyahu who suspends the annexation and signs an agreement with an Arab country than a Netanyahu who embarks on a cruel assault on Gaza, or war in Lebanon or who bombs Iran. It's the Netanyahu version of make peace not war. It's very little, but it's better than nothing.

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