North Africa, West Asia

Israel in the Arab consciousness: friend or foe?

Maged Mandour

The events of the Arab Revolt have dramatically shifted the position of Israel in the region. Arab regimes have moved from rejecting the existence of Israel to accommodation, to implicit cooperation, in some cases, open cooperation.

Maged Mandour
10 December 2014

The relationship between Israel and the Arab World is rather complicated and fraught with misunderstandings as well as oversimplifications.

The relationship has moved from outright hostility to uneasy accommodation, and finally an open alliance with the autocrats of the Arab World - an oscillation that is worthy of examination and which is organically linked to the rise of pan-Arab identity, its collapse, and the replacement of Israel as the prime enemy with other enemies - mainly the Shia and Islamist movements.

In the post-Arab Revolt world the enemy is either ISIS in Syria and Iraq, the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and naturally, the threat of Iran hovering in the background.

This outcome was the complete opposite of what was expected during the early days of the Arab Revolt, where increased antagonism between the Arab World and Israel, based on the anti-Zionist disposition of most protest movements across the Arab world was expected.

So, what happened?

Israel played an important role in cementing Pan-Arab identity. The creation of the state of Israel in the heart of the Arab world, and the displacement of Palestinians, was a severely traumatic event. It not only signaled the military defeat of Arab armies, but also the complete bankruptcy of the old Arab political order, which held sway after the First  World War and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire.

This order would be replaced by a series of military autocracies that relied on Arab nationalism in its various manifestations, whether Nasserism or Baathism, as their ideological pillars. The construction of the state of Israel as an enemy of the Arab nation was an essential part of maintaining the legitimacy of those regimes, even when their actual approach was more pragmatic and accommodating. It was also critical for the construction of the Arab identity and the imagined community of the Arab nation, which in turn, was an essential vehicle of competition between those regimes which attempted to spread their hegemony beyond their borders in what Malcolm Kier aptly called the Arab Cold War.

The construction of Israel as the enemy has continued unabated on the part of Arab regimes, regardless of their political orientation until, ironically, the eruption of the Arab Revolt. This trend continued even in countries that signed peace treaties with Israel and have very close relationships with it -  an approach mainly used as a safety valve, to allow for the controlled release of social tension and to direct popular anger against a far enemy, rather than on domestic issues of repression, human rights abuses and economic hardship. In essence, Israel acted as a diversionary tactic for popular anger.

As a university student in Cairo, I remember listening to nationalist, anti-Israel songs on the radio during the second Intifada, even though the Mubarak regime had very close ties with Israel. The same was the case in Syria, where the Assad regime used its position as the head of the rejectionist camp to maintain its domestic legitimacy, and prop up its appeal in the region.     

Currently Arab identity, which is tied to the current Arab political order, is subject to decomposition and collapse. Thus, the position of Israel as the prime enemy, which was directly tied to its Pan-Arab identity, has all but evaporated. In addition, the desire and ability of current Arab autocrats to project their hegemony beyond their borders is near to non-existent, as they continue to struggle in maintaining power domestically. There is a more pressing need to replace Israel, as the prime enemy, with a domestic faction, which is struggling with the current elites for power.  Examples of this abound.

In Egypt

The power struggle between the military and the Muslim Brotherhood has spilled over into foreign policy and allowed the military to build up domestic support for its policy of suppressing Hamas and blockading the Gaza strip. In current political discourse, Hamas is being portrayed as an extension of the Muslim Brotherhood, and most importantly, as directly responsible for the terrorist attacks in Sinai. 

The evidence that is being produced to support this claim is whimsical. For example, the Egyptian security services claim to have captured a Hamas operative with a certificate stating that he is a spy; a situation that might make Orwell cringe.

What is important to note is that Hamas is also accused of breaking into Egyptian prisons to facilitate the escape of the Muslim Brotherhood leadership during the January 25 Revolution, and it is claimed that this was done in coordination with Iran and Hezbollah. It is worth noting that Israel is missing from this list, a historical staple in Egyptian conspiracy theories.

But as the level of paranoia in Egypt increases, and the media continues to spread fear through conspiracy theories, Israel is not constructed as an enemy or even a player. Hamas, the Muslim Brotherhood, Qatar, and even the United States are the ones placed in the role of the conspirator.

During the last war on Gaza there was more sympathy for Israel, as Hamas was seen simply as an extension to the Brotherhood. This sympathy, for the first time, was openly expressed by some media outlets. In the case of Egypt, the identity of being Arab is all but gone especially among the urban middle class. Thus, the number one enemies have become Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood, and cooperation with Israel against a common enemy has become acceptable.     

In Saudi Arabia

The Kingdom has a morbid fear of the rise of moderate Islamist movements in the Gulf, and the covert cooperation between the Saudi and Israeli government, especially in terms of intelligence, has spilled into the open.

During the last war on Gaza the Saudi government blamed Hamas for the latest round of violence, in effect, exonerating Israel and replacing it as the traditional enemy of the Arab nation with Hamas and the Muslim Brotherhood.

This is in conjunction with a historical fear of Iran, which although not new, has taken on novel dimensions due to the outbreak of the Arab Revolt, and the possibility of unrest on the part of the Shia minority in the Kingdom.

This, in effect, places Israel and Saudi Arabia in the same camp - that is one opposed to any possible rapprochement between the United States and Iran. This is partly driven by geo-strategic considerations, but also out of fear of Shia populations in the Kingdom and elsewhere in the Gulf. The Saudi intervention in Bahrain to prop up the Sunni ruling family is a case in point. Ironically, the Wahhabi Sunni identity of Saudi Arabia has opened the way for cooperation with Israel against Iran, and possible Shia unrest near oil fields.

In Syria

The raging civil war has naturally shifted the enemy without to an enemy within. The Assad regime has played the rhetoric of fighting terrorism, and has framed all opposition as terrorist movements or foreign agents of power, not including Israel.

The rapid rise of ISIS has played directly into the hands of the regime, giving credibility to its discourse and an aura of greater domestic and regional legitimacy. Thus, the enemy has shifted from Israel to the armed opposition, which came to represent a radicalized Sunni rural uprising, stoking fears among domestic minorities. The enemy for the minorities, as well as the Sunni urban middle classes, is the rural Sunni population, regardless of its ideological inclination.

In conclusion, it has become clear that the events of the Arab Revolt have dramatically shifted the position of Israel in the region. Arab regimes have moved from rejecting the existence of Israel to accommodation, to implicit cooperation, in some cases, reaching out for open cooperation. This, naturally, is allowing Israel a free hand to pursue policies of colonization of what is left of the West Bank, as well as the blockade of the Gaza strip. In essence, the final result of the Arab Revolt is the strengthening of Israel`s position in the region, the erosion of Arab identity, and a closer cooperation between Arab autocrats and Israel.       

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