Israel and the Arab world: Needed by the rulers, hated by the people

The incident at the embassy in Amman this week is emblematic of Israel’s wider problem in the Middle East.

People attend the funeral of Mohammad Jawawdah in Amman, Jordan July 25, 2017.  (photo credit: REUTERS)
People attend the funeral of Mohammad Jawawdah in Amman, Jordan July 25, 2017.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
This week’s stabbing and shooting incident at Israel’s embassy compound in Amman, the manner in which it was resolved, and the reactions on the street in Jordan say much about Israel’s current situation in the Mideast.
The neighboring governments – or at least some of them – need Israel, want its security and intelligence cooperation, and even appreciate what the country has to offer in the fight against their greater threats in the region: Iran and fanatical Islamic terrorism.
The people, on the other hand, hate the Jewish state.
The first part of the above equation explains why Jordan’s King Abdullah II let the embassy security guard go back to Israel after he was stabbed Sunday night, and fired two shots that killed the assailant and another man at the scene.
Scene of attack at Israel"s embassy in Jordan (credit: REUTERS)
The second part of the equation explains the Jordanian public’s furious reaction to the release of the guard. While the incensed public reaction can be explained in part by the fact that the guard did kill two Jordanians – one, evidently, who had nothing to do with the stabbing – there was more to the anger than just this incident, and it reflects a deep, intense hostility toward Israel felt by many Jordanians.
Just witness the praise heard in the Jordanian parliament for the three Israeli Arabs who killed two border policemen on the Temple Mount on July 14.
The speaker of the parliament, Atef Tarawneh, offered this prayer for the dead terrorists: “May the mercy of Allah be upon our martyrs who sowed and watered the pure land. We will raise our heads through the sacrifice of the young Palestinians who are still fighting in the name of the nation.”
Witness as well the angry marches in Amman following the installation of the metal detectors on the Temple Mount – even before the incident in the embassy compound – where protesters chanted, “How beautiful it is to kill soldiers from Jerusalem.”
Abdullah let the security guard return to Israel because he realizes the utility – the importance – of good cooperation with Israel: military cooperation, intelligence cooperation, and cooperation in the form of buying from Israel desperately needed water and gas.
Israel plays a critical role in the survival of the Hashemite Kingdom. The king knows it, his inner circle knows it, the people less so. The Hashemite Kingdom’s survival depends on the US, Saudi Arabia, and Israel – yes, Israel, though that is obviously not going to be something that Abdullah broadcasts to his people.
Jordan, of course, is also of critical strategic importance to Israel – providing a key buffer to the east – but the relationship is not symmetrical.
If Abdullah were toppled, Israel would survive, albeit with additional headaches from the east.
If Israel were to cease to exist, however, it is not clear whether the Hashemite Kingdom – with over a million refugees who have filtered down from Syria, hostile Shi’a forces on its eastern border with Iraq, and a fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood constituency within – would endure.
Abdullah wants and needs this relationship.
As a result, he is not going to let a stabbing attack at the Israel Embassy, or even metal detectors at the Temple Mount, destroy it, and indeed will work to find a way to resolve these issues.
At the same time, Abdullah is well attuned to the mood of his people. With public opinion furious, he has to flex a muscle toward Israel, which explains his angry outburst at Netanyahu when the king returned from abroad on Thursday. This also explains Jordan’s threat not to let Israel reopen the embassy in Amman until the guard is placed on trial. He, too, has domestic considerations.
Despite, these considerations, however, he did work this week to try to resolve both crises.
The guard issue was resolved within 30 hours, the Temple Mount issue was trickier, largely because while Jordan had an interest in calming down passions, others – from Hamas to elements inside the Palestinian Authority, to the Northern Branch of the Islamic Movement in Israel, to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan – had an interest in fanning them.
That Abdullah was so heavily involved in trying to resolve both issues shows the strength of Israel’s relationship with the government of Jordan. With the government, but not with the people. And there is one of Israel’s major problems right now in the Middle East – good relations with select rulers, miserable relations with the masses.
Israel has peace agreements with Egypt and Jordan that have stood both the test of time and of crisis. Those governments appreciate the importance of the relations and benefit mightily from them, as does Israel. But none of that has filtered down to the people.
And therein lies Israel’s dilemma.
After nearly 70 years, Israel has established itself as a presence in the region. But, as former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak was quoted as saying in an interview to the German news magazine Der Spiegel in the mid-1990s, Israel is “a knife plunged into the heart of the nations of this region.”
It is the difference between recognizing Israel as an existing fact, which Yasser Arafat did in a letter to Yitzhak Rabin in 1993, and PA President Mahmoud Abbas’s continuous refusal to recognize Israel as the nation-state of the Jewish people.
The latter type of recognition would signal a recognition not only of Israel the fact, but of its legitimate right to exist. An existing fact you might believe you can eventually move; a legitimate right is something you will have to accommodate yourself to.
The governments of Jordan and Egypt have come around to recognizing that Israel is an immovable object in the region. Not only is it an immovable object, but also one that could be helpful to them. So they cooperate.
The people, however, are at a different place, nourished for decades on the idea that Israel is an oppressor, a usurper, a tool of the colonialist West, a passing historical episode. Even in countries with which Israel has peace treaties, such as Egypt and Jordan, this narrative has never been abandoned.
During the 30 years when Mubarak ruled Egypt with an iron fist, there was a huge anomaly in the relationship with Israel.
On the one hand Mubarak carefully kept the peace treaty, yet on the other he let a virulent anti-Israeli, even antisemitic press flourish in the country. Wasn’t that a contradiction? Peace on one hand, yet hatefilled articles and television programs in the state run media on the other? It was a contradiction, but one that served Mubarak’s purpose. The peace with Israel was good for Egypt (just as it was good for Israel). But encouraging the hate of Israel on the street was also good for Mubarak, because it diverted the public’s attention from his abuses of power and the real issues facing the country – issues that came to the fore in the events of 2011 that deposed him.
Saudi Arabia and Israel, according to various accounts, currently have close security cooperation because of the common threat of Iran and jihadist fundamentalist terrorism, whether of the Shi’a or Sunni variety.
But the Saudis are unable to make any of that cooperation public, unwilling to admit to these ties. Instead, the Saudis remove Israeli-grown fruits from supermarket shelves and block access to websites with stories about Saudi plans to normalize ties with Israel.
Why? Because after 70 years of educating the people to believing that Israel is evil incarnate, a passing nightmare for the Muslim world, the country’s rulers can’t just wake up one morning, slap their foreheads with their palms and say, “Our bad, Israel really is not all that terrible, let’s make a deal.”
And all this shows the limits of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s idea of leveraging cooperation with the Sunni states – such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain, Kuwait, Jordan and Egypt – into a regional accommodation that would enable making peace with the Palestinians easier to achieve.
The Arab masses have not shown any inclination of wanting to accept or make peace with Israel, at least not until the Palestinian issue is resolved, if ever. And their governments are not going to broadcast a message of Israel’s legitimacy to their peoples, for fear that this would call into question their own.
Which means that a situation exists whereby Jerusalem is cooperating quietly and intensively with the Sunni regimes, something good for both sides, but not getting in return what it needs: a message that it is not the devil.
What happened in Jordan this week was a perfect illustration of this dilemma. Because the relationship with Israel is so important, Abdullah moved quickly to resolve the crisis over the embassy guard. But notice: his people seethed, and because they seethed, Abdullah felt compelled to lash out strongly at Netanyahu and Israel.
Abdullah needs Israel, but he also needs domestic quiet, and that balancing act is not at all an easy one to master..