What do Arabs think about Israel?

Polling data from the Middle East gives mixed messages but careful scrutiny of the bigger picture can give vital clues, says David Patrikarakos


WASHINGTON, DC - SEPTEMBER 15: (L-R) Prime Minister of Israel Benjamin Netanyahu, U.S. President Donald Trump, Foreign Affairs Minister of Bahrain Abdullatif bin Rashid Al Zayani, and Foreign Affairs Minister of the United Arab Emirates Abdullah bin Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan participate in the signing ceremony of the Abraham Accords on the South Lawn of the White House September 15, 2020 in Washington, DC. Witnessed by President Trump, Prime Minister Netanyahu signed a peace deal with the UAE and a declaration of intent to make peace with Bahrain. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

February 04, 2021 14:56

Few habits are as damaging to proper coverage of the Middle East than the media’s casual deployment of the phrase “Arab street.” Used to refer to popular — as opposed to elite — Arab opinion, the term has long been a terminological refuge for the lazy hack. According to the academics Terry Regier and Muhammad Ali Khalidi in their paper The Arab Street: Tracking a Political Metaphor, its history is long. The phrase “the street” first gained currency in the 1950s to explain how Egyptian President Gamel Abdel Nasser’s broad regional appeal. But it was the first Palestinian Intifada in 1987 that popularised the term in the US media. It then spread across the West and back into the Middle East.

It is problematic for two reasons. First, it implies that Arab opinion is monolithic, a single street in which you can gauge the popular view. To anyone who has spent time in the Arab world, this idea is laughable.

Second, it tends to be deployed rhetorically, to suggest that certain policies adopted by elites will be rejected by the vague, ideologically uniform masses. This idea was very much present in former US Secretary of State John Kerry’s now notoriously unprescient 2016 remarks that “there will be no advanced and separate peace with the Arab world without the Palestinian process and Palestinian peace.”

Note the idea of the Arab world being homogenous. Last year, Israel made peace with the UAE, Morocco, Bahrain and Sudan. At the time of writing, none of the “Arab world” has been plunged into unrest as a result.

Nor has there been a popular backlash against the rulers in question. The incoming Biden administration will face a Middle East replete with difficulties. In order to most effectively navigate them, it must not start with a woefully incorrect sense of what the “Arab street” is thinking.

So what do ordinary Arabs really make of these peace deals? What do they make of Israel in general? And can this be assessed accurately?

As imperfect as they are, to get beyond the merely anecdotal we must consult polls. The most recent major study of Arab attitudes to Israel was conducted by the Washington Institute For Near East Policy, based on face-to-face interviews with a representative sample of 1,000 Saudi citizens. Asked about the September 2019 Abraham Accords agreements between Israel, the UAE and Bahrain, 41 percent of respondents called the agreements a “positive development”.

A narrow majority, however — 54 per cent — labelled the agreements as negative. The poll goes on to reveal that 37 per cent of Saudis also agreed, either “somewhat” or “strongly”, that “people who want to have business or sports contacts with Israelis should be allowed to do so” — a figure that was “quadruple the proportion who agreed with this statement in the previous survey in June 2020”.

As David Pollock, Fellow at the Washington Institute, observed: “The rapid growth demonstrates that popular attitudes on this supposedly sensitive point are actually quite fluid, probably responding both to new events and official guidance.”

The poll seems broadly positive. Forty-one per cent is a large section of the Saudi population. The leaders of a country dominated by fundamentalist Wahhabi Islam, who see themselves as the custodians of the world’s two most holy mosques in Mecca and Medina, will be always tend to be conservative when it comes to a non-Muslim power controlling Jerusalem, home of the Dome of the Rock. That a majority still opposes normalisation is, then, unsurprising.

Other polls are more positive. In September 2019, Zogby Research Services conducted face-to-face polls, surveying more than 8,000 adults in eight Arab countries — Tunisia, Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine, Jordan, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the UAE — as well as those in Turkey and Iran.

The results were strikingly positive. More than seven out of 10 of those who responded in the UAE, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, and Jordan said they felt it was “desirable that some Arab states will develop normalised relations with Israel, even without peace between Israel and the Palestinians.”

These surprisingly high figures must be framed by the nature of the question asked. “Some relations” is a vague phrase, ruling out only the strongest form of rejectionism. It’s also relevant that Benjamin Netanyahu threatened to extend Israeli sovereignty into the West Bank midway through Zogby’s polling period. Look at the survey that came a year later and it’s clear that support has dropped. Only around 40 per cent of Egyptians, Jordanians and Saudis now considered normalisation “desirable”. In the UAE, this figure had dropped to 56 per cent.

Other studies make even less pleasant reading. The 2019-2020 Arab Opinion Index, based on face-to-face interviews with 28,288 respondents in 13 Arab countries, found that 88 per cent opposed diplomatic recognition of Israel, while only six per cent supported it. Most disconcertingly, the Arab Barometer found a very low level of support for the peace deals with Bahrain and Sudan, ranging from 20 per cent in Lebanon to just three per cent in Jordan.

What most clearly emerges, then, is a mixed picture, and often a conflicting one. Why? Partly because the different polls examined different selections of countries; partly because they were asking different questions. While Arab Opinion index asked, “Would you support or oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel by your country?”, Zogby asked, “How desirable is it that some Arab states will develop normalised relations with Israel, even without peace between Israel and the Palestinians?” Meanwhile, Arab Barometer quizzed respondents about whether they supported the new Israeli peace agreements with UAE and Bahrain; and Washington Institute asked respondents whether they thought these agreements were a positive or a negative development. These questions are all similar. But it is important to acknowledge that they are not the same.

If the polls cannot give a conclusive idea of broad Arab opinion, what can they do? They point to regional trends, especially when identical polls are compared over time. Seen through this lens, the overarching situation becomes clearer.

As far as the Arab Opinion Index goes, Israel is still perceived as the state posing the greatest threat to Arab countries, at 37 per cent according to the 2020 poll. But look further back, and we see in 2012-13, this figure stood at 52 per cent. But those seeing the US as the biggest danger rose from 22 percent to 29 percent in the same period, and Iran from four percent to 12 percent.

Clearly, Jerusalem is being seen as a less potent enemy, while suspicion has intensified towards both Trump’s Washington and Tehran.

Comparing the 2019 and 2020 Zogby studies also shows a growing Arab readiness for peace with the Jewish state, should Israel withdraw to 1967 borders and the refugee issue be resolved. The most dramatic figures came from Egypt, where support for peace rose from 46 per cent to 79 per cent in a year. The Saudi figure likewise stood at 79 per cent, rising from 66 per cent the year before.

The shift in Saudi public opinion is remarkable. In 2007, a poll by D3 Systems/KA Europe SPRL for Terror Free Tomorrow found that 51.3 percent of Saudis agreed with the statement that “I oppose any peace treaty recognising the State of Israel, and I favour all Arabs continuing to fight until there is no State of Israel in the Middle East”, with only 29.6 percent agreeing “I would favour a peace treaty recognizing the State of Israel, if an independent Palestinian state is established.”

These numbers are instructive. Egypt is the most populous Arab country and Saudi Arabia, the “Sunni Lion,” is the richest. They are the key formers of Arab opinion and their populations, while still antipathetic, are moving toward more favourable views of Israel.

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves. None of this means that relations between Israel and its array of Arab neighbours are about to suddenly become fraternal.

But the data does show that a certain view of the world that has long dominated the corridors of the Foreign Office and State Department — and that was embodied in Kerry’s short-sighted words — no longer reflects reality.

As Joe Biden takes on the Middle East brief, he must understand that things are changing, and let go of the Arab Street of popular imagination.

February 04, 2021 14:56

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