As the greatest outbreak of Israel-Palestinian hostilities in years unfolds in Gaza, many Israelis are bracing for reaction from the surrounding Arab world. Theories abound, but no one has been entirely sure how the weakening and collapse of Arab autocracies over the past two years will impact the Jewish state.
The answer is likely to underwhelm.
For over six decades, Israel stood alone as the most vilified antagonist in Arab public life. Governments, media and civic groups singled out the Jewish state as a standing crime against humanity, while glorifying or ignoring mass murderers such as Saddam Hussein and Muammar Qaddafi. Outside observers assumed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict to be such a visceral affront to Arabs everywhere as to account almost single-handedly for their collective political dysfunction. Arab anger toward Israel "weakens the legitimacy of moderate regimes," warned U.S. CENTCOM commander David H. Petraeus in 2010. Take away those "moderate" regimes — such as Hosni Mubarak's government in Egypt — and Israel would presumably be in a world of trouble.
In fact, while the Arab Spring has invigorated nearly every other revanchist political cause under the sun, thus far it hasn't unleashed a surge of anti-Zionist fervour.
Anti-Israeli slogans were relatively few and far between in the mass demonstrations that brought down Egypt's Mubarak and Tunisian president Zine El Abidine Ben Ali. Insurgents battling Syrian President Bashar Assad have ignored Israel altogether, while the Libyan revolutionaries who vanquished Gaddafi are said to have secretly communicated well wishes to Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu.
Today's newly elected Arab statesmen have proven surprisingly willing to check their anti-Zionist baggage at the door. Egyptian President Mohamed Morsi, formerly a leading official of the Muslim Brotherhood, has avoided direct public mention of Israel, while sending a private letter (subsequently leaked and reluctantly acknowledged by his office) to Israeli President Shimon Peres, calling the latter a "great friend" and vowing to "strengthen the cordial relations, which so happily exist between our two countries."
While there is little evidence that popular anti-Israeli sentiment in the Arab world has waned, the erosion of authoritarian controls gives political actors less incentive to tap into it.
In the old Egypt, anti-Zionism was central to the Brotherhood's public profile, partly for ideological reasons, but partly also because "justice" for the Palestinians was the only revolutionary political cause that its cadres could emphatically embrace without risking government reprisals. In the new Egypt, where the public square is unsanitized and control of the state is up for grabs, challenging a distant enemy readily conflicts with the pursuit of other goals. Morsi and others may be soft-peddling their hatred of Israel purely to curry favour with the West, but this underscores how ancillary the "Zionist entity" has become to their political ambitions for the time being.
The Arab Spring also has put the brakes on anti-Zionism by accelerating the progressive discrediting of the Iran-led rejectionist axis over the past six years.
Syrian President Bashar Assad's willingness to kill and maim fellow Arabs in ostensible pursuit of the cause, first in Lebanon after 2005 and then in Syria, steadily eroded what was once a substantial reserve of regional goodwill toward Iran and its proxies. According to Pew polling, the percentage of Egyptians holding a favourable view of Iran dropped from 59% in 2006 to 22% in 2012, while that of the Lebanese Shiite Hezbollah movement declined from 56% to 20%.
Even radical Sunni Islamists have reevaluated their priorities. The preeminent Egyptian writer Fahmi Huweidi, who for years staunchly supported the Alawite-dominated Assad regime because of its anti-Zionist credentials, now concedes that it "oppresses the Syrian people worse than the Israelis oppress the Palestinians." Jordanian salafi leader Abu Muhammad Tahawi contends that it "is currently the biggest threat to Sunnis, even more than the Israelis." When Morsi condemned the victimization of a people dear to "the hearts" of his countrymen and denounced an oppressor that "kills … day and night" in his Sept. 26 address to the UN General Assembly, he wasn't talking about
To be sure, many other radical ideologues — including the spiritual leader of the Muslim Brotherhood — continue to demonize Israel as loudly as ever. However, such appeals have generated little mass enthusiasm from Arab youth, who ranked the Israeli-Palestinian conflict behind civil unrest and lack of democracy as the "biggest obstacle" facing the region in a May 2012 survey. Efforts to harness their support for a failed campaign to win UN recognition of Palestinian statehood, an unprecedented hunger strike by Palestinian prisoners in Israel and a "Global March on Jerusalem" all fizzled.
The Israeli assault on Gaza is sure to elicit a stronger reaction from the Arab street. Anti-Zionism will continue as always to be the refuge of extremists who otherwise have little to lose (or gain), and political instability in the region will afford them greater opportunities to evade authorities.
So long as the Arab world continues to develop more representative and accountable governments, however, the vast majority of its inhabitants will find that they have better things to do with their time.
Gary C. Gambill is an Associate Fellow at the Middle East Forum.