After peace abroad, Israel needs peace at home - opinion

Does our government invest even a fraction of what it invests in peace with Arab states in the reconciliation that is needed between Israelis and the different sectors that make up this country?

AN ISRAELI poses with Emiratis in Dubai last week. It’s time to pay attention to Arabs who live here, too. (photo credit: REUTERS/CHRISTOPHER PIKE)
AN ISRAELI poses with Emiratis in Dubai last week. It’s time to pay attention to Arabs who live here, too.
 A few weeks ago, three luxury cars pulled up alongside the beach promenade in central Tel Aviv – a Porsche, an Audi, and a third sports car. Inside, the men were wearing what looked like the traditional Emirati Kandura robes and Ghutra headscarves, while the car speakers were booming some of the latest Arab music hits in the United Arab Emirates.
Israelis stood by in awe. Some asked for pictures. At one point it grew into a line of people wanting a selfie with the visitors from the UAE.
Someone took a video of the group, which immediately went viral. But these were not tourists from the UAE, Israel’s new peace partner in the Middle East. These were Arab-Israelis from the town of Kafr Kassem just a 30-minute drive away. It was all a prank.
I thought of the group from Kafr Kassem this past week during my first visit to Dubai. I went there for two days of meetings with our new partners from the Khaleej Times, ahead of two conferences we are planning together in January and February.
It is hard as an Israeli not to be moved when walking the streets of Dubai, sitting in coffee shops or meeting in restaurants. I sat at an outdoor cafe for a meeting on Monday; at the table next to me was an Emirati couple, at the table behind was a Muslim family from Africa and sitting around the table in front of me was a Muslim family from somewhere in Asia.
In the hotel lobbies, Emirati men speaking Arabic walked past Israeli children wearing kippot. Hebrew could be heard all over downtown, where tens of thousands of Israelis had descended as part of the flood of tourists coming to one of the only “green” countries left to visit.
It was moving for me, because as an Israeli journalist, I finally had the opportunity to visit a country that I had written about countless times, albeit from the abstract perspective of what I was told by Israeli, American or even Emirati officials in Europe or the US.
I had written about arms sales to the UAE and their impact on Israel’s qualitative military edge, as well as secret Mossad operations that had taken place there and throughout the wider Gulf. Now here I was walking near the hotel in Dubai I had written about 11 years before, the place where Mossad assassins were said to have killed top Hamas commander Mahmoud al-Mabhouh.
It is true that Israelis have been visiting the Gulf for decades, but for the most part those visits were by discreet government officials or businessmen flying on a non-Israeli passport. This week, I saw Israelis with kippot sitting in the kosher restaurant that opened a few months ago in the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and walking through the quaint spice souk negotiating the price of Arabic coffee with Iranian stall owners.
To fly over Saudi Arabia – a country that for decades we were told would never recognize Israel without a resolution to the conflict with the Palestinians – shows what the future still holds. The region truly is realigning before our eyes, and to see it in Dubai removes any cynicism – even if Israeli tourists are already leaving their mark there and not always in a positive way (about half a dozen Israelis have been arrested for theft and prostitution, but for now the authorities are preferring to close these cases quietly).
As moving as all this might be, I couldn’t stop thinking about Hamada Odeh, the Arab-Israeli from Kafr Kassem who organized the hoax a couple of weeks ago in Tel Aviv.
While Odeh might have just been having fun, the deeper point he was inadvertently making was that in Israel we already see Arabs every day. We work alongside them, we hear their music, we eat their food, but here is the difference: we don’t get excited. On the contrary – we are suspicious. Jewish-Israelis don’t stop Arabs in the Old City of Jerusalem, in Acre or in Kafr Kassem to take a selfie. Mostly they just move out of the way.
There are a lot of reasons why. There is the highly-charged emotional baggage Jewish-Israelis and Arab-Israelis each carry from years of discord, conflict and discrimination. With Palestinians, the tension is even greater.
Relations with the Emiratis on the other hand come with a clean slate. There is no emotional baggage. There is no past war that we all carry the scars from in our hearts or on our bodies. No one accuses anyone there of taking their land, and no one there has tried to blow up a bus or a restaurant.
This is why there is excitement. It is excitement because a visit to Dubai shows what is possible for Israel in the Middle East, how the Jewish state can be accepted as an equal in a region where Israelis have always felt like outsiders alongside neighbors bent on their destruction. Some, sadly, have yet to abandon that ambition.
This is heartwarming to see, but it is hard not to wonder what is possible closer to home, in our own backyard. Peace with the UAE, Bahrain, Sudan and now Morocco are all huge achievements. But what about peace in our country and among our own citizens? Does our government invest even a fraction of what it invests in peace with Arab states in the reconciliation that is needed between Israelis and the different sectors that make up this country – Arabs, haredim (ultra-Orthodox), Druze, secular, National-Religious and others?
I think we all know the answer, and it is disheartening. The government today doesn’t care to try and unite between Israelis, even if that is what is truly needed. Instead, due to the endless cycle of political instability, politicians use the divide to their advantage. They exacerbate it for political gain and benefit. It serves them even if it doesn’t serve us, the people who they are meant to serve.
Jewish-Israelis don’t have to take selfies with Arab-Israelis like they might do with Emirati Arabs on the streets of Dubai. But they also don’t have to look at them suspiciously and as an adversary as continues to be the case today. A visit to Dubai shows what is possible – not just in Dubai, but also back in Israel.
UNLESS THERE is some last-minute Hanukkah-style miracle, Israel is heading toward a new election. The government needs to pass a budget in the Knesset by Tuesday, or failure to do so means automatic election.
While both sides seem at an impasse, in politics it is always wise to never underestimate humanity’s most basic instinct: survival.
Alternate Prime Minister Benny Gantz reads polls and hears what people say about him. He knows there is a good chance he will not cross the electoral threshold in the new election, and that even if he does, it will be with just a handful of seats – five or six.
For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, whose trial is about to kick into high gear, there is genuine concern over Gideon Sa’ar’s new party and its potential to cannibalize Likud. No less concerning is the possibility that Sa’ar and Naftali Bennett might merge their parties. Under that scenario, the combined party could pull more than 30 seats and become the nation’s largest, far ahead of Netanyahu’s Likud.
Such an outcome would likely lead to a Netanyahu resignation. While Likud would be able to join a Sa’ar- or Bennett-led coalition, Netanyahu – who would be on trial – would not be able to legally serve as a minister. He would be a simple MK on trial, and would likely resign and try to quickly reach a plea deal.
Is this enough of an incentive to get Bennett and Sa’ar to join forces? Maybe. But not yet. Both still believe that they are better off alone than with the other, with each vying individually to be the one who replaces Netanyahu.
In contrast to Sa’ar, who has publicly declared that he will not sit with Netanyahu, Bennett has refused to say so. This is part of a strategy to position himself in something of a gray zone on Israel’s political landscape. On the one side are the “Only Bibi” parties – Likud, Shas and United Torah Judaism. On the other side are the “Only Not Bibi” parties – Yesh Atid, Sa’ar, Yisrael Beytenu and the Joint List.
When it comes to the Bibi question, Bennett is the only one who still retains political versatility. While politicians often promise one thing and then do the opposite (e.g., Gantz and his promise not to sit with Netanyahu), Bennett is trying to promote this position as someone who is interested in what is best for Israel, and that could mean any number of political alliances.
It is not about the personality, he is trying to say; it is about the agenda.
On paper that might sound nice, but in reality, this is a hard pitch to make. Israelis are legitimately suspicious of their politicians and their agendas, and the idea that one politician is more sincere than another is hard to believe, whether it is true or not.
An election might end up being exactly what Israel needs. Will a new election produce change? It is still too early to tell, but whatever happens we have to remember the normalization that will be needed in its aftermath.
Not with a country a three-hour flight away, but here within – between Tel Aviv and Kfar Kassem, between Ramat Hasharon and Bnei Brak. Let’s make peace at home.