“The sea is the same sea and the Arabs are the same Arabs,” former prime minister Yitzhak Shamir famously said in 1996, after the Oslo Accords, meant to bring peace with our neighbors, ended with a wave of Palestinian terrorism across Israel. The “sea” was a reference to a once-common trope of Arab leaders calling to drive the Jewish usurpers into the Mediterranean.
Twenty-six years later, a group of Israeli journalists are learning the same thing at the World Cup in Qatar, despite the sea change of the Abraham Accords with four Arab states in 2020.
Of course, it is not fair to paint all Arabs – or any ethnic or national group – with a broad brush as Shamir pithily did. And in this case, it’s the fact that there are Arab leaders and citizens of their country that bucked the trend that seem to have lulled some Israelis into complacency that Israel has somehow become beloved in the Middle East, when that simply is not the case.
The leaders of the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Morocco and Sudan (a more complicated case because of the civil war), and before them, of Egypt and Jordan, had courage and the willingness to think outside the box into which the PLO continues to try to close the Arab League.
The specific motivations differed, and sometimes an American sweetener was needed, but they understood that their official state of war with Israel hasn’t benefitted their countries, nor has it pressured Israel into peace with the Palestinians. They chose, instead, to find ways to cooperate with the regional anomaly, the Jewish state.
These agreements have all been overwhelmingly popular in Israel, as well.
So maybe there’s a logic to how dumbfounded Israeli reporters at the World Cup in Qatar seem to have been over the past week as soccer fans from various Arab states refused to speak to them, harassed them and tried to intimidate them.
Raz Shechnik of Yediot Aharonot tweeted a video that is similar to those of his colleagues.
He approaches a man with a Palestinian flag who refuses to talk to him and says “there’s nothing called Israel; it’s just Palestine,” and the sentiment is echoed by women in kefiyyehs.
When a group of Morocco fans figures out that he’s from Israel, they walk away. “New friend! We have peace,” Shechnik said.
“Israel, no! Palestinians,” the Morocco fans shouted back, from a distance.
"I was always a centrist, liberal and open with a will for peace before all," Shechnik tweeted. "I always thought the problem was governments...But in Qatar, I saw how much hatred there was among people in the street, how interested they are in erasing us from the earth, how everything connected to Israel arouses hatred in them."
Channel 12’s Palestinian Affairs Reporter Ohad Hemo, who regularly traipses around the West Bank to get the opinions of Palestinians on the street, many of whom are hostile, still seemed a bit thrown off by the reaction to him in Doha, which was basically identical to the videos of Shechnik.
“There are a lot of attempts by many people here, from all around the Arab world, to come out against us because we represent normalization,” Hemo told anchor Yonit Levy. “Israelis’ wish came true, we signed peace agreements with four Arab states, but there are also the people, and many of them don’t like our presence here…Verbal confrontations like this happen all the time.”
“Israelis’ wish came true, we signed peace agreements with four Arab states, but there are also the people, and many of them don’t like our presence here…Verbal confrontations like this happen all the time.”Ohad Hemo
As Hemo said, the Abraham Accords were government-to-government agreement, not people-to-people. And, it must be noted, that these governments are authoritarian to varying degrees - not that there really are any other options in the Middle East - so their willingness to make peace does not necessarily reflect that of the people under their rule.
The people do not view the Abraham Accords positively
The Washington Institute for Near East Policy published a poll in July which it introduced as follows: "The wave of Arab countries officially normalizing relations with Israel over the past several years stands in contrast with a growing lack of public support for the Abraham Accords in the Gulf."
Peace with Israel was most popular in UAE and Bahrain, with a not-exactly-whopping 25% and 20% of the public having positive views on the Abraham Accords. The Saudis trail close behind at 19%. In Egypt the number was 13% and Jordan 12%, Kuwait 14% did. Interestingly, Palestinians had much more positive views about the Abraham Accords, with 34% supporting them in Gaza, 25% in the West Bank, and 48% in east Jerusalem.
About half of the Gulf population polled opposed having even business and sports relations with Israelis, even without full normalization. People polled in countries with longstanding relations with Israel, Egypt and Jordan, overwhelmingly opposed such ties - 85% and 87%, respectively.
Qatar was not included in the latest poll, though the article accompanying it notes that in November 2020, about 40% of Qataris polled supported the Accords, and a November 2021 poll suggested that they are about evenly split on the question of business and sports ties with Israel.
The Arab Barometer poll, conducted in 2021-2022 and released in September, found that the only countries in which more than 20% of people supported normalization between Israel and Arab states were Sudan (39%) and Morocco (31%). In Jordan and Egypt, support was as low as 6%. No other countries with peace agreements with Israel nor any Gulf States were included.
This isn’t a knock on the Abraham Accords, or even on peace with Jordan and Egypt. They are all significant and all brought positive results for Israel and for those countries.
But it’s also a wake-up call about the limitations of those agreements. Decades of anti-Israel propaganda don’t just disappear with the flourish of a pen.
Residents all of the aforementioned countries are still exposed to plenty of it in their media, and especially on Al Jazeera, the anti-Israel, antisemitic lodestar of the Arab world, based in and funded by none other than World Cup host Qatar.
The Abraham Accords should give Israelis hope for a better future and greater integration in the Middle East, but they should not be naïve. The sea is the same sea, and public opinion polls show the Arabs are mostly the same Arabs.