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While only a minority of Americans is closely following the World Cup soccer championships, the rest of the world, as it does every four years, is going crazy over it. And, as always in international sports events where nationalism is mixed with the passion that fans feel for their favorite teams, unpleasantness emerged in Qatar. This one involved the Palestinians.
The support being expressed for their cause during the quadrennial championships of what is referred to everywhere but in the United States as “football” is being widely interpreted as evidence of a yawning gap between public opinion and government policy in the Arab world.
This doesn’t undo the Abraham Accords, through which the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain normalized relations with Israel, or the fact that this led to similar agreements with the Jewish state on the part of Morocco and Sudan. Other Arab governments, like those of Egypt and Jordan that already had peace deals with Jerusalem in place, regard Israel as an ally against Iran, the country that really worries them.
Others that haven’t formally followed suit, but tacitly approve of the Accords, include Saudi Arabia, which allows Israeli planes to fly over its airspace and enjoys close security ties with Jerusalem. Meanwhile, trade and tourism between the Gulf countries and Israel is flourishing.
All this would have been unimaginable a few years ago. But, thanks to the courage and skilled diplomacy shown by both Benjamin Netanyahu (Israel’s past and future prime minister) and the administration of former U.S. President Donald Trump, the political atmosphere in the Middle East has changed.
Yet, the news coming out of Doha about Israeli tourists and sportswriters being harassed amid widespread enthusiasm for the Palestinians can’t be dismissed as meaningless. Though it’s true that the normalization process is slow and will take many more years to be completed, those who think that anti-Israel sentiment in the Middle East is now confined to Ramallah, Gaza and Tehran are ignoring a basic truth about Arab and Muslim culture.
Arab and Muslim governments may have embraced realism and rational self-interest when it comes to their desire to stop being held hostage by Palestinian intransigence, and to recognize that Israel is their natural ally, not an enemy. But public opinion even in some of the countries that have full relations with Israel still sees the Jewish state through the distorted lens of their century-old war against Zionism.
The influence and hostility of the so-called “Arab street” is often exaggerated by those who wish to downgrade the alliance between Jerusalem and Washington. But the wave of pro-Palestinian gestures is being driven by a spirt of intolerance and open antisemitism that is reflected in the international press and at the United Nations. The willingness of so many to identify with the Palestinian war on the existence of the one Jewish state on the planet demonstrates that far from being a spent force, hate for Israel is still deeply embedded in the Arab and Muslim mindset.
The ability of the Palestinians to exploit the World Cup is due in no small measure to the venue of the tournament, a tiny oil-rich country on the Persian Gulf that also happens to be the single major funder of Islamist extremism around the globe and an ally of both Iran and Hamas. In 2010, the small kingdom used its vast wealth to bribe and cheat its way into obtaining the right to stage what is arguably the most watched sports event around the globe.
In preparation, it got FIFA, soccer’s international governing authority, to move the customarily summer happening to the fall, due to the slightly less severe desert heat at that time of year. It also built seven massive air-conditioned stadiums and a great many other structures and projects. During the course of the construction, an estimated 6,500 foreign migrant workers—who are little better than indentured servants, a step above slaves—died while laboring in the heat.
In addition, as Ben Cohen has noted, Qatar’s government did everything possible to prevent those in attendance from expressing support for the people of Iran engaged in protests against their despotic Islamist regime. It also pressured FIFA to ban player armbands symbolizing sympathy with or support for gay rights.
But neither Qatar nor FIFA had any problem with the wearing of Palestinian-flag emblems by Moroccan players—the so-called “Cinderella team” that’s won upset after upset to make it into the semifinals. Since this is the first time a team from an Arab or African country has gone this far in a World Cup, it’s a great source of pride to the region.
The team’s waving of a Palestinian flag during its victory celebrations is therefore an enormous story. It’s one that The New York Times and other outlets have been happy to cite, along with related incidents, as evidence that Arabs and Muslims still support Palestinian nationalism—which those in the Middle East, if not everyone in liberal America, understand is inextricably linked to the war on Zionism—and hate Israel.
The routine Israel-bashing at the United Nations, and the truly dangerous way that the Palestinians and their antisemitic allies at the U.N. Human Rights Council have sought to misuse international law to target and isolate the Jewish state is often dismissed as meaningless. We’re told that these efforts don’t portray the reality of a new Middle East, in which Arab states have discarded their old policies of confrontation with Israel.
While this is true of the kings, emirs and other Arab autocrats who have left behind the culture of hate—and abandoned the pretense that Israel, rather than Iran or Islamist terrorists, is the main enemy—not all the people they govern have the same attitude. A case in point is Morocco, which long enjoyed close informal relations with Israel and which, in exchange for an American promise to recognize Rabat’s occupation of an adjacent region that used to be governed by Spain, also joined in the Abraham Accords.
Contrary to the usual pablum about sports bringing people together to embrace peace and coexistence, this World Cup has led to a surge not merely in pro-Palestinian sentiment—by the Moroccans, for instance–but to an avalanche of Arab/Muslim animus toward Israel. This doesn’t mean that Israel hasn’t made enormous progress in breaking the barrier that Arabs, Muslims and their antisemitic allies had erected. But it’s bad for the cause of peace.
Worse, it’s terrible for Palestinian Arabs, desperately in need of help to overcome their addiction to an unwinnable war against Israel that’s causing them so much suffering.
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.