The role of Israeli Arab citizens in peace relations between Israel and the Arab world has undergone several transformations. Until the 1967 Six-Day War, leftist political parties and some state officials promoted the notion of the Arabs in Israel serving as a “bridge to peace” between Israel and the Arab world. However, in the 1970s and 1980s the Jewish-Arab Israeli Communist Party (ICP), which was the leading political power in the community at the time, promoted an alternative equation, “peace and equality”. ICP combined the Arab minority’s aspiration for a Palestinian independent state in the 1967 territories and a peace settlement between Israel and the PLO, with the demand for civic (and national) equality for the Arab minority within the Green Line.
Historically, Israeli Arab leadership attitudes on peace between Israel and Arab countries have been derived from a Palestinian perspective. For this reason, they exhibited fierce opposition to the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, which encompassed only autonomy for the Palestinians in the 1967 territories. Describing the treaty as a “betrayal agreement” and Egyptian President Anwar Sadat, as an agent of imperialism, ICP leader Tawfiq Zayad called it an “imperialist conspiracy against the Palestinian people, the Arab world and the progressive regimes in the region.” A completely different approach was voiced regarding the 1994 Jordanian-Israeli peace treaty. Arab political leaderships fully endorsed it, as this peace settlement came only after Israel officially recognized the PLO in the signing of the 1993 Oslo Accords.
Arab Leadership Reactions to the Normalization Agreements
The normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab countries, signed in the second half of 2020, came as no surprise to the Arab public in Israel. The UAE, Bahrain, and Morocco had already supported the Trump Administration’s peace plan, launched in January that year. The political leadership of the Arab public – including members of the Joint Arab List in the Knesset (comprised of the four leading parties in the Arab sector), as well as popular and religious leaders – highlights the common denominator of the “Deal of the Century” and the normalization agreements and expresses fierce opposition to them, on the grounds that these agreements harm the Palestinian cause. The Joint Arab List voted against these agreements in the Knesset plenum. The day after the signing on the normalization agreements on the White House lawns, Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint List said: “The day when we celebrate peace will come – but it has not arrived yet. Tomorrow the occupation will continue, Palestinians will continue to live under military rule, settlers will continue to take over their lands and soldiers will continue to stand on barriers and enter their homes. The fancy ceremony in Washington is not a historic peace treaty but a historic weapons deal.” Ahmad Tibi, a veteran Arab Knesset member, insisted that “the state should strive for a peace deal with its Arab citizens before any normalization with the Gulf states or Sudan […] a peace based on one paragraph: all citizens are equal.”
Criticism is also directed at the rulers of the UAE and Bahrain for signing agreements with Israel, while completely ignoring the will of their own peoples. Jamal Zahalka, leader of Balad nationalist party (a component of the Joint List), said: “Should a public opinion poll be carried out now in Bahrain, Saudi Arabia or Oman, it will indicate that a vast majority of the public is opposed to the agreements with Israel and to the abandonment of the Palestinians.” Zahalka also criticized the signing of the Sudanese-Israeli normalization agreement in January 2021, calling upon the Sudanese people to overthrow its government. Ahmad Hazem, a political commentator, said that while in the West the political leadership’s decisions reflects the popular will, “the Arab case is absolutely contrary, especially with regards to the Palestinian problem and the question of recognizing Israel.”
The criticism by the Islamic movement is based on religious grounds. Sheikh Ibrahim Sarsur, former head of the Islamic movement and former Knesset member, said that there is no political or moral justification for the agreement between Israel and the UAE, and above all, no religious one. Sarsur noted that the use of the historical Treaty of Hudaybiyyah as a justification to normalization with Israel today is wrong, as Prophet Mohammed did not intend to normalize his relations with Mecca’s infidel residents, nor did he recognize their rule in the city. Sarsur concluded that normalization with Israel is no less than “a betrayal of the religious and national fundamentals.” Sheikh Hussam Abu Leil, an Imam and leader of the non-parliamentary Trust and Reform party, criticized the normalization agreement between Morocco and Israel, stating that “the fact that a regime heading the ‘Jerusalem Committee’ promoted normalization is not just a knife in the back of the Palestinian problem, but also in that of Jerusalem and the Al-Aqsa Mosque.”
To sum up, the political and religious leadership is following its traditional position holding that the Palestinian problem stands at the heart of the peace process between the Arab World and Israel. According to this viewpoint, the demand for a “comprehensive peace,” which ensures the Palestinian people receive its right to a state, means that no Arab country is allowed to break Arab unity and make a separate peace with Israel.
Popular Attitudes on Normalization with Arab Countries
However, the Arab public, as opposed to its leadership, is no longer preoccupied with the Palestinian problem as it was in the past. This is the result of a gradual process of integration into the state, which is termed in the literature as “Israelization”. It is also affected by the crisis in the Palestinian national movement following the political split between the Fatah regime in the West Bank and the Hamas rule in the Gaza Strip. There are other voices in the Arab public explicitly supporting the normalization agreements. Salman Masalha, a well-known publicist, said “every intelligent person knows that the normalization agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates does not intend to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict,” adding that “the Arabs in the country should not hesitate to welcome every measure of normalization undertaken between Israel and the Arab world.”
Prominent opinion leaders in the Arab society directed fierce criticism at the Joint List’s opposition to the normalization agreements. Jalal Bana described the Joint List’s conduct as “an unforgivable mistake for history to judge. […] By voting against the agreement the Joint List members proved that not only they are against war, they are also against peace, and to a large extent – against each Arab country which is interested in having a normal and friendly relations with Israel.” Riyad Ali, a well-known media figure, said that while one can understand why the Joint List insists that peace in the Middle East must be achieved through a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, he “cannot understand how such a vote [against the Israel-UAE agreement] serves the voters who have sent the Joint List to the Knesset.”
Contrary to the position of the political leadership, it appears that the public no longer links between the promotion of peace in the Middle East and a settlement of the Palestinian problem. A public opinion poll among Arab citizens of Israel, carried out by the Konrad-Adenauer-Stiftung a couple of months after the signing of the Abraham Accords, clearly indicates that the majority of the Arab community in Israel (61.8% of the respondents) support the normalization agreements between Israel and the Arab countries. The reasons are mainly the hope for economic prosperity, as well as for a better integration of Israel in the Middle East region and a greater understanding of the Jewish majority for Arab culture. However, one third of the Arab public (35.5% of the respondents) opposes these agreements, first and foremost because of the traditional belief that the normalization agreements come at the expense of a solution to the Palestinian problem.
Arab citizens of Israel wish to enjoy the fruits of peace, here and now. They no longer want to serve as “bridge to peace,” nor do they combine the desire for peace with their struggle for full equality within the country’s borders. However, their struggle for full equality is not over yet as Jewish-Arab relations within Israel are still affected by the wider Jewish-Arab conflict. They hope that the wider the circle of normalization between Israel and its Arab neighbors will be, the wider and deeper will be their full integration into the fabric of life within Israel.
This article is part of The New Normal? Arab States and Normalization with Israel.
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