A New Self-Understanding Dawns in the Middle East

The intellectual shifts revealed by the new peace agreements between Israel and three Arab nations could turn out to be as significant as their economic and military benefits.

Downtown Dubai at sunrise on December 07, 2016. Rustam Azmi/Getty Images.

Downtown Dubai at sunrise on December 07, 2016. Rustam Azmi/Getty Images.

Nov. 3 2020
About the authors

Hillel Fradkin is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute, director of its Center on Islam, Democracy, and the Future of the Muslim World, and co-editor of the journal Current Trends in Islamist Ideology. He is currently at work simultaneously on one book about the conflict between Sunni and Shiite Islam and another on the literary unity of the Pentateuch.

Lewis Libby is senior vice president of the Hudson Institute and guides its program on national security and defense issues.

This article is part of Mosaic‘s continuing coverage of the diplomatic revolution in the Middle East. A further installment in that coverage will appear next week.

“We were wrong, wrong about Israel!” As the Israeli Arab journalist Khalid Abu Toameh has observed, this statement sums up many public Arab reactions to the new peace treaties between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and, most recently, Sudan. Beneath the acknowledgment of past error lies an acknowledgment of something more, a long-supressed reality that important Arab public figures—from political officials to clerics to intellectuals—are now openly proclaiming: that the Arab world has been the primary author of its own pain.

Such realizations are, of course, only one benefit the new treaties promise, and it is presently outweighed by several others. On a security level, the new strategic, political, and military order implied in them establishes Israel and the Sunni “pragmatic” camp as a strong counter to the aggressive threats of Iran and Turkey, both of which have, of course, therefore denounced the deals. On an economic level, the treaties propose commercial, technological, and educational ties that promise more diversified and prosperous economies within the “pragmatic” camp. And on a social level, the new alignment furthers Israel’s long-delayed cultural integration into the region.

Yet over the long term, Arab admissions of error about Israel may prove to be the most important effect of the accords, both for the Arab world and perhaps throughout the Muslim world more generally. These admissions may signal the beginnings of a new sensibility among Arabs and Sunni Muslims about their political and social situation, a rare sensibility more congenial to self-critical reflection which, until now, has constituted a major obstacle to the region’s progress. If this aborning self-concsiousness takes root in the Middle East, the blockbuster 2020 agreements with Israel could prove to be the cause of an intellectual shift potentially as great as those in the more obvious political, military, and economic realms.


To see how this could come to be, let’s take a step back and first look at how the Arabs were wrong about Israel, why they were wrong, and what role that error played in their own internal misfortunes.

Put most simply, the error was the notion that Israel was an enemy of Arabs, Muslims, and their states; or, rather, that Israel was the enemy, the most crucial enemy, the enemy that had to be not only defeated but utterly eradicated because it disrupted the harmony and progress of the Arab and Muslim world. Put in plain language this may sound absurd, but it would be difficult to overestimate how much this view was until recently central to Arab and Muslim sensibility.

As Abu Toameh put it, “for most Arabs the terms peace and normalization with Israel were associated with extremely negative connotations: humiliation, submission, defeat, and shame.” The same was true for many non-Arab Muslims. (Iran and Turkey, two of the most vociferous present critics of Israel’s recent agreements, have attacked them precisely in those terms.) The shame and humiliation derived not only or even primarily from the lack of a Palestinian state. Rather, it stemmed from the fact that the agent of that situation was not merely one of many Middle Eastern states but the sole Jewish one. To be defeated by a Jewish state was an inadmissible indignity and dishonor; the force of the subsequent motive toward denial has not been properly appreciated by outsiders to the region.

This denial has obviously caused Israel much grief through the many wars and heavy suffering it has had to endure. But it has also placed great costs on Arab and Muslim societies. Among those costs the Arab world inflicted upon itself were lost capacities of critical self-reflection on their own fundamental problems. The absence of self-reflection led to a failure to take responsibility for those problems. To the question of what ailed Arab and Muslim politics and society there was always this simple and widely-accepted answer: the state of Israel. If only it could be eliminated, all would be well.

Since Israel’s founding, the claim that Israel is evil, indeed the source of all evil, was propounded more or less continually to the Arab and the greater Muslim public. It was elaborated through a great variety of false charges, including especially repugnant ones such as blood libels. Recourse was frequently made to biological analogies: Israel was a virus, or a cancer that had to be “cut out” of the Middle East if the whole region was not to be fatally infected.

Still, over the course of a half-century, as Arab and Muslim societies made little progress in resolving their problems, recognition grew within these societies that Israel was not the source of their dysfunction. The Arab Development Report of 2002, authored by Arabs under the auspices of the United Nations, expressed that largely-suppressed truth. Still, generally speaking, these truths were not loudly proclaimed within the Arab public sphere. The many temptations in those lands to blame Israel remained too strong to resist, and those who did manage to assess the Muslim world without excusing it, like the late and great Arab scholar Fouad Ajami, were denounced.


The new deals have now shattered that hollow discourse. They declare that Israel is not the enemy it was alleged to be, and, promising a “warm peace,” they facilitate broad economic and cultural exchanges, not merely the absence of war. Israel, the Emirates, Bahrain, and Sudan are acknowledging, is not the problem. Israel is a partner on the path toward solving Middle Eastern woes.

The phrase “warm peace” is meant to distinguish the new treaties from the older ones between Israel and Egypt and Jordan, which were typically described as formalizing a “cold peace”—a peace established at the top as a concession to military and political necessity and not a cultural rapprochement drawing strength from popular enthusiasm. Egyptians justified their treaty primarily by the way it returned the Sinai to Egyptian control; continuing distrust was embodied in the stationing of international troops to separate the foes. Neither Egyptians nor Jordanians expected peace to involve friendly relations and business partnerships with Israeli civilians. Indeed, Egyptian and Jordanian media continued to decry and denounce Israel.

By contrast, the UAE’s minister of the economy, Abdulla bin Touq al-Marri, recently said, “What makes this different is that we are very, very excited”—words unimaginable coming from the mouth of an Egyptian leader. Indeed, responding to ferocious criticism of the deals, UAE and Bahraini leaders have defended them boldly as a broadly positive development. The UAE embassy in Washington, headed by Ambassador Youssef al-Oteiba, responded to the deals’ opponents by pointing out that the “rants say something about the world they want to see.” These governmental responses have been seconded and elaborated on by many other public figures in the Gulf, including clerics and intellectuals.

To be sure, this discussion may not be entirely free and spontaneous. We know from the experience of totalitarian states like Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union that publicly-expressed attitudes can fluctuate rapidly as governments switch course. Nevertheless, the changes in Arab discourse regarding Israel seem wide and fervent enough to indicate something sturdier than simply a new official line. Rather, they seem to bespeak views that were developing over some time, waiting for the opportunity to be let out. In their historical scope and detail they go notably beyond the minimum necessary to defend the deals. And, most crucially, they have not unleashed the vehement and widespread explosions of opposition throughout the Sunni world which would have been expected in decades past.

Could opposition have been muted for reasons of national security? Given that the parties to the deals share serious enemies—Iran, Turkey, and their radical Islamist allies like the Muslim Brotherhood—it stands to reason that they now consider Israel an ally that serves their own security needs. Anwar Gargash, the UAE’s foreign minister, declared that Iran’s aggression had caused Abu Dhabi to reevaluate its relationship with Israel “with fresh eyes.”

But the parties have gone farther than a willingness to name Israel a present ally. They have gone so far as to examine the last 70 years of anti-Israel discourse, and to question whether Israel was ever the principal enemy of the Arabs that discourse made it out to be. As the well-known Saudi writer Fahd al-Degaither put it, “We were told that Israel’s slogan was to expand ‘From the Euphrates to the Nile,’ that is, that Israel was a menacing expansionist state. [But it is rather] Iran that does not hide its expansionist ideological trend which it is already practicing through the militias in Lebanon, Iraq, and Yemen. Turkey, [meanwhile], is seeking to seize new sources of energy in Libya.” Khaled bin Hamad al-Malik, editor of the important Saudi daily Al-Jazirah (not to be confused with the similarly named Qatari media outlet), reviewing the history of the past 70 years of struggle with Israel, observed that prior wars had “led to the loss of Egyptian and Jordanian lands that were subsequently regained via reconciliation with Israel.” Israel, in other words, is not and was never the expansionist menace it had been said to be.

The distinguished UAE cleric Wassem Yousef declared, even more remarkably, that “Israel did not destroy Syria; Israel did not burn Libya; Israel did not displace the people of Egypt; Israel did not tear up Lebanon. Before you Arabs blame Israel, take a look at yourselves in the mirror. The problem is in you.”


What of the issue of Palestine in this discussion? After all, the argument might go, even if Israel has not been the enemy of the Arab and Muslim world in general, has it not been the enemy of the Palestinians? And is that not sufficient for good Arabs and Muslims to oppose it? The young Egyptian Hussein Aboubakr recently wrote in Commentary of his own youth and the sensibility that infused it, eloquently summing up that historical attitude toward the idea of Palestine:

Few words—none, really—were fused with the fascinations, aspirations, emotions, longing, and mystical forces that the term “Palestine” summoned in me. Palestine was never merely a disputed geographical territory; it was a claim to the absolute fulfillment of the Islamic political vision, an eternal moral truth, secularized in Arab nationalism and sanctified in Islamism. . . . To evoke Palestine was to evoke Islamic brotherhood and Arab honor, for it was a reservoir of identity and a proof of faith. Palestine was the fulfillment of a status of spiritual purity of the Muslim individual and the whole body of Islam.

Hoping still to draw upon such sensibilities, the Palestinian leadership and its allies have ferociously denounced the UAE and its allies for neglecting this facet of alleged Israeli enmity and injustice. In a moment of triumphalism, Saleh al-Arouri, deputy chairman of the Hamas Political Bureau, declared, “You, [Israel], should know that we have a new generation that can drag your nose through the mud and bring us victory.”

Yet this reaction has not led either Arab leaders or Arab publics to rally around the Palestinians. Instead it’s sparked a review of the Palestinian position. And many have concluded that it is not principally Israel that has been the chief enemy of the Palestinians but the Palestinians themselves—or, rather, their leadership and those who have supported it.

The charges now laid against the Palestinian leadership are grave and comprehensive. According to the Emirati writer Issa bin Arabi Albuflasah, “Palestinian leaders are the main cause of the suffering of their people. They have achieved nothing for the Palestinians. They only care about power and achieving personal and partisan gains at the expense of the Palestinian issue.” According to the distinguished Saudi writer Osama Yamani, the Palestinian leaders “benefit from the problems and suffering of their people. There is no solution under corrupt leadership.”

Some critics complain of the ingratitude and fecklessness of the Palestinian leadership. Another Saudi author, Amal Abdel Aziz al-Hazany, has written:

The Arabs, especially Saudi Arabia, have provided everything possible in favor of the Palestinian issue and millions of dollars have not stopped flowing to the PLO without accountability, but with the hope that it would spend this money to provide a decent life for the Palestinians. [But] times change, everything has changed, except for the Palestinian mood that rejects anything and everything.

Yet another Saudi complains in similar terms:

Unfortunately Palestinian leaders repeat the same mistakes. They rejected the Egyptian and Jordan peace initiatives [with Israel] and they rejected President Bill Clinton’s peace initiative. These days they reject President Donald Trump’s peace initiative and finally they reject the peace initiatives of the UAE and Bahrain.

To these complaints is added the charge that Palestinian leaders have not only harmed their own people in pursuit of their revolutionary goals; they’ve harmed their Arab cousins, too. Yasir Arafat and other leaders did, after all, leave behind a trail of destruction in the various Arab countries that hosted them: Jordan where in 1970 Arafat attempted to overthrow the monarchy; Lebanon in which he fomented a civil war that lasted from 1975 to 1990; and Kuwait, where in 1990 Arafat embraced and celebrated Saddam Hussein’s invasion and occupation.

These complaints have most recently culminated in an extraordinary extended statement by Saudi prince Bandar bin Sultan. Prince Bandar was the Saudi ambassador to the United States from 1983 to 2005 and thereafter head of Saudi intelligence. He and his family remain important figures within the Saudi regime: his daughter Princess Reema bint Bandar is the Saudi ambassador to the United States, and his son Prince Khalid bin Bandar is the current Saudi ambassador to the United Kingdom.

Bandar delivered his views in the form of a lengthy disquisition delivered over three days on Al-Arabiya, the most important Saudi broadcast network. “My words,” he announced, “are directed at my brothers and sisters, Saudi Arabian citizens, because they are my priority and they are the priority for their country.” Refuting the attacks by Palestinian leaders, Bandar denounced as entirely unacceptable “their transgression against the Gulf states’ leadership with this reprehensible discourse.” But he also added, “I think it is only fair to the Palestinian people to know some truths that have not been discussed or have been kept hidden.”

Here he undertook a review of past history, drawing upon privileged information gathered from his long and intimate personal involvement in Saudi political affairs. In great detail, he described the many services that Saudi Arabia had performed on behalf of the Palestinians and their leadership and the Arab struggle to defeat Israel, many of which were heretofore not publicly known. Yet, he claimed, with each service rendered, the Palestinians had behaved in ways that guaranteed their own failure.

Whenever they asked for advice and help, we would provide them with both without expecting anything in return, but they would take the help and ignore the advice. Then they would fail and turn back to us again and we would support them again, regardless of their mistakes and of the fact that they knew they should have taken our advice. We went even further as a state and justified to the whole world the actions of the Palestinians, while we knew that they indeed were not justified, but we did not wish to stand with anyone against them, nor did we wish to see the consequences of their actions reflected on the Palestinian people. . . . But they have become convinced that there is no price to pay for any mistakes they commit toward the Saudi leadership and the Saudi state or the Gulf leaderships and states.

Prince Bandar then went on to complain about the Palestinian leadership’s record of biting the hands that fed and hosted it. Among many examples, he cited Arafat’s behavior at the time of Saddam Hussein’s invasion of Kuwait, when Arafat met with Saddam in Baghdad, “laughing and joking with him as he congratulated him for what had happened.” Then, in the first Gulf War, as then-Ambassador Bandar recalled, Palestinian leaders stood by Saddam, even as he “struck the capital of Saudi Arabia with missiles. That was the first time anybody launched missiles at the capital of Saudi Arabia. Even Israel did not launch missiles at the kingdom!”

Bandar’s overall conclusion is perhaps best summed up in the following words, and his invocation of sacred scripture: “These people, [Palestinians and their Iranian and Turkish allies], as I have said before, are disillusioned [or deluded], and in the undisputed words of God, the Almighty: ‘Indeed Allah will not change the condition of a people until they change what is in themselves.’”

It must be noted here that Bandar still regards the establishment of the state of Israel as an “injustice.” But he also indicates that the Palestinian leadership could have had a reasonable settlement many times in the past. Thus, his remarks represent a massive change in the way Israel as enemy is to be understood.


Beyond these striking indictments of Palestinian leaders, there is an additional and perhaps still more remarkable component to the present debate: it includes sympathy for Israel, respect and admiration for the great success Israel has proved to be, and the hope that its experience may prove instructive. In an article entitled “What Can We Learn from Israel?” the distinguished Emirati media figure Yousuf al-Sharif declares:

We have much to learn from the Israeli experience in many areas. What experience [am I referring to] and what can we learn from Israel? In the 70 years since it declared its independence, Israel has faced many challenges: the challenges of establishing a state in the circumstances [that prevailed at the time] and of maintaining its security amid this historic conflict. This is experience we can benefit from and study in depth, putting aside our emotions and sympathy for one side at the expense of the other. The fact is that Israel has excelled at maintaining [itself] . . . despite wars which almost threatened its existence. We should benefit from this experience and plumb the secrets that led to its outcomes.

Others put the stress on Israel’s creation of a prosperous society. The distinguished Saudi author Mohammed al-Sheikh writes, “Israel is an advanced and superior country in all fields and by creating a space for peaceful cooperation with it we believe we will benefit from its progress and superiority.” Rejecting the critics of the new peace, he says that they “do not care about development and modernization and that is why they are at the bottom of countries in terms of modernity and development.”

Thus Israel, far from being the enemy, or even an enemy, is now spoken of as a potential partner, even a model. Will this seismic shift continue? Will it expand? There remain many in the Middle East hostile to these developments. There is a reason optimism spreads so rarely in discussions of the region. So it is worth considering whether further progress might be facilitated by American policy. Yes, there is an intra-Arab, intra-Muslim core in this debate to which history shows America cannot readily contribute. But there are still some ways in which America might be helpful.

The first rule would be to do no harm. This would mean providing continuous rhetorical support to the deals, the parties to them, and to such future expansions as may occur under future administrations, Democratic or Republican. Successful recent policy shifts regarding the Israeli-Arab future should not be abandoned out of habit or political expediency. Beyond that, the U.S. can lend material and administrative support to cooperative ventures in the many fields the parties now contemplate. Perhaps all of these together will facilitate that “change within themselves” of which Prince Bandar spoke.

More about: Abraham Accords, Bahrain, Israel-Arab relations, Israel-UAE Peace Agreement, Middle East, Sudan, United Arab Emirates