Judging from responses to my article in this space two weeks ago about a recent visit to the United Arab Emirates, many Israelis remain skeptical about the discourse of peace and tolerance I discovered in Dubai.
Alas, Israelis have been conditioned to hear only bitterness from Israel’s Arab neighbors; a narrative of self-pity and anger marked by complaints, false allegations, vituperation and glorification of violence against the Jewish state.
Nevertheless, I am persuaded that the Emirati pursuit of peace with Israel is genuine. It is backed by a discourse of religious moderation and broad-mindedness that is deep, admirable and incredibly hopeful.
For those who already may be rolling their eyes in disbelief, I declare upfront that I never have been an acolyte of the Shimon Peres school of diplomacy; misty-eyed, kumbaya-inflected, naive and dangerous thinking about peace in the Middle East. Nor do I subscribe to Peace Now’s faith in the Palestinians as a reliable partner for Israel in guaranteeing peace and security west of the Jordan River.
But the Emiratis are different. They are a distinctive type of Arab Muslim. They want to redefine the self-identity and global image of Arab Muslims in a way that blends enlightenment with tradition. Affiliating with Israel fits perfectly into this agenda, aside from the security and economic benefits of the UAE-Israel partnership.
Indeed, the Emiratis see themselves as a people and a country that successfully blends ancient tradition, culture and ethnic identity with modern progress and ambition. (That, by the way, is how they view Jews and Israel, too.)
Allow me to summarize, almost verbatim, what I heard from Emirati intellectuals and community leaders over a week in the UAE.
The core problem in the Middle East, say Emiratis, is that religious hatred has become the main political currency. A very volatile and hypocritically exploited currency. Iran invests heavily in religious hatred; hatred of Israel, of America and the West, and of other Muslims who don’t hew to the radical Shi’ite line. The Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps relies on religious hatred to mobilize young men into its ranks. So do Turkey and the Muslim Brotherhood, Islamic State and Al-Qaeda.
The Abraham Accords are meant “to take religious hatred out of the equation” and move Israel-Arab ties to the level of normal state-to-state relations, hopefully setting an example for other Arab countries in the region. “We must end the zero-sum game of killing and conquering. We must change the political topography of the region and use peace to bring about a tectonic shift in the Middle East.”
In fact, the only way to stabilize the many areas of conflict throughout the Middle East, say the Emiratis, is to make “normal life” the central pursuit of all Arab governments. I was told, for example, that it is a “normal thing” to have a choice of fruits and vegetables from India, or from Israel, in Emirati grocery stores.
More importantly, normal family life revolves around school schedules and the quality of education. And this is where the Emiratis are regional revolutionaries. At the directive of Emirati leadership, for almost two decades schools have taught religious and ethnic tolerance and the value of scientific and critical humanistic thinking.
Therefore, Emiratis speak excellent English, study voraciously at the best universities abroad, embrace all the latest technologies in developing their country, host some 200 nationalities as expatriate businessmen and infrastructure workers in the UAE and speak the language of multiculturalism and non-discrimination.
It is, apparently, why every Emirati businessman and cultural figure I met said: “We have been waiting for so long for an above-the-table relationship with Israel.”
The Emiratis see themselves and other Sunni Arabs as “victims of decades of media brainwashing” in support of “narrow” (meaning, radical Islamic) agendas and “immature” (meaning, Palestinian) thinking. These deleterious discourses always need an “enemy” to hate.
“But hatred is not from God. It does not flow from logic. And hatred is not the future,” a very senior Emirati who is close to UAE Crown Prince Mohammed bin Zayed told me.
The Emiratis “have learned over the course of time” that boycotting Israel “makes no sense,” since Israel is clearly a force for stability and an engine for prosperity in the region. The Emiratis have “matured” while unfortunately the Palestinians have not, and the Emiratis “cannot wait endlessly for the Palestinians to do so.”
Israeli-Palestinian peace is necessary, but it must be a “sustainable peace,” meaning that a two-state solution is not necessarily the best option, and the contours of a settlement “can’t fluctuate from one [U.S.] administration to another.”
Furthermore, any future Israeli-Palestinian deal “will have to take broader Arab state considerations into account”—and this no longer means that Gulf Arabs necessarily will support maximum Palestinian demands. “The Palestinians need peace with Israel more than Israel needs peace with the Palestinians. They should remember this in Ramallah and Gaza.”
Emiratis are not impressed by the term “Judeo-Christian values,” and are quick to point out that in the 21st century a clearly identifiable (Orthodox) Jew can walk the streets of Dubai or Doha in much more safety and comfort than he/she can walk the streets of Berlin, London, Paris, or New York.
The Emiratis prefer to speak of “Abrahamic Family values,” which are less religiously divisive and more inclusive. Of course, this “Abrahamic narrative” is also meant to challenge the anti-Western and anti-Israeli agenda of Islamist extremists, as well as the mainly European and Christian hard-right, which sees all Muslims as inherently anti-Western, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian and altogether threatening.
One Emirati intellectual I met is creatively rethinking the visions that Muslims and Jews have about Abraham and other biblical figures like Moses. He wants us to think of Abraham not (only) as a tenacious smasher of idols, but as “a yuppy, a son of a billionaire in Ur of the Chaldees, who today would be teaching tolerance and Divine love with five laptops, a dozen iPhones, and people of all religions and nationalities in his class.”
He wants us to think of Moses not (only) as a shepherd in sandals chasing sheep across the desert, but as “a broad, brave leader who stood up to Pharaoh and all other bigoted orthodoxies of his time, and who emphasized broad education, self-refinement, and nation-building.”
Emiratis emphasize that there are many misconceptions about Israel that still need to be overcome, even among educated Arabs. For example, many of them believe a myth that the two stripes on Israel’s flag represent two rivers. This is supposedly an expression of Zionist imperialist ambition to rule the region from the Nile River to the Euphrates River, as God promised Abraham.
Of course, this is nonsense. But none of the people I spoke to knew that the stripes on Israel’s flag are taken from the Jewish prayer shawl (tallit). None knew the stripes relate to the ritual fringes (tzitzit) on the prayer shawl, as well as to the halachic obligation to distinguish light from darkness before reciting the morning Shema prayer. And no Emirati knew about kabbalistic emanations of Divine grace—dark stripes of God’s judgment (gevura) on a white background of God’s benevolence (chesed).
Similarly, Emiratis fear that Israel’s self-definition as a “Jewish state” is discriminatory, meaning that only Jews can become citizens, which is not the case. (Yes, I am aware how odd it is to hear this complaint from Emiratis, who refuse to give citizenship to any Arab or Westerner who isn’t from core Emirati stock.)
From an overall perspective, the Emiratis are pluralists when considering Israel’s place in the region. Many of them even are willing to say openly (when asked) that Jews and Israelis should be allowed to pray on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem, and that prayer rights there should be extended to Christians, too, if they so wish.
One prominent Emirati cultural figure, who is close to Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the vice president and prime minister of the UAE and the ruler of Dubai, told me: “There is no reason why the plaza at Haram al-Sharif [the Temple Mount] can’t be expanded to facilitate the prayer of other faiths. Islam is not meant to deny others their deep connections to God.”
David M. Weinberg, vice president of the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security, was coordinator of the Israeli government’s Global Forum Against Antisemitism.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.