Relations between Israel and the rest of the Middle East could improve if the Jewish state’s Arab population was permitted to work in other parts of the region, a leading Saudi Arabian journalist suggested this week.
In an interview with Washington think tank the Hudson Institute, Abdulrahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Asharq al-Awsat and ex-general manager of the Saudi-owned Al Arabiya television channel, said a work initiative could ease tensions in the absence of a peace agreement with the Palestinians.
But Al-Rashed also stressed that such a plan would be an interim measure, and would not replace a proper resolution to the conflict. There could be no official ties between Israel and Saudi Arabia until a peace agreement was reached with the Palestinians, he said.
Saudi Arabia was the driving force behind the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which calls for Arab world normalization with Israel in return for a peace agreement with the Palestinians that includes a full Israeli withdrawal from lands captured during the 1967 Six Day War and a solution to the issue of Palestinian refugees.
“If the question is specifically what can be done now — before the conflict is resolved — to increase connectivity, perhaps a new step would be for Saudi Arabia to formally lift its ban on work visas for Israel’s Arab citizens, and for Israel to welcome and foster Arab Israelis’ professional deployment to any Arab country,” Al-Rashed told Jewish interviewer Joseph Braude, according to the Ynetnews website.
He said that Saudi Arabia could frame such a step as an effort to benefit Palestinians “on either side of the Green Line” border between Israel and the West Bank. Moreover, he said, Arabs who were hired by Gulf states could act as “a human bridge” between Israel and the rest of the region, “gradually enabling partnerships between the broader populations of both sides.”
Of all the countries in the Arab world, Israel only has formal relations with Egypt and Jordan. There are some 1.7 million Arab citizens in Israel, making up a little under 21 percent of the country’s 8.5 million-strong population.
Al-Rashed also questioned the logic of banning Arab Israelis from working in the rest of the region due to their citizenship solely in the Jewish state. He cited the example of the numerous Jewish Israelis who enjoy dual nationality due to their own or their forebears’ country of birth, and who could feasibly use their non-Israeli citizenship to work in other Middle Eastern countries.
“In a similar vein, many Israeli companies are already exporting goods to Arab markets through foreign corporate entities, while Arab farmers in Israel cannot sell their tomatoes in the Gulf market,” he said.
The Saudi journalist warned, however, while the outreach to Israel’s Arabs should be left to the Arab League, the organization “historically has been the lion’s den of resistance to normalization.”
There have been various media reports of clandestine talks between Israel and Arab powers, who have come to see the Jewish state as a possible ally against what they consider to be a far greater threat — Iran and its regional aspirations.
In July, retired Saudi general Dr. Anwar Eshki visited Israel, heading a delegation of academics and businessmen seeking to encourage discussion of the Saudi-led Arab Peace Initiative.
The delegation led by Eshki met with then-Foreign Ministry director-general Dore Gold, the Coordinator of Government Activities in the Territories Maj.-Gen. Yoav Mordechai, and several Knesset members from the opposition.
Such a visit by Eshki, who was once a top adviser to the Saudi government, is an extremely rare occurrence. “While this wasn’t an official visit, it was a highly unusual one, as Eshki couldn’t have traveled to Israel without approval from the Saudi government,” the newspaper report said.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu too has often spoken of growing secret ties with Arab nations, though experts have warned that the prospects of normalization of ties before peace with the Palestinians is achieved are dim.
Last week, outgoing US Secretary of State John Kerry said flatly that “There will be no advance or separate peace in the Arab world without advancing the Palestinian issue. Everybody needs to understand that.”