April 26, 2011

by Matt Duss

Yesterday, Josef Joffe of the Hoover Institution published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal rehearsing a now-familiar conservative argument, that the absence of anti-Israel sloganeering in Egypt’s Tahrir Square proves that Arabs’ concern for Palestine is simply an invention of Middle East demagogues.

Shoddy political theories — ideologies, really — never die because they are immune to the facts,” wrote Joffe. “The most glaring is this: These revolutions have unfolded without the usual anti-American and anti-Israeli screaming.” It is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that feeds the despotism, Joffe argued, “it is the despots who fan the conflict.”

Quite inconveniently for Joffe, his piece was published the same day as this Pew poll, which revealed, among other things, that 54% percent of Egyptians support the annulment of the peace treaty with Israel. The poll was conducted March 24 and April 7 — more than a month after Mubarak had left office.

These sentiments, while troubling, shouldn’t surprise anyone. In poll after poll, Arab publics have consistently placed the Palestinian issue high on their list of concerns, and U.S. support for the Israeli occupation high on their list of grievances. And while the various Egyptian protest factions agreed that democracy and reform were their main issues, anti-American and anti-Israel sentiments were certainly not absent from Tahrir Square, something Joffe simply pretends away.

But it can’t be pretended away. Speaking in February at J Street’s national conference, journalist Mona Eltahaway, one of the leading chroniclers of the Egyptian revolution, praised the young Tunisians and Egyptians who had “managed to get rid of the ‘unriddable’ — Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and Mubarak — through a beautiful, nonviolent revolution in which not one country’s flag was burned, in which not one anti-Israeli or anti-American sentiment was expressed, because it was about Tunisia and it was about Egypt.”

Eltahaway also cautioned the audience, however, that young protesters in Tahrir had told her that, “The hatred for Israel… will not end until you lift the siege on Gaza and treat Palestinians with freedom and dignity.” The same young people who powered the uprisings against against Ben Ali and Mubarak, reported Eltahaway, “Now they are saying, it’s time to march for the freedom and dignity of our Palestinian sisters and brothers.”

Now, obviously, I’d prefer it if Egyptians didn’t hate Israel, and didn’t want to annul their country’s treaty with Israel. But these are the sorts of opinions that a democratic Egypt will have to confront. Imagining that they will simply melt away with the (hopefully) end of autocracy is a fantasy. Have Arab leaders cynically exploited the Palestinian issue for political gain? Of course. But it’s always been a mystery to me why some people find it so hard to understand that “Arab leaders exploit the Palestinian issue for political gain” and “Arabs care about the Palestinians” are not mutually exclusive claims. If anything, they are mutually reinforcing. There wouldn’t be anything to exploit if the issue weren’t rooted in genuine sentiment, and yet the constant exploitation — a regional competition, really, over who can be more hardcore — has made the problem worse.

Given all of this, Joffe’s complaint about political theories and ideologies” that are “immune to the facts” is deeply ironic. The shoddy theory here, one that both ignores evidence and misunderstands the extent to which even authoritarian leaders must cultivate some measure of legitimacy, is the one that holds that Arabs only care about Palestine because their leaders tell them to. This isn’t to say that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be resolved before other issues are confronted, but we need to recognize that it will continue to drive anti-American and anti-Israeli sentiment, and complicate our efforts to confront those other issues.

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