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PoliticsMiddle East

Arab countries and Israel battle prejudices via education

December 9, 2022

A US-led initiative is exploring new options to deepen ties between peoples beyond the political and economic impact of the Abraham Accords. But the Palestinian question remains a thorny issue for some.

Flags were set in March during the first Negev Summit attended by the US Secretary of State, alongside Foreign Ministers of Israel, Egypt, Bahrain, the UAE, and Morocco, in March 2022
Earlier this year, some of the normalization countries met in Israel at the first Negev Summit Image: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

In the two years since the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan signed the US-led normalization agreements with Israel, or Abraham Accords, the rapprochement has led to numerous collaborations on political, diplomatic and economic levels. 

However, when it comes to developing relations among the people living in these countries, there is still a way to go. "The accords have yet to find a firm rooting in the attitudes of Arab populations," Gerald M. Feierstein, senior fellow at the Washington-based think tank Middle East Institute (MEI), and Yoel Guzansky, a non-resident scholar at MEI, recently concluded in an essay. 

To reduce prejudices and facilitate dialogue among the next generation, the Washington-based think tank Atlantic Council and the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation in New York invited politicians and members of civil society from Israel and from Arab countries that signed peace treaties with Israel to a summit. They dubbed it the "N7 Initiative," with the "N" standing for ties with Israel, or normalization, and seven for Egypt, Jordan, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Sudan, Morocco and Israel. The summit took place in the Moroccan city of Rabat in early December. 

"It is critical for normalization that younger generations come together and learn from each other; that is why we focus on education and coexistence," Oren Eisner, the president of the Jeffrey M. Talpins Foundation, told DW. 

The summit aimed to provide practical ideas like platforms for student- and youth exchanges, and projects to increase religious tolerance.

The term "Abraham Accords" was coined in 2020 for the normalization statements between Israel and Arab countries that were facilitated under then-US-president Donald Trump. By signing such a treaty, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan recognized Israel's state sovereignty and established full diplomatic relations. 

However, the signing countries were also criticized for "selling out" on the question on the Palestinians, while Israel's then-Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, of the conservative Likud party, celebrated the separation of the Palestinian issue from establishing relations to Arab countries.

According to Cinzia Bianco, visiting fellow at the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR) the Palestinian cause continues to form a central part of pan-Arab sentiment. "I don't think the UAE-Israel deal paves the way for the establishment of formal and official relations between Israel and Saudi Arabia, Oman, Qatar or Kuwait," she told DW, adding that "in all of these countries, despite some cooling toward the Palestinian cause within parts of the Arab youth, especially in Saudi Arabia, popular opposition towards normalization is still quite high." 

Hugh Lovatt, senior policy fellow of the European Council for Foreign Relations (ECFR,) also sees that Israel’s treatment of Palestinians remains one of the most difficult issues for the public in Arab countries. 

"The open-ended occupation will continue to constrain the full potential of the Abraham Accords and associated educational projects," he told DW.

Billboards by the United Arab Emirates Embassy marking the signing of the US-brokered Abraham Accords are seen along the expressway in the Israeli coastal city of Tel Aviv
Israel and the UAE established direct flights between Tel Aviv and DubaiImage: Jack Guez/AFP/Getty Images

Israeli takeaway

"As for Israel, I return to the Ministry of Education with a pool of ideas for long-term multilateral school projects, for nonformal education, for sports groups and musicians," Dalit Atrakchi, the head of international relations at the Israeli Ministry of Education, told DW following the summit. 

One of these ideas is to align curricula among Arab countries and Israel, and to organize online discussions between same-age students. 

"They are the next generation of civilians who can bring about real cooperation," Atrakchi said, adding, however, that "it would be very naive to say that we don't have to overcome obstacles first, above all prejudices." 

She highlighted the importance of personal exchanges between students. 

"Only direct conversations can really kill prejudices," she told DW. For this, there could be "no better way than to meet counterparts in a non-conflict context and with as few intermediaries as possible."

This view is echoed by Ahmed Al Mansuri, a former member of the Federal National Council in the United Arab Emirates. "We believe that there will no peace if there is fighting between different countries in the region and especially between the Arabs and the Jews," he told DW, adding that "we need to solve the problems in the Middle East by using different civilized ways of diplomacy, since all of the methods of the past seven decades and more have been very useless." 

Morocco is an exception 

However, in Morocco, where the summit took place, the situation is somewhat different. 

The country has had a Jewish population for thousands of years and is still home to around 3,000 Jewish Moroccans. 

Furthermore, local Jewish neighborhoods are being renovated, and even Morocco's King Mohammed VI joined the opening of a Jewish museum called "House of Memory", or Beit Dakira, in Essaouira in 2020. 

Andre Azoulay, adviser to the Moroccan king, poses for a picture at the  Jewish museum 'Beit Dakira' (House of Memory)
Andre Azoulay was the only Moroccan participant at the summit Image: Fadel Senna/AFP

There are also many Jews with Moroccan roots in Israel, and every year, more than 200,000 Israeli tourists spend their holidays in Morocco. 

Consequently, a study by Arab Barometer, an independent research network in the Middle East, which is funded by and linked to international universities, found in a 2021 surveythat "41% of Moroccans support the normalization of relations between Israel and Morocco." 

Steffen Krüger, the head of the German Konrad Adenauer Foundation office in Morocco, confirms the more positive attitude toward Israel in Morocco. "The gap between Moroccan politics and people on the street is not as large as in other countries," he told DW upon his return from the conference in Rabat. 

And still, Krüger was surprised that Morocco sent only one, albeit influential, person to the summit. 

"Andre Azoulay is a consultant of the king and a major advocate of nonpolitical rapprochement between Jews and Muslims, but he was the only one," he told DW. 

The Moroccan minister of education, Rachid Benmokhtar Benabdallah, did not attend the summit. However, Morocco's Ministry of Education has already started including Jewish heritage in school textbooks following an initiative by Azoulay. This could pave the way for an early implementation of the summit's ideas for collaborations with Moroccan Jews in Israel. 

Morocco's team makes a group photo on the pitch, holding the Palestinian flag, after winning the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between Morocco and Spain,
Morocco's team held the Palestinian flag during the group photo in a gesture of supportImage: Martin Meissner/AP/picture alliance

Meanwhile, it remains to be seen in what way the other participating countries will implement the approaches for an increased understanding among their young people discussed in Rabat. 

So far, the summit hasn't receive all that much media coverage in the participating countries. The dominating topic in the media, though, is certainly also uniting people from Israel and Arab countries: the World Cup and Morocco's victory against Spain. 

'Negev summit' emphasizes need to strengthen ties, urges Palestine talks

Jennifer Holleis
Jennifer Holleis Editor and commentator focusing on the Middle East and North Africa