When equality outmatches loathing

A courting of Israel’s Arab parties by Jewish politicians reflects how the Middle East might see peace.

An Arab-Israeli boy in Kafr Manda stands with his father as he casts a ballot in Israel's general election March 23.

Since an inconclusive election March 23 for Israel’s parliament, a few Jewish politicians have been courting unlikely allies to help them form a majority coalition in the Knesset: two parties that represent Arab Israelis, who make up a fifth of the country’s citizens. This has raised the hope of an Arab party being part of an Israeli government for the first time, something that nearly half of Jewish Israelis now support.

While far from certain, that prospect shows how peace in the Middle East sometimes comes through deep person-to-person engagement, or when equality outmatches religion and ethnicity.

Israel’s post-election horse-trading between Arab and Jewish politicians comes as the country is enjoying a new warmth in relations with more Arab states. Under an agreement last fall known as the Abraham Accords, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco, and perhaps Sudan are normalizing ties with Israel. This is leading to a greater exchange of people, ideas, capital, and technology.

That sort of practical interaction is already reflected among Israeli Arabs, who largely vote for leaders who promise better policing to reduce crime and more access to jobs. It is also reflected in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s newfound attempt to win over Arab voters in order to keep his job. During a campaign stop in largely Arab Nazareth, he promised a “new era of Jewish-Arab relations ... an age of honor and equality, an age of opportunities, and an age of power.”

The most urgent need for closer ties is between Israelis and Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank. At an official level, the decadeslong peace process between them is stagnant. That may change in coming months as Palestinians hold their first elections in 15 years. Half of the young population has never voted and will be able to finally cast ballots for their leaders, a democratic experience that may help instill a greater notion of equality.

Much of the work to reconcile Israel and the Palestinians has been done by private peacemaking groups. They have set up youth sports clubs, tech training, and other programs that mix the two peoples. These peace builders received a big boost in December when the U.S. Congress passed a bipartisan bill that will provide $250 million over five years to fund such reconciliation initiatives. The measure is similar to a fund set up in the 1980s to promote dialogue between people in Northern Ireland. That effort helped lead to a later peace accord.

Might the new U.S. funding do the same for Israelis and Palestinians?

“Hard-wired ideas about identity or enmity with your neighbors, you can’t fix them quickly – it needs to be a sustained, real engagement,” John Lyndon, executive director of the Alliance for Middle East Peace, told The Times of Israel. “It requires deep engagement and taking seriously people’s identity, and their red lines – and to understand why people are saying what they’re saying.” His alliance represents some 130 peace-building groups working with Israelis and Palestinians.

The catalysts for peace are not always a result of diplomacy or a military truce. Cultivating trust in daily life between people helps build interdependence and a reservoir of mutual support. If the next Israeli government can reflect that sort of trust, it can happen in the rest of the Middle East.

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