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How Arab Governments Manage the Israel Issue

If they could have pressed a button and Israel would have disappeared, almost none of them would have hesitated.
Undated photo of Yasser Arafat (L) sit and President Anwar Sadat (R) in Egypt.

Undated photo of Yasser Arafat (L) sit and President Anwar Sadat (R) in Egypt.
Photo Credit: Abed Rahim Khatib / Flash 90

Originally published at Rubin Reports.

“They got them poor boys makin’ frontal assaults with fixed bayonets on that damned ridge and they can’t see the damned Nips that are shootin’ at ‘em….There just ain’t no sense in that….”

“Yeah, some goddamn glory-happy officer wants another medal, I guess, and the guys get shot up for it. The officer gets the medal and goes back to the States, and he’s a big hero. Hero, my ass; getting troops slaughtered ain’t being no hero.”

–Front-line Marines talking on Peleliu, 1943, in E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed, p. 103 A reader has asked an excellent question. Is it that Arab leaders (and Iranian leaders today) actually believe they’ll wipe Israel off the map? Do they want to do so? Or are they just using this issue cynically to mobilize support for themselves and distract their people’s attention from their domestic failings?

As a starting point, it should be emphasized that using the Israel issue is so attractive and useful because there is a lot of popular support for this attitude. Such a view is deeply rooted in the self-conception of Arabs and Muslims due to their ideology and goals. The “neo-conservative” concept–based on a view of Communist states in Europe–that the pro-democratic masses are being held back by authoritarian rulers who force them to mouth slogans they don’t believe–doesn’t apply so well with the Middle East.

Yet long-term indoctrination has also contributed to this view over the decades as well. Moreover, Muslim Kurds, Turks, and Iranians are far less obsessed with the issue, showing the relative importance of the Arab factor. Still, though, the same thing is now arguable with Islam, when wanting to destroy Israel becomes almost a requirement. On the contrary, however, the Israel card has ceased to protect dictators in Iraq after 2003 and in Syria today.

In other words, there is a long-term and popular basis for this passion but the temperature can be turned up or down by events and rulers.

So the answer, of course, depends on the leader, country, and time. Briefly, I’d say that virtually all Arab leaders have wanted to wipe out Israel but that some have decided that success was impossible and that trying to do so was too costly and risky.

A clear way to put it is this: If they could have pressed a button and Israel would have disappeared, almost none of them would have hesitated. But if you have to spend huge amounts of money, fight full-scale wars, and face the possibility (and increasingly they knew the likelihood) of being defeated that was different.

And while the issue was the top priority of the Palestinian Arabs, the leaders of states also had other issues to consider.

Over time in the Arab nationalist era (1952-2012), more were convinced that it was just too hard and dangerous to fight Israel, at least directly. The problem is that the rise of Islamism starts over from the beginning. Oh sure, say the Islamists, the nationalists failed or didn’t even try because they were cowards, had the wrong ideology and were too eager to be friendly with the West.

But with the Islamist approach, in which Allah’s word is followed and everyone is willing to sacrifice himself, things will be different. There is also an element of cynicism even among these folk.

In addition, another way to look at this issue is that some leaders at times believed their own propaganda. And often the nationalist intelligentsia, clerics, and activists believe total victory was not only possible but inevitable.

Remember, too, that these people have their own view of Israel (Yasir Arafat discussed this point in detail) as a failed nation that could not continue to exist—especially if faced with constant terrorism—because it was weak, decadent, divided, and Jews could never constitute a nation. Never underestimate the factor of profoundly believed disinformation in the Middle East. Just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean millions of people don’t fervently believe it.

So far we have true belief in total victory and Israel’s extinction plus cynical manipulation of the Israel card. There is a third element, peer pressure. Every leader and politician with few exceptions has known that to be less stridently anti-Israel or to admit openly that victory wasn’t possible would be most dangerous to his career.

About the Author: Professor Barry Rubin is director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center and editor of the Middle East Review of International Affairs (MERIA) Journal. See the GLORIA/MERIA site at www.gloria-center.org.


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