Amid Arab normalization, Israel should make peace with Palestinians

Ending the occupation and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are firmly in Israel’s national self-interest.

PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in Nazareth earlier this month. (photo credit: GIL ELIYAHU/REUTERS)
PRIME MINISTER Benjamin Netanyahu visits a coronavirus vaccination facility in Nazareth earlier this month.
(photo credit: GIL ELIYAHU/REUTERS)
A normalization process is underway both at home and abroad.  
Domestically, in a bid to add a few more mandates to his belt ahead of the upcoming election, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is spearheading the drive toward a “new era of prosperity, integration and security” in Jewish-Arab relations. Meanwhile, overseas, as part of the burgeoning Abraham Accords, an outpouring of warmth has been extended by Bibi to prominent regional Arab actors who have been lauded as new diplomatic, economic and cultural allies.
Months prior to this, it was impossible to predict that formal annexation of the West Bank would be chucked out the window and that in its place Netanyahu would be embracing Gulf Arabs. Nor was it predictable that his former campaign rhetoric focused on vilifying Arab-Israelis would be transformed into a serious effort to win the Arab vote. In both scenarios, the language of dialogue, friendship and partnership has replaced that of division and exclusion.
So, if Arabs can become legitimate partners almost overnight; if a former adversary can be reconfigured as an ally in the pursuit of strategic interests; and if long-held prejudices can be set aside for the benefit of newfound cooperation, it begs the important question: What about our Arab neighbors next door, the Palestinians?
Ending the occupation and resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict are firmly in Israel’s national self-interest. Instead, a seemingly “comfortable” strategy of conflict management is pursued as the status quo ticks on. Relegated to the fringes of the public debate and bumped to the bottom of governmental priorities, the lack of urgency is illustrated by the near-absence in current election talk of any resolution to these issues.
The almost total radio silence is wholly disproportionate to the damage of daily and incremental conflict.  
Violent confrontations, such as those that rocked the month of December, are sharp reminders of the price paid in lives. But these flare-ups, despite their relentless nature, do little to prompt a change in tactics by our political leaders. In fact, the opposite occurs. In response to the murder of Esther Horgen, the government declared the construction of more settlements. This, and the swarm of new announcements this week, does little to ease the pain, and it certainly doesn’t prevent a recurrence. Rather, it papers over the cracks of the bleak reality and ignores the broader context that fuels this self-fulfilling cycle of anger and bloodshed.
IF RIGHT NOW, delivering healthcare and rescuing the economy are our most pressing concerns, then we must ask: Why is the government pouring millions of shekels into building new settlement units, constructing roads and other infrastructure beyond the Green Line? The cost of entrenching tighter control over the Palestinian territories and ensuring a presence there benefits the slim few at the expense of the many. Nor does it occur in a vacuum. Over the years, resources have been drained and social welfare budgets redirected toward defense. But still the violence continues.
Meanwhile as debates emerge – such as whether it’s Israel’s duty to vaccinate Palestinians, or if we have crossed the point of no return into the apartheid abyss – the moral premise of unremitting control over the land will cast a heavy shadow. As an occupying power, Israel will have to grapple with more difficult questions like these that brandish its faults to the international community. Internally, Israel will be forced to find new ways of reconciling its Jewish and democratic deficit to itself.
The Palestinian public wants peace, just like we do, and most support the two-state solution. Despite internal criticism, Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas resumed civil and security cooperation with Israel. He continues to vocally object to terrorism and determinedly seeks diplomatic channels for a resolution to the conflict. In recent weeks, we have also witnessed a serious attempt to strengthen internal governance and advance reforms regarding the controversial payments to prisoners, in an effort to wipe the slate clean as President Biden makes his mark. These moves make progress increasingly possible.
If Netanyahu can turn former “adversaries” into partners overnight as part of a strategy to pursue national interests, then the “no partner for peace” narrative that has hijacked the conversation for far too long and absolves us from engaging with the Palestinians must also be urgently revisited. This is especially true when ending the conflict is unquestionably in the interests and common good of both parties, and when the zone of possible agreement creates genuine room for dialogue and progress.  
The greatest achievement of any Israeli government will be forging a peace agreement with the Palestinians. For Netanyahu, it will bring him unprecedented internal support from his new local Arab partners, and even greater external backing from current and future regional players.  
“If Jews and Arabs can dance together in the streets of Dubai, they can dance together here in Israel,” the prime minister said last week in Nazareth. So, Bibi, why not make it a hat trick and extend the hand of peace to those who live next door in Ramallah?  
The writer is the director of foreign relations for the Geneva Initiative.