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The Arab World’s Long, Slow Turn Away from Anti-Zionism

Putting the new peace accords in context.
September 16, 2020
Featured Image
U.S. President Donald Trump and Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu participate in a meeting in the Oval Office of the White House on September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Netanyahu is in Washington to participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords. (Photo by Doug Mills/Pool/Getty Images)

Yesterday, in a noon ceremony at the White House, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed peace treaties with Abdullah bin Zayed Al Nahyani and Abdullatif bin Rashid Al-Zayani—the foreign ministers of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and Bahrain. The deal with the UAE was first announced last month; the Bahrain agreement was announced on Friday. Together, they have been dubbed the “Abraham Accords.”

“After decades of division and conflict, we mark the dawn of a new Middle East,” said President Trump at the signing ceremony. And while neither the UAE nor Bahrain was at war with Israel—indeed, neither was ever at war with Israel, and both have long been friendly with and quietly cooperative with Israel in important ways—the signing of these treaties is nonetheless an important milestone.

The Abraham Accords must be seen in the context of Israel’s campaign in recent years to warm relations with Persian Gulf Arab states, including Saudi Arabia and Oman. The long-desired “Middle East peace” is now finally on the horizon. The Arab-Israeli conflict had taken U.S. policy in the Middle East hostage for many decades, one of several factors forcing the United States to kowtow to Arab autocrats in hope of a peace deal that never arrived, sacrificing promotion of basic human rights and democracy in the region, let alone economic and social development.

The prospects for change are now real. The Trump administration deserves its due credit for this monumental moment, as does the Obama administration’s foolish elevation of Iran—a senior official of that administration told me once that part of the thinking that led to the Iran deal was balancing Saudis with Iran, a moronic idea to balance an ally by strengthening an adversary—but this achievement is more a product of time than anything else.

When Israel was created in 1948, in a strange but very real sense Arab states came to rely on it for their survival. Look back at the history: For long stretches of the Ottoman Empire, the future Arab states were largely just manufactured nations with no sense of national identity—only tribal identities. They became independent states during the interwar years (except the UAE and Bahrain, which became states in the 1970s). To survive, these new states needed legitimacy. To get legitimacy, they needed an enemy. Israel was the ideal enemy: It was a Jewish state in a Muslim region, in close enough proximity to be a regional bogeyman, and, they alleged, the occupier of Arab land.

The only exception was Egypt, with its long tradition of national identity. Gamal Abdel Nasser, who came to power in the 1950s, had ambitions beyond ruling Egypt. He wanted to be the leader of the entire Arab world and so promoted and became the de facto leader of pan-Arabism—the idea that Arabs, despite their many states, are one nation. A core value of pan-Arabism was anti-Zionism. Nasser promoted anti-Zionism, often spoke of how Israel would be “exterminated,” and led his country into two wars with Israel. (These wars, especially the Six Day War, had an additional benefit for Nasser: If other Arab leaders followed his lead, as some of them did in 1967, they would legitimize his leadership. If they didn’t, they would become less popular among their anti-Zionist constituents, making Nasser more popular.)

Time, however, has changed things.

In May 2018, the modern state of Israel celebrated its seventieth anniversary. The vast majority of Arabs alive today, and all of their leaders, don’t remember what the Israelis call their War of Independence and the Arab states call the Nakba (“catastrophe”). The last full-scale war between Arab states and Israel was in 1973, almost half a century ago. (There have been smaller conflicts between Israel and Iraq and Lebanon, but they weren’t supported by other Arab states, nor did any of those three conflicts involve an Arab coalition.) Most Arabs don’t feel trauma or injured pride for having been defeated by Israel; in parts of the Arab world, to the extent that enmity toward Israel remains, it results from a kind of momentum, or a feeling of the necessity of hostilities out of honor. Fifty years ago, overthrowing the Israeli regime would have felt to many Arabs like the restoration of the status quo. Today, Israel’s existence is the status quo, and people are more comfortable with preserving the status quo than with overthrowing it.

Meanwhile, in most of the Arab world, the ideology of Islamism has lost much of its appeal. As Arab states have increasingly developed a sense of national identity, they have relied less on Islamism for legitimacy. Financial prosperity and the appeal of Western life have also made those societies more secular than they used to be. Once promoters of international Islamism and organizations like al-Qaeda and the Muslim Brothers, the governments of the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and Bahrain now oppose them, as Islamism threatens their legitimacy. All these factors have made these states less Islamist, hence, less anti-Zionist.

Like the state of Israel, Arab states have now become the status quo. Just as most Arabs don’t remember life without Israel, they also don’t remember life without their own states. Pan-Arabism has lost ground to several Arab nation-states, and a legitimacy dependent upon anti-Zionism has been replaced by a legitimacy just based on the status quo. The main obstacle to recognizing Israel, anti-Zionism as a core for Arab identity, is largely no longer relevant. To be clear: This does not mean that anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and Islamism have disappeared from Arab societies—they have not—but just that they are not the high priorities they once were.

Overall, as the Arab states have become more “normal,” foreign affairs have come to play a smaller role in their domestic politics.

There are obviously other factors at play, as well. Arab leaders have had it with the Palestinian leadership, which has rejected any peace deal because conflict benefits those leaders financially and keeps them in power. Iran’s regional aggressions against Israel and Arabs alike is a uniting factor among Arabs and Israel. The relocation of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem has removed a bargaining chip from the hand of the Arab side.

There is a lesson here. While the Israeli-Arab conflict is effectively over, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is not. The Israeli-Palestinian conflict will not cease to exist with the best deal on the table. It will only be resolved when the Palestinian leadership is forced by the Palestinian Arabs to drop anti-Zionism as a source for legitimacy. Once anti-Zionism doesn’t serve Mahmoud Abbas, or whoever replaces him, politically and financially, then, there will be hope for peace.

Shay Khatiri

Shay Khatiri is a graduate student of Strategic Studies at Johns Hopkins University, School of Advanced International Studies. He grew up in Iran and left the country in 2011. He is currently seeking political asylum in the United States. Follow him @ShayKhatiri.