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Foreign Policy

The brand new peace treaties supply a possibility for Arab Israelis

Mas Watad developed a weight loss method years ago that she tailored for Arab women. The menu featured stuffed grape leaves, cardamom-flavored chicken kofta, and even a reduced-calorie version of Cheesy Knafeh for dessert. From her home in Baqa al-Gharbiyye, an Arab town northeast of Tel Aviv, Israel, Watad built a thriving diet practice. Her approach to weight loss, based on natural ingredients and an eating and exercise program controlled by a mobile app, found a growing local clientele.

Since then, Watad has rolled out their slimming system internationally and started a company called Dawsat with offices in their hometown of London, Bahrain and the Palestinian city of Nablus. The business is particularly aimed at women in the affluent Gulf States, where diabetes, high blood pressure, and other obesity-related diseases have gotten out of control. “Weight Watchers works well in Europe, but you need something here that is related to our tastes and our culture,” said Watad. “Our program comes straight from the Arab kitchen.”

The Hebrew University-trained diet guru is one of the pioneers among the Arab citizens of Israel when it comes to playing in a huge potential market in the Arabian Peninsula that last year had trade ties through peace agreements – known as the Abrahamic Accords – between Israel, the United States, United Arab Emirates and Bahrain were included. As the relationship grows and matures, investments by the UAE and its oil-rich neighbors should lead to greater economic opportunity and prosperity for the Arab population of Israel. Palestinians, in turn, can also benefit from the West Bank’s proximity to and relative integration with Arab communities in Israel, not least through family ties.

Israel’s 1.9 million Arab citizens make up just over a fifth of the Jewish state’s population and are a slowly growing political and economic force. After the fourth inconclusive election in just two years, both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his opponents are for the first time openly campaigning for the country’s Arab parties to help them overcome the political impasse and form a government coalition. Israeli Arabs have an emerging professional class that is heavily focused on the medical sector. Arab-owned companies that play a prominent role in the Israeli construction and trucking industry are increasingly moving into the field of technology start-ups that have become the calling card of the country.

That is what led Mayor Adel Badir of Kafr Qasim, a satellite city east of Tel Aviv, to the Cybertech Global conference in the United Arab Emirates this month. In the glittering Grand Hyatt Hotel in downtown Dubai, the 56-year-old lawyer met with investors from the Emirates and spoke in a panel about his efforts to build an Israeli-Arab incubator and an industrial area for budding technology companies. While Israel’s talent for programming has led Microsoft, Intel, Apple, and other giants to set up research and development centers, only 4 percent of Israeli technology workers are Arabs. Much of this is due to the fact that talent in computer engineering is nurtured and connections are largely made in units of the Israeli army such as the vaunted intelligence corps of Unit 8200, which freezes most Arab graduates because they are exempt from military service.

“As Arabs in Israel we have always been a bridge to promote peace between Israelis and Palestinians,” said Badir, fresh from his first adventure in the Gulf. “We are delighted to be playing this role now with Arab countries that have opened up to us through the Gulf Accords.”

The mayor’s willingness to be Israel’s envoy is remarkable in part because his city is synonymous with one of the ugliest incidents in the country’s history. The so-called Kafr Qasim massacre occurred when the Israeli border police, operating under martial law on the eve of the 1956 Israeli war with Egypt, shot and killed nearly 50 Arab residents of the city who were returning from work at dusk, in opposition to a curfew repudiated they hadn’t known. As close as the incident is to his heart, Badir does not address the past. His mission is to promote the economic potential of his city and the Israeli Arabs in general. This is one reason why he is excited about the peace agreements and the new opportunities they could bring.

Coverage of the Abraham Accords in Western media has focused on Israel’s strategic ties with the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain and, to a lesser extent, the waves of Israeli tourists visiting Dubai Ride and Drive on the 163-story Burj Khalifa through the huge malls to shop till you drop.

The large number of Arab Israelis who also want to enjoy the sights and sounds of Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Manama has been largely overlooked. Besides the ease of sharing language and culture, the fact is that they can circulate more freely in the new partner countries of the Abrahamic Agreement in Israel than, for example, in Egypt, where they are generally subject to control and sometimes harassment. The developing business relationships should have a significant economic impact which, given the many family ties between Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in the West Bank, may even spread to the West Bank.

While the Gulf-Israel Accords are popular with the Israeli-Arab business community, most Arab members of the Knesset, the Israeli parliament, have voted against them. Arab lawmakers followed the leadership of the Palestinian Authority in Ramallah rather than their own Israeli-Arab voters. These voters, by all accounts, want their elected officials – like Badir – to focus more on lobbying the government to address issues critical to Arab communities, particularly against organized crime and violence in Arab cities in Israel to take action and improve the situation Quality of education and investments in infrastructure and social services. The traditional focus of Arab lawmakers on supporting the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and condemning the Israeli government has done nothing to improve the quality of life for Arabs in Israel. Indeed, lawmakers have fed into the narrative of Israeli law that Arabs are a fifth column that cannot be trusted.

Not that the Emiratis and Bahraines need Israeli Arabs as middlemen to build trade and business relationships with Israel. It’s pretty clear that these relationships take off right away. But within Israel, the Abrahamic Accords could kickstart the process of normalizing the status of Arabs in society by giving them an economic stake in the acceptance of Israel in the region. When this happens, it can affect the Palestinians as well.

With ventures like Watad’s Gulf-focused diet store and Badir Technology Park, Israel’s Arab citizens are seizing opportunities and helping to deepen their country’s integration in a region where and where it has long been viewed as an enemy his status as an Arab citizen of Israel has made them politically and culturally suspect.

It is safe to say that the Palestinians do not see economic peace as a substitute for an independent state. Greater prosperity and the opportunity to travel freely to the Arab Gulf States will not solve the complex identity problems and ongoing discrimination of Israel’s Arab minority either. The new opportunities for Israeli Arabs resulting from the Abrahamic Accords, as well as the many other advantages the Accords offer the region, could, however, be a formula for a mutually beneficial coexistence of the majority and minority in Israel. Ultimately, this could even pave the way for a political settlement between Israelis and Palestinians.

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