It’s time to put an old aphorism to rest. For decades, Middle East analysts and journalists have used the informal phrase “the Arab Street,” to describe public opinion in the Arab world. The term is often used to imply monolithic thought that the United States and others must, it is said, heed when contemplating policy decisions. Western policymakers and pundits, for example, have often warned that increased support for the world’s sole Jewish state would come at the expense of relations with Arab nations; pro-Israel positions might cause “the Arab street” to implode. But evidence suggests otherwise.
As David Pollock, an analyst with the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, noted more than a quarter of a century ago: Arab opinion, while “measurable,” is “anything but uniform, or static” even on “enduring and seemingly mobilizing issues.” Pollock, who regularly monitors opinions and polls in the Middle East, conducted his 1993 study after many analysts incorrectly predicted mass uprisings in response to the deployment of U.S. and U.N. forces in Saudi Arabia in order to prevent an invasion by Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.
When it comes to Israel, Western decision makers and bureaucrats have long warned of “the Arab street” reaction if the U.S. was viewed as too supportive of the Jewish state. Dennis Ross documented these warnings—and their frequent failure to materialize— in his 2016 book Doomed to Succeed: The U.S.-Israel Relationship from Truman to Obama. Ross, a former State Department and National Security Council official, provides a litany of failed prognostications resulting from misreading Arab nations and motivations.
In the aftermath of World War II and the Holocaust, President Harry Truman bucked his top foreign policy advisers—many of them labeled the “Wise Men” for their role in crafting early Cold War policies—by deciding to recognize Israel. Venerable figures such as Secretary of State Gen. George C. Marshall, the former Army chief of staff during World War II, James Forrestal, the first Secretary of Defense, and the famed diplomat George Kennan, among others, vehemently opposed Truman’s decision.
These advisers, understandably concerned with potential Soviet penetration of the region and access to oil, “conjured up terrible consequences” for the United States “for acting in any way that alienated the Arabs,” Ross noted. Marshall warned, “There was a danger that if the Jewish state came into being it would be a front for the Soviets.” Paradoxically, others worried that support for Israel would push Arab nations into Soviet arms. As Marshall’s future successor at Foggy Bottom, Dean Acheson, warned, supporting Israel’s re-establishment would “imperil…all Western interests in the Near East.”
Ross pointed out: “The groupthink in the national security establishment was so deep—and the certainty of the terrible consequences so great—that the inherent inconsistencies in the arguments were somehow overlooked. How could the Jewish state be a Soviet client and not cost the Soviets with the Arabs?”
Forrestal was sure of the outcome of the impending Arab war against the fledgling Jewish state: “Forty million Arabs are going to push four hundred thousand Jews into the sea. And that’s all there is to it. Oil—that is the side we ought to be on.” One CIA estimate predicted, “Without substantial outside aid in terms of manpower and material, they [the Jews] will be able to hold out no longer than two years.” Kennan agreed that it was “improbable that the Jewish state could survive over any considerable period of time.”
Of course, Israel successfully fended off the attempt by five Arab nations to smother it at its rebirth—and it did so despite a U.S. arms embargo. Instead of becoming a Soviet proxy, Israel became an outpost for western liberalism and democracy in the Middle East, as well as a reliable ally immune from the coups and instability that plagued many of its neighbors. And, in the decades to come, Washington even managed to maintain—even enhance—relations with many of the Arab countries that opposed U.S. recognition of Israel.
Indeed, Saudi King Abdul Aziz Ibn Al Saud increased ties with America despite his earlier dire threats and supposedly “implacable” opposition. Nonetheless, subsequent administrations continued to misread “the Arab street,” overstating its impact on the U.S.-Israel relationship.
The Eisenhower administration entered office believing, like Marshall and Forrestal before them, that close relations with Israel hindered relations with potential Arab allies. It would “seek policies which would be more fair and more just than those of the past” and it would be “prepared to consider measures and concert actions to prevent aggression by Israel,” as Ike’s Secretary of State, John Foster Dulles, told Lebanese leaders during an extensive Middle East tour in 1953.
Accordingly, the administration reduced the small amount of aid being provided via the Export-Import Bank and, in October 1953, even briefly suspended assistance. Dulles also pushed the Israelis into a water-sharing plan with the Jordanians, Palestinian refugees and Syria—a plan that Israel accepted but the Arab League rejected. The administration also increased support for an organization called American Friends of the Middle East, a “CIA front that sought to weaken support for the Jewish state in the U.S,” according to historian Michael Doran.
As Ross summed up, “The message was clear: there would be no reluctance to distance ourselves from the Israelis, and even penalize them, as we pursued partnerships with the Arabs.”
Eisenhower’s desire to attract Arab leaders by putting distance between the United States and Israel culminated with the 1956 Suez Crisis, in which Washington forced Israel to return lands won in a conflict with Egypt—even threatening Israel with sanctions and expulsion from the United Nations should it not comply.
Yet, as Doran documented in his 2016 book, Ike’s Gamble, the administration handed Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser a significant victory. Nasser repaid U.S. assistance and aid by becoming a Soviet client state anyway. Soon, pro-Soviet Arab regimes cropped up in Iraq, Syria and elsewhere in the Arab world. Arab leaders, it turned out, have their own priorities.
Several other U.S. administrations continued to treat “the Arab street” as monolithic and overestimated the negative impact that close relations with Israel would have. As Ross chronicled, many of them have, to varying degrees, repeated the mistaken thinking that ties with Israel always come at the expense of partnerships with other Middle Eastern countries.
But when the United States puts what Obama’s Deputy Secretary of State Jim Steinberg called “daylight” between it and the Jewish state, history shows that “our influence does not increase; our ties with conservative Arab monarchies do not materially improve. Neither is there any decline in those relationships during administrations that are putatively seen as being closer to Israel.”
Misreading the Middle East is not confined to diplomats and politicians; journalists also engage in the same faulty analysis.
When the Trump administration announced in December 2017 that it would belatedly implement the bipartisan Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 and recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital, commentators howled with disapproval, warning that “the Arab street” would explode. NPR, The Washington Post, The New York Times, and USA Today, among others, filed dozens of reports warning about an impending disaster. Arab nations would punish the United States they warned—and if those regimes failed to express adequate disapproval, they risked being overthrown.
Middle East analyst Noah Pollak highlighted several of the overblown predictions in the Washington Free Beacon. U.S. personnel were “at great risk” warned Ned Price, an Obama administration official and frequent media contributor. Susan Glasser, then of Politico and now at The New Yorker, breathlessly repeated claims that “the entire region…could be set on fire.” Ben Rhodes, another Obama senior official turned pundit, said that “an international crisis” would commence and “a huge blowback against the U.S. and Americans” was likely to materialize. “Pray,” said The New York Times’ Anne Barnard.
Of course, these doomsday warnings came to naught. Some isolated incidents of violence and protest did occur. But the region was not set ablaze. And not only have U.S. relations with Arab countries continued to improve, but Israel has continued to burnish ties with the Muslim world.
The year after the embassy move saw both Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu visit Oman and Israeli ministers tour the United Arab Emirates—historic firsts. On Jan. 6, 2019 it was revealed that an Iraqi delegation visited Israel, meeting with government officials and visiting Yad VaShem.
Egyptian leader Abdel Fattah el-Sissi said in a January 2019 interview with CBS News that cooperation with Israel was the closest that it has ever been. Meanwhile, Israeli relations with Bahrain and Saudi Arabia continue to warm—motivated in large measure over a shared concern with Iran, a revisionist and imperialist power that seeks regional hegemony.
None of this is to say that hostility towards Israel has evaporated in the region. Polling shows that antisemitism and hatred of the Jewish state are ever present. Indeed, Jordan, which has had a peace treaty with Israel for more than two decades, has nonetheless protected Palestinian terrorists like Ahlam Tamimi, hosted Hamas officials, and allowed trade unions to use Israeli flags as doormats.
But, when it comes to the U.S.-Israel relationship, the history of “the Arab street” analysis suggests that blanket metaphors make bad barometers. History shows that Arab rulers have their own purposes and priorities—and in many cases anti-Israel animus is increasingly taking a back seat. For journalists and policymakers, “the Arab street” is a dead-end.
(Note: A slightly different version of this Op-Ed appeared in the Algemeiner on Jan. 14, 2018)