What do people and governments in the Arab world really think about Israel, and what are the practical implications?
Like many issues in the Middle East, easy and misleading answers beckon. There are two simple views that fit certain political assumptions: The Arab world would be basically ready for peace with Israel if only it changed policies or made peace with the Palestinians; alternatively, the Arab world wants Israel to be destroyed, and are unlikely to change this position.
Actually, the truth is more complex and multi-layered, something like this:
The great majority of Arabs wish Israel had never been created, and do not believe it should exist. This is unlikely to change.
The great majority of Arabs hope Israel will cease to exist in the future, and this is unlikely to change.
At the same time the great majority are unwilling to make the sacrifices, take the risks, and endure the effort to bring this outcome about. This is especially true of all the incumbent regimes and the general public, except for the radical Islamists.
On the one hand, many think that Israel is an established fact, and Arab efforts will not change this situation. On the other hand, many believe that something - internal contradictions, subversion via returning Palestinian refugees, the pressure of terrorism, a divine act - will rid them of Israel.
All Arab regimes want to avoid war with Israel because they know they would lose. Almost all Arab regimes, however, want to exploit the issue demagogically in order to mobilize support for themselves. Reform is impossible and the people must support the existing rulers, they argue, because the threat from Israel requires continuity and unity. In short, they are mostly ready to live in peace and have diplomatic relations with Israel once there is Israel-Palestinian peace, but they are in no hurry for this day to come.
The problem, then, is that, except for Egypt, the Arab regimes will not do much to help attain peace. They will certainly not pressure the Palestinians, or urge them to compromise on anything.
The big exception is the liberal Arab. Knowing that the conflict is being used as an excuse by the regimes to maintain the status quo, liberal Arabs want rapid progress. Unfortunately, there is not a great deal they can do to help, but merely representing a different standpoint and exposing the demagogic basis of the conflict is a vital contribution.
The number of people in the Arab world who understand Israel as a normal country with legitimate interests and rights is infinitesimal. Such views remain rare in media and intellectual circles, though they are more common than they were 20 years ago.
What are the practical implications of this situation?
First, given the Arab states' assessment of the situation alongside the continually inflamed Arab public opinion and the regimes' interest in using the issue to their own advantage, it will be easy to avoid future state-to-state wars, but hard to achieve formal peace.
Second, since few Arab governments are ready to work for peace, it makes peace much harder to achieve. Ironically, when once they refused to press a reluctant Yasser Arafat, now they refuse to help president-elect Mahmoud Abbas (Abu Mazen) who, whatever his shortcomings, would welcome Arab pressure for moderation.
Third, the hard-liners - Syria and non-Arab Iran - are unfortunately likely to have more influence in increasing terrorism and intransigence than Egypt or Jordan can do in the opposite direction.
Fourth, while much anti-Americanism may be directed against the current Bush administration and would dissipate facing a different president, Arab antagonism to Israel is not linked to a specific government or set of policies.
Fifth, however, Arab regime attitudes toward Israel are very much de-linked from Palestinian interests. Abu Mazen (Abbas) is not going to tell Arab leaders what to do. This is the result of both long-term trends and the Oslo accords. Whatever else Arafat took back, he could not cancel his signature to the peace process.
Sixth, the importance of the Arab-Israeli conflict to the Arab world has plummeted, and the rise of a threatening revolutionary Islamism has made this even truer. People might pretend otherwise so as to try to get Western pressure on Israel, but arguing that the conflict is the region's most important issue is openly nonsense.
Indeed, were the conflict to end in a negotiated agreement, radical forces would declare such a step treason and redouble their efforts at subversion.
Finally, if Israel and the Palestinians made peace (something still quite far off), three North African countries (Algeria, Morocco, and Tunisia) and six Gulf countries (Kuwait, United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, and Oman) would probably join Egypt, Jordan, and Mauritania in full diplomatic relations with Israel.
Libya (at least the way dictator Mu'ammar Gaddafi feels this week), Yemen, and Iraq would probably do the same. Only Lebanon, Syria, Sudan, and non-Arab Iran would refuse.
[Ed Note: Many are optimistic that some kind of permanent peace can now be arranged. Most of us know, from a Biblical perspective, that no real peace will occur until the Prince of Peace intervenes. But that may not be very long off; the next few years will be exciting, indeed! Be ready! Do your homework.]
2005. All rights reserved, used by permission of the author. Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center at the Interdisciplinary Center in Herzliya, and coauthor of Yasir Arafat: A Political Biography and Hating America: A History (Oxford University Press, August 2004).]