The Role Of Public Opinion In Normalizing Israeli-Arab Ties

A series of moves have taken place this past year by governments hailing from North Africa and the Middle East (otherwise known as MENA) in pursuit of formally normalizing diplomatic relations with Israel. Often professed by the Trump administration as representing something along the lines of a flagship development in this normalization process, the U.S.-led “Abraham Accords” received signatures from Israel, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain in September 2020. While the strength of this normalization effort was later fortified upon the subsequent joining of other MENA governments such as Sudan and Morocco, analysts have recently made note of some vulnerabilities associated with the incentives President Trump dangled in exchange for these states to come to terms with the agreement, which purportedly manifest as major threats to the Accords’ enactment.

The identification of such threats promptly attracted vehement coverage in news reporting, which were efficacious in stimulating widespread fear and speculation over the effect of a potential agreement fall-through in the ability of Israeli-Arab normalization being successfully achieved. However, much like the initial presentation of the Abraham Accords after they were signed in September, recently-identified obstacles with its enactment have been incorrectly framed as the central facet of Israeli-normalization. Rather, a separate, and perhaps more pertinent or influential detriment to the success of genuine normalization- involving public opinion has not received nearly the same level of attention in the dominant discourse concerning Israeli-Arab peace.

As expounded by the New York Times in an article from December, there are uncertainties over whether these accords will survive the executive change in foreign policy ethos that would come along with the change in U.S. executive administration this month. These uncertainties stem primarily from questions surrounding whether Congress under the direction of President-elect Biden will approve, respect, or uphold the various incentives put forward by the Trump administration, which were necessary for reaching agreeance with many of the nations involved in these peace accords. From a purely Trumpian perspective, this looming threat (i.e. the very real possibility that these agreements flounder) arouse anxieties or concerns primarily because it would undermine one of the president’s highest-valued foreign policy achievements since taking office.

However, the greater issue at stake in terms of the prospect that these U.S.-initialized peace accords fall through — especially for those concerned with the longevity of Israeli statehood (and perhaps simply for those who desire a successful and sustained regional détente and believe the accords were a viable means of doing so) — is that it would make reaching rapprochement between Israel and its Arab neighbours exceedingly difficult. Others have raised doubts over the chances that the Biden administration will revoke the Trump-proposed incentives that enticed states to join the Abraham Accords, as this would effectively jeopardize the agreements already established and thus run counter to the interests of Israel, currently the United States’ strongest Middle Eastern ally. Echoing this sentiment, Israel’s previous ambassador to the United Nations, Danny Danon, stated to the New York Times, “I think President-elect Biden will try to continue with the momentum because it’s beneficial for the U.S., it’s beneficial for the allies of the U.S., and I think that will be the right thing to do.”

The media spotlight that has been cast on the potential demise of the accords can suggest a general overemphasis on the role of government-level peacemaking in current diplomatic normalization discourse. This means that other elements and considerations that are also imperative to genuine normalization have taken a backseat. One factor that has been woefully neglected in media discussions around this topic is the level of support for Israel-normalization among Arabs. 

A survey conducted by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies in Qatar found that an overwhelming majority of Arabs around the world oppose diplomatic recognition of Israel. Among the countries sampled in the polling data was Saudi Arabia, where surveys indicated only six per cent of the sample population supported diplomatic recognition of Israel. Qatar was also included in the report, where the polling data found that 88 per cent of the respondents denounce their country’s normalization with Israel. Overall, nearly 90 per cent opposed normalization, where a vast majority said that they would not support normalization unless the Palestinian conflict was settled. The methodology in retrieving this data involved face-to-face interviews with roughly 28,000 citizens of 13 Arab countries between November 2019 to September 2020. 

This polling highlights a key element to normalization of relations which extends beyond regional diplomacy that has insofar been neglected by both Western media, as well as the MENA governments involved in peace negotiations with Israel. For true normalization to occur, the governments of Arab countries must find a way to gain more public support on the matter. If individuals’ attitudes towards Israel remain in their current state, genuine normalization is impossible. Even if state officials of these countries manage to reach formal agreeance over normalizing diplomatic ties with Israel in the form of peace treaties such as the Abraham Accords, this would still leave a critical component of the equation unanswered. If the Arab governments involved in the Abraham Accords continue on while ignoring the will of the public, this would leave too much opportunity for (and perhaps inspire) forms of civilian uprisings and more expressions of Israeli-dissent, such as acts of terrorism. Whether the governments recognize public opinion as a necessary consideration in rapprochement will reflect the motives behind their normalization efforts — are they driven principally by altruistic intentions or geostrategic gain?


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