columnMiddle East

Who speaks for the Arab world about Israel?

Signs of support for coexistence continue to appear. But the Israel-bashing at a U.N. Security Council debate is a reminder that full acceptance is not here yet.

The U.N. Security Council meets on the situation in the Middle East. Photo by Loey Felipe/U.N. Photo.
The U.N. Security Council meets on the situation in the Middle East. Photo by Loey Felipe/U.N. Photo.
Jonathan S. Tobin
Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him @jonathans_tobin.

Which of these two things is more important when it comes to gauging Arab acceptance of Israel? Is it a Saudi social-media influencer making a viral video playing the Israeli national anthem “Hatikvah” on the oud? Or is it the speech made earlier this week by the Egyptian ambassador to the United Nations denouncing the Jewish state and speaking of Palestinian “martyrs” even after his own government had helped broker a ceasefire between Jerusalem and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad terror group?

It would be nice to think that the oud video tells us more about the future direction of the Middle East. But the speech by Egyptian Ambassador Osama Abdel Khalek shouldn’t be ignored. It demonstrated that even the military government in Cairo that regards Israel as a vital ally in its own struggle against the Muslim Brotherhood and its Hamas allies is afraid that public opinion in the Arab world’s most populous country is still far too drenched in Jew-hatred to publicly stand up for its neighbor.

The Abraham Accords seemed to demonstrate that a sea change was underway in the Arab and Islamic world. After a century of pure hatred, the consensus among Arabs and Muslims that war against Zionism and the Jews was an integral element of their identity has been broken. Their governments were tired of being held hostage by Palestinian intransigence. The decision of the four states that normalized relations with Israel in 2020 as part of the Trump administration’s successful diplomatic initiative—the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan—showed the grip that the Palestinians had on opinion in the region for generations was no longer secure.

Expectations that many more nations would soon join the circle of peace with Israel may have been unrealistic. Still, decisions short of normalization, like Saudi Arabia’s willingness to allow Israeli planes to overfly their airspace, bred hope. Heartwarming gestures like the visit of a group of imams to Auschwitz—led by a senior Saudi cleric—in 2020 and the warmth with which that Saudi social-media influencer has embraced Israel, all show that change is in the air.

Nevertheless, the idea that anti-Israel opinion among Arabs and Muslims is on the way out must be tempered by more than a sense of realism about the pace of change.

Palestinian terror movements still have the sympathy of Western “progressives” influenced by intersectional myths and critical race theory ideas about Israel and the Jews being symbols of “white privilege.” The anti-Zionist narrative is also still part of the catechism of the international “human rights” movement and its major organs, such as Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the U.N. Human Rights Council.

Just as, if not more troubling, is the evidence that even among those Arab nations that have made peace with Israel, that the embrace of Israel is far from wholehearted or really popular. The authoritarian governments who have normalized relations may see the Jewish state as a much-needed ally against the greater threat coming from Iran, as well as a trading partner that can ease their entry into the global commercial market. But the fact remains that the reluctance of more states to expand the Abraham Accords is not entirely due to the lack of enthusiasm for the project on the part of the Biden administration since it came into office.

There was little sympathy in the region for Palestinian Islamic Jihad’s decision to start a brief war by firing over a thousand missiles and other projectiles into Israel. Indeed, even Hamas—its rival for the support of Palestinian Islamists, and itself dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state—sat out the fighting.

Yet when the situation was discussed at the U.N. Security Council, the first two states that made peace with Israel—Egypt and Jordan—echoed some of the vitriolic rhetoric spewed at the Jewish state by the Palestinian Authority representative.

Jordan placed the sole blame for the violence on Israel and the fact that Jews are allowed to visit the Temple Mount. The Jordanians are considered guardians of Muslim and Christian holy places in Jerusalem and speak of the Jewish presence in the city as illegitimate. They ignored PIJ’s terrorism and the rocket fire that prompted the Israeli response.

Particularly bitter were the remarks of the Egyptian ambassador, who spoke of all Gazans killed in the clashes as “martyrs”—both the majority who were PIJ fighters as well as civilians. He also denounced Israel’s efforts to defend itself against groups that Egypt itself regards as enemies with venom. No mention was made of the fact that the preponderance of those noncombatants who were killed and injured were victims of PIJ rockets and missiles that fell short of their Israeli target and struck Palestinians inside of Gaza.

Even the UAE, which is otherwise a model of cooperation with Israel and which is a member of the Security Council this year, used its opportunity to speak to join in the condemnation of the temerity of Jews in visiting the holiest spot in Judaism, which it referred to as “an incursion into the courtyards of the Al-Aqsa mosque” in Jerusalem.

Does any of that matter?

Israeli diplomats at the United Nations often speak of how their Arab colleagues talk one way about the conflict in public and very differently in private. The United Nations can be dismissed as a mere talking shop with no power. But that ignores the genuine damage that U.N. agencies can do to Israel and to aid those boycotting and trying to destroy it.

Even if Arab statements at the world body were merely a cynical show, the fact that they feel it is necessary to behave this way is not insignificant.

Public opinion in Egypt and Jordan is still heavily anti-Semitic and lags far behind their country’s leaders when it comes to the acceptance of Israel. Popular culture in the Arab world is also still hostile to Israel and Jews. There is no sign of a popular groundswell backing an alliance or closer ties. On the contrary, even governments that have made peace are wary of going too far when it comes to abandoning the Palestinian desire for Israel’s destruction. Authoritarian regimes in Egypt, Jordan and in the Gulf don’t depend on popular approval. But they are acutely conscious that by getting too close to Israel, they are giving ammunition to radicals backed by Iran who seek their overthrow.

Saudi Arabia’s modernizing ruler, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salmon, has embraced closer under-the-table ties with Israel though that has stopped short of normalization. But even the Saudis fear the possibility of a restive Arab street. That is accentuated by justified worries that a new and even weaker nuclear deal between the West and Iran, which may be concluded soon, will reinforce the impression that the theocrats in Tehran—and not the moderates in Riyadh or Cairo—are the “strong horse” of the region. A new pact will strengthen Iran’s economy and military, and could also help Iran sway opinion in those states that have relations with Israel.

Recognizing the persistence of Arab and Muslim hostility to Israel doesn’t negate the historic importance of the Abraham Accords. Indeed, as Jason Greenblatt, the Trump administration’s Middle East peace envoy, told me in an interview, the question to ask about the Saudis is not what they haven’t done but the distance they have traveled from their former stance of unremitting hostility.

Still, the optimistic notion that all the barriers between Israel and the Arab and Muslim worlds are coming down is, at best, premature. Jew-hatred is still far more popular than acceptance of Israel. As long as that is true—and the governments that made peace are dictatorial and don’t reflect the popular will of their peoples—the progress that has already been made towards true peace cannot be considered irreversible. That is a sobering thought that should inform Israeli strategy as well as those elsewhere who are under the misapprehension that the conflict over its right to exist is over.

Jonathan S. Tobin is editor-in-chief of JNS (Jewish News Syndicate). Follow him on Twitter at: @jonathans_tobin.

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