Friday, April 30, 2021

The Future of Arab-Israeli Relations: A Middle East Common Market?

Israeli-Palestinian relations remain contentious.  Recent demonstrations held by Palestinians who celebrate Ramadan at the Damascus Gate in Jerusalem each year resulted after  who police erected fences in part of the area.  Clashes broke out with the police, and an anti-Arab youth group affiliated with a far-right party joined the fray.  Hamas followed the clashes with rocket attacks on southern Israel eliciting an Israeli bombing of the launch sites.  


This past week, Human Rights Watch Report criticizing Israeli government’s treatment of Palestinians.  The Israeli government was accused on imposing an Apartheid system on Palestinian residents of East Jerusalem and the Palestine National Authority (West Bank). 


Viewed from afar, these events suggest that, when it comes to the Arab-Israeli relations, tous ca change, tous c’est le meme chose.  However, an event which has been given relatively little attention may suggest a way forward for these relations to improve.  Despite a disastrous and largely incoherent foreign policy, one positive step by the Trump administration was fostering the establishment of diplomatic relations between Israel and the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain.

It is noteworthy that, soon after relations were in place, large numbers of Israelis boarded airplanes to visit the UAE.  What they discovered was a well-run and prosperous country where local Emiratis welcomed them.  The Emirates and Bahrain’s authoritarian political systems notwithstanding, the following question arises: what might the impact be of expanded ties between Arab states and Israel?  


I am particularly interested in exploring the impact of these new relations on Israel’s domestic politics and its impact on its Palestinian Israeli minority. It is often forgotten that one of very 5 Israeli citizens is of Palestinian Arab heritage.  


Discrimination notwithstanding, many Palestinian Israelis have been able to benefit from Israel’s excellent university system. A not insignificant segment of young Palestinian Israelis have prospered and developed their own start-ups and entrepreneurial ventures.  Others have been trained in important professions such as engineering and computer science. 


As economic ties increase between the UAE, Bahrain and other Arab Gulf states, these Arab youth can look to a more promising future.  Having the professional and business skills, and the advantage of Arabic language fluency and the understanding of Arab culture, Palestinian Israelis can expect that the emerging economic ties between Israel and the Arab Gulf will bring greater financial benefits to Israel’s Arab minority.   What might these benefits look like and could they impact Israeli politics? 


One likely impact of the ties Israel has gradually been establishing with Arab countries, especially the UAE, is to bring more financial investments and resources to the Palestinian Israeli community.  If Arab businesses can expand their ventures, then they would be able to hire larger numbers of Palestinian Israelis. With the new diplomatic ties in place, Israel’s Arab citizens are now able to export and sell products in the UAE.

 How might such economic developments affect the political landscape in Israel?  During Israel’s March 2021 elections we saw something quite remarkable take place.  Benjamin Netanyahu, who in the past has used fear of Arab voters supporting center-left parties to mobilize voters on the right, had found himself embroiled in a series of elections, none of which has allowed him to form a stable government.   


Thus, it was highly significant that he turned to an Arab party – Islamist no less – in his effort (still ongoing as of this writing) to reach the magic number of 61 seats in the Israeli Knesset which would allow him to remain as prime minister. The very fact that the Arab party in question has indicated that to would be willing to join a Likud government indicates that Palestinian Israelis have realized that remaining on the political sidelines will not bring them improvements in their lives which they seek. 


In other words, Arab legitimation of participating in coalitions with Jewish political parties in Israel has also made it easier for Palestinian Israeli businessmen to work across the Arab world, even though many Palestinian Israelis entertain ambiguous feelings about how they might be betraying their fellow Palestinians beyond Israel.  

Perhaps, most important, the willingness of Israelis Palestinian minority to become partners in an Israeli government and the interaction of Israelis with Arabs in the UAE and the Gulf has the possibility to undermine the fear-mongering of the Likud and far right parties which manipulate a notion of Israel as a “garrison state.”  Thus, the establishment of ties with an increasing number of Arab states has the potential to break the Israeli right-wing’s grip on power and open the way for a center-left government to take office. 


The reemergence of the center-left in Israeli politics would be much less supportive of building new settlements or expanding existing ones. With a center-left government in power would be much less apt to seize Palestinian land in the Palestine National Authority.  


The larger context for the possible changes which might come about is the development of an economic common market in the Middle East.  If we take the example of France and Germany, which fought each other in two brutal world wars, today we obviously see them working together to continue to institutionalize the European Union, not just for their own benefit but for the other 25 members as well. 


The idea of a common market in the MENA region is not a new one.  In my study, Challenging Colonialism: Bank Misr and Egyptian Industrialization, 1920-1941, I examine the efforts of Muhammad Tal’at Harb, the founder of the Bank Misr (Bank of Egypt), which established 22 companies between 1920 and 1941 to promote regional economic integration during the 1930s. 

 Modest in outcomes, Harb’s vision was nevertheless a revolutionary idea for its time, especially in the context of a global depression.  Harb argued that the only way to bring progress to the Arab world and larger Middle East was though economic integration (al-takamul al-iqtisadi).  He proposed developing economic ties between Arab countries during the 1920s and 1930s.  


For example, Egypt Air, which today is Egypt’s premier airline, was founded in 1932 and developed the first Arab airline route between Cairo, Jaffa, Beirut, Damascus and Baghdad.  During the 1930s, Egypt Air also established a route for Muslim pilgrims between Jedda and Mecca.  The Bank Misr Transportation Company carried pilgrims from Port Sa'id at the southern mouth of the Suez Canal to Jedda.

Purifying the wells along the pilgrims' land route between Jedda and Mecca, e.g., Kawthar and Zamzam,  Harb significantly reduced the number of pilgrims' deaths from cholera.  To underscore his commitment to improving the pilgrimage - al-hajj - obligatory for all able bodied Muslims, Harb named the Misr Transportation Company two main ships, Kawthar and Zamzam