I disagree with those who believe the decision by several Arab governments to normalise relations with Israel reflects changes that have occurred in Arab culture in recent years.
Some Arab officials have indeed described Israel as a peace-loving friend at a time when Israeli occupation forces picked up their genocidal war against the Arabs in Palestine. But, far from being a recent development, the tendency to downplay the concrete, historical roots of the Arab-Israeli conflict and to ignore Israel’s aggressiveness dates back to president Anwar Al-Sadat.
He was the first to claim that most of the causes of the Arab-Israeli conflict were psychological. Certainly, there are some psychological, as well as cultural obstacles to normalisation between the Arabs and Israel. However, the source of these obstacles is primarily to be found in Israel’s expansionist policies and savage belligerency, as evidenced from the massacre of Deir Yassin in 1948 through the bombing of the Bahr Al-Baqar primary school in Sharqiya governorate in 1970 to the repeated and ruthless attacks against Gaza, the last of which occurred a few weeks ago.
Ironically, the current wave of Arab normalisation initiatives with Israel, with nothing exacted in return, coincided with a surge in unprecedentedly harsh international denunciations of Israeli behaviour. For the first time we hear some traditionally pro-Israeli Western voices openly accusing Israel of racism and apartheid. Some have even accused it of war crimes and crimes against humanity, calling for the Israeli officials responsible to be brought to account before the relevant international courts. In addition, international campaigns to boycott Israeli goods produced in the Occupied Territories or to refuse to engage in certain activities with Israel, such as academic exchanges, have gained momentum.
Recently, a well-known international carbonated beverages company suspended distribution of its products in the Occupied Territories. A recent opinion poll conducted by the Jewish Electorate Institute in the US found that a quarter of Jewish voters now regard Israel as an apartheid state and that 22 per cent of the respondents believe that Israel is committing genocide. The figures for these views rise to as high as 38 per cent and 33 per cent, respectively, among respondents under 40.
So, while some international companies and organisations have adopted boycott policies, what led some Arab regimes to abandon theirs and to maintain that there are no problems between them and Israel, and that Israel has a right to live in peace among its neighbours, even though Israeli actions flagrantly belie such purported peaceful intentions?
Some have argued that these governments were exercising their sovereign rights in pursuit of higher national interests. But were they not just as sovereign and as dedicated to the higher national interest at the time of the Arab boycott of Egypt after Sadat broke with the Arab boycott of Israel?
More recently, “cultural changes” in Arab societies have been cited as the cause of Arab normalisations. In fact the changes in world opinion towards Israeli policies may be due to cultural reasons. Above all, modern internet communications have undermined Zionist control of world media and made it possible to transmit images of Israeli crimes directly to people’s laptops or mobile phones, putting paid to the long-held impression that Israel is a peace-loving nation in a hostile sea, and revealing it for what it is: a rogue state that persistently defies international law and UN resolutions, perpetrating brutal massacres and other crimes.
It is also true that these cultural changes have had an impact on the policies of some European governments. Even in the US, the unswerving supporter of Israeli thuggery, members of Congress have grown more and more outspoken in their criticisms of Israel, defying the threat of being labelled “anti-Semitic” which constantly hovers like a sword over all who openly oppose Israeli policies.
Here in the Arab world, however, the situation is totally different. The decision to normalise relations with Israel had no more to do with the effects of cultural changes on public opinion today than they did at the time of Sadat. Now, as then, normalisation came as a surprise, if not a shock, to Arab public opinion. The decisions were not informed by, but rather clashed with the prevailing political culture in Arab societies, which is shaped by the history of Israeli belligerence,
In fact, this culture remains the foremost obstacle to normalisation measures, whether in Egypt or in the countries that have recently normalised relations with Israel. Perhaps it is best illustrated by the recent experience of a heretofore very popular Egyptian actor who was photographed with a famous Israeli singer during a concert in an Arab gulf country last year. The Egyptian actor came under a barrage of criticism for supporting normalisation, and his popularity plummeted overnight and has yet to recover.
Culture may be a major driver of events in our world today due to the IT revolution and the internet. However, culture is still the preserver of popular consciousness and identity, the repository of national principles, and the defence against deceit in the name of change.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 5 August, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly