The old wall of Arab anti-Zionism has fractured, but lingering hostility against Israel could explode anew.
It's become conventional wisdom to point out that the old wall of Arab anti-Zionism has fractured. I have done so myself. But lingering hostility against Israel could explode anew.
A brief history of Arab attitudes toward the Jewish state puts this danger in context:
For about 20 years, 1910-30, enmity toward Zionists was a local fracas of little interest to other Arabic speakers. Then the mufti of Jerusalem, Amin al-Husseini, the most toxic and influential anti-Zionist of all time, internationalized the conflict by sending out alarms about the supposed dangers to Jerusalem.
Pan-Arab nationalist sentiments prompted multiple Arab states to jump militarily into the fray to eliminate the newly independent state of Israel in 1948. The shock of their defeat (the Nakba) caused governments to fall in Egypt and Syria and turned anti-Zionism into the Middle East's most potent political emotion.
For the next 25 years, 1948-73, nearly all the Arab states – with the conspicuous exception of Tunisia– exploited the Palestinian issue to distract and mobilize their subject populations. Nothing else compared to the toxicity of this issue in terms of rage, irrationalism, and murderousness. Despite losing war after war, including the most lopsided rout in recorded history (1967's Six-Day War) governments stuck to their lethal insanity.
Eventually, after the war of October 1973, cumulative losses caused a shift in outlook. Anwar Sadat's pathbreaking visit to Jerusalem in 1977 manifested the first major sign of Arab states finding military conflict with Israel too painful and dangerous.
Others followed: an abortive 1983 peace treaty with Lebanon, the lasting 1994 treaty with Jordan, various lesser diplomatic liaisons, and the recent rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the Persian Gulf sheikhdoms. On the state level, then, 25 years of intermittent warfare were followed by 47 years of caution.
The decades of vitriolic anti-Zionist propaganda, however, had a profound effect on the populations. If sophisticated leaders calculating costs and benefits concluded that confronting Israel was a bad idea, their subjects remained largely trapped in a state of frenzy. In part, this retained the old pan-Arab character while larding on a new Islamist venom for Jews. That irredentist spirit remains alive and dangerous.
Exhibit A is the recent presidential election in Tunisia. Tunisia stands out as both the least anti-Zionist Arab country of decades past and today the one with the most open and democratic system; therefore, its election has outsized importance as an indicator.
Decades of vitriolic anti-Zionist propaganda profounly affected Arab populations.
To near-universal surprise, Kais Saied led both rounds of the election, winning 18 percent of the September vote in a field of 26 candidates, and triumphing in the October run-off with a 73 percent. Surprise because Saied, 61, had spent his entire career as a professor of constitutional law and so had zero political experience; surprise because he is an unsightly, ram-rod, robotic figure with inconsistent, severe, and eccentric views. His fast-talking but placid, and unusually formal Arabic make him an oddity. So, what propelled him out of the crowd of candidates to a massive victory?
Tunis-based Lamine Ghanmi found that Saied's popularity "was bolstered by his fiery stance against Israel," asserting that Tunisia is "in a state of war" with the Jewish state and calling normalization with it "a great treason." Thousands celebrated his electoral victory by taking to the streets, raising the Palestinian flag, and calling for the destruction of Israel.
Others agree with this assessment. The Tunisian newspaper editor Assia Atrous finds that Saied "forcefully expressed his feeling towards the Palestinians and their nationalist struggle. That made a difference for him against his rival." The academic Abdellatif Hanachi concurs: "The cause of Palestine was determining for him. It fundamentally changed the game." Outside Tunisia, the Egyptian Islamist politician Osama Fathi Hammouda sees in Saied's victory "a severe blow to Arab normalization with Israel."
Old-fashioned Palestinian-style hatred of Israel could come roaring back to the Arab world.
Although a willingness to accept Israel has trickled down in the Gulf Cooperation Council states, this shift has not traveled much further. So long as Sunni Arab elites see Israel as a useful, if discreet, ally against the real danger posed by Tehran, these anti-Zionist sentiments will be held in check. But when that commonality fades, old-fashioned Palestinian-style hatred of Israel could come roaring back, with miserable consequences.
That's one more reason for Israelis, with American help, to close down the conflict by seeking victory, by causing the Palestinians to acknowledge their own defeat. When Palestinians give up, other Arabs will likely not long persist in their fury but eventually will do so too.
Daniel Pipes is president of the Middle East Forum.