OpinionMiddle East

The ‘Arab street’ shrugs at normalization with Israel

Arab publics are occupied with the challenges that they face in their own countries.

An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
An honor guard welcomes then-IDF Chief of Staff Lt. Gen. Aviv Kochavi in Rabat, July 19, 2022. Credit: IDF Spokesperson's Unit.
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch
Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at The Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

Since a Palestinian mob attempted to lynch Tunisia’s president in 1964 for suggesting peace with Israel, the “Arab Street” has come a long way. Even a warm handshake between IDF Chief of Staff Aviv Kochavi and senior Moroccan defense officials in the North African country elicited little reaction. The Arabic-speaking publics are too preoccupied with their own problems to demonstrate in support of the Palestinians.

Ironically, the 1964 attempted lynching of Tunisian President Habib Bourguiba was because he had suggested normalizing relations with Israel as a strategy to bring down the Jewish state. He claimed that Jews were innately a roving, trading Diaspora people. Allow Israelis to trade among us, he contended, and the Sephardim would soon emigrate from Israel and return to their commercial pursuits in the Arab states they had fled, leaving Israel an empty shell.

The story’s significance is not in Bourguiba’s analysis—Israel’s Jews (like its Arabs) enjoy traveling abroad and engaging in international business while keeping Israel as their beloved home base. The Jewish population in Israel has more than doubled since Bourguiba escaped from death, and Israel is one of two non-European countries in the top 10 of the World Happiness Index.

What is significant about Bourguiba’s bout with the Palestinian mob is how it reflects the dramatic shift on the “Arab street” toward Israel, particularly the Abraham Accords process. Of course, normalization—tatbi’ in Arabic—may remain a derogatory term in the lexicon of intellectuals and the Arab population in general, perhaps even to the point of being a curse word. Still, the fact is that the Arab world’s reaction to the ever-deepening process of normalization with Israel arouses less and less interest, let alone protest.

What more could be done to arouse anger than the trip by Israeli Defense Minister Benny Gantz—whose title in many Arab-speaking media outlets is “Minister of War”—to the United Arab Emirates to discuss military cooperation? Worse, there are the almost-messianic photos of Kochavi shaking hands with his Moroccan counterpart.

To be sure, Hamas and Hezbollah media outlets were quick to condemn these “treasonous” acts, and Palestinian Authority chief Mahmoud Abbas’ propagandists referred to these events as “unfortunate” and “sad” or ignored them entirely.

But words are cheap. The real issue was the Arab street’s reaction in the streets themselves. Very little happened. In most Arab capitals and major cities, there was no reaction whatsoever. In a few, a dozen or so activists, mostly with greying hair, gathered behind banners opposing normalization, while people passed by without raising an eyebrow.

Even in the P.A. and Gaza, normalization elicited only a cursory response. The same scenes that played out in Arab cities were played out among Palestinians.

It’s not surprising, then, that Israeli Prime Minister Yair Lapid’s meeting with Jordan’s King Abdullah, in which they agreed to develop a joint economic hub near the King Hussein bridge where Israeli and Jordanian businessmen could meet, was met with calm—an almost prophetic contrast to the reaction to Bourguiba 58 years ago.

Neither the meeting nor the proposal demonstrated any bravery on the part of the Hashemite king. Jordan signed an agreement six years ago to purchase 45 billion cubic meters of Israeli gas for $10 billion over 15 years.

There was so little opposition on the “Jordanian street” that security forces took no action against Hisham al-Bustani, the coordinator of the “Campaign Against the Enemy’s Gas,” who criticized the Jordanian ministers involved in the agreement’s ratification by name. If the regime had felt threatened, it would have arrested him for incitement. The choice not to do so was correct. Two years after the video in which al-Bustani appeared, only 145 people viewed it, with only one comment, which supported the king.

Normalization with Israel is not met with equanimity in so many Arab states because of a love for Israel. Nor has the realization of Israel’s technological achievements changed public attitudes toward the Jewish state.

The transformation is far more fundamental and internal. Arab publics are occupied with the challenges they face in their own countries. For example, in Lebanon, there are economic burdens, growing animosity towards Hezbollah and the threat of renewed civil war. In Iraq, there is the danger of political and economic meltdown—not as a result of the Shiite/Sunni divide, as it was a decade ago, but more ominously, due to the intra-Shi’ite conflict fueled by Iranian meddling. And in Egypt, there is the perennial concern of keeping Egypt above water economically, which is not even to mention Tunisia.

In short, when the “Arab street” takes to the streets, they cannot add the burden of the Palestinians to their concerns. Last year, a Syrian opposition member who Palestinian students heckled at Hebrew University responded, “You live in paradise compared to what Syrians face!”

The Arab street’s lack of reaction allows Arab leaders to pursue their relations with Israel to benefit themselves and their constituents.

Hillel Frisch is a professor of political studies and Middle East studies at Bar-Ilan University and an expert on the Arab world at the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

This article was originally published by the Jerusalem Institute for Strategy and Security.

The opinions and facts presented in this article are those of the author, and neither JNS nor its partners assume any responsibility for them.
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