Neoconservative Pundits: Arabs are obsessed with Israel; Arabs don’t care about Israel

Iran hawks and neoconservatives have had a tendency to pick one of two arguments on the issue of whether Israel plays a central role in Middle East politics.

The first argument states that Israel is a central character in Arab nationalism and that irrational hatred of Israel and Jews has a prominent place in any Arab government.

On January 31 2010, Andrew Mccarthy offered an example of this talking point in his National Review blog post, “Fear the Muslim Brotherhood,” writing:

The Brotherhood did not suddenly become violent (or “more violent”) during World War II. It was violent from its origins two decades earlier. This fact — along with Egyptian Islamic society’s deep antipathy toward the West and its attraction to the Nazis’ virulent anti-Semitism — is what gradually beat European powers, especially Britain, into withdrawal.

But with the Middle East in a state of upheaval after Hosni Mubarak’s resignation and what appears to be the approaching end of Muammar Gaddafi’s 42-year reign, a more popular talking point has taken over the opinion pages: Hawks seek to deny the destabilizing role that the U.S. has played in supporting authoritarian Arab leaders who have kept peace with Israel.

Two promoters of this theory recently popped up in the pages of the Wall Street Journal.

Today’s issue of the WSJ offered up an excerpt, in the paper’s “Notable & Quotable” section, of journalist Brendan O’Neill’s writing. O’Neill had written in The Australian, on February 16:

[O]ne of the most striking things about the uprising in Egypt was the lack of pro-Palestine placards. As Egypt-watcher Amr Hamzawy put it, in Tahrir Square and elsewhere there were no signs saying “death to Israel, America and global imperialism” or “together to free Palestine.” Instead, this revolt was about Egyptian people’s own freedom and living conditions.

O’Neill observes that at “the pro-Egypt demonstration in London on Saturday, there was a sea of Palestine placards. ‘Free Palestine,’ they said, and ‘End the Israeli occupation.’” The WSJ’s excerpt ends:

This reveals something important about the Palestine issue. . . . [It] has become less important for Arabs and of the utmost symbolic importance for Western radicals at exactly the same time.

While O’Neill’s point may have been more broad, the WSJ editorial board’s decision to narrowly quote him and promote the few sentences he wrote about the “lack of pro-Palestine placards” is telling.

Of course, this analysis overlooks the U.S.’s support for Mubarak as well as the Egyptian government’s maintenance of the Israeli-Egypt peace agreement and assistance in enforcing the siege on Gaza. (See Alex Kane’s excellent dismantling of the “Israel has nothing to do with this” argument.)

Yesterday, the Journal’s European edition published an op-ed on the non-existent role Israel played in the unrest shaking the Middle East.

The Foundation for Defense for Defense of Democracies’ Emanuele Ottolenghi wrote:

Arab freedom has taken precedence over Israel and Palestine—or so says the much-maligned Arab Street, as it topples one tyrant and challenges the next. The conventional wisdom that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the mother of all problems in the region has now been exposed as nothing but a myth. Will Western leaders finally learn?

Ottolenghi uses this argument to belittle the Obama administration for its public endorsements of linkage—the idea, accepted by the upper echelons of the U.S. military, that resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict will help promote U.S. strategic interests in the Middle East.

While it is convenient for Ottolenghi to take up this argument as the Middle East is falling into turmoil, he hasn’t been immune from reverting to the argument that a deep-rooted anti-Semitism is prevalent in the Middle East.

In March, 2010, Ottolenghi wrote on Commentary’s Contentions blog:

A bi-national state is actually more promising than a nation-state […] because it would keep their nationalist dream alive — a dream whereby, as Professor Fouad Ajami once so artfully put it, “there still lurks in the Palestinian and Arab imagination a view, depicted by the Moroccan historian Abdallah Laroui, that “on a certain day, everything would be obliterated and instantaneously reconstructed and the new inhabitants would leave, as if by magic, the land they had despoiled.” Arafat knew the power of this redemptive idea. He must have reasoned that it is safer to ride that idea, and that there will always be another day and another offer.”

And in February 2009, he wrote in Haaretz:

[H]istory shows us that Palestinian demands are rooted in a grievance culture of victimhood, not in facts.

Western-allied Middle Eastern countries are under increasing pressure to yield to protesters’ demands for more representative governments and improvements in human rights. It’s convenient for pro-Israel hawks to hide behind the argument that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict had nothing to do with this quickly unraveling situation. But, as Ottolenghi’s contradicting op-eds illustrate, any expression of Palestinian solidarity from a newly democratic Arab government will most likely be met with accusations that an irrational hatred of Israel is central to the Arab psyche.

Eli Clifton

Eli Clifton reports on money in politics and US foreign policy. He is a co-founder of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft. Eli previously reported for the American Independent News Network, ThinkProgress, and Inter Press Service.