Tehran's War against Israel in a changing Middle East

The decades-old taboo against Israelis meeting with Arab leaders had been broken. More and more Arab countries are willing to accept Israel as an ally in the defense against Iran

By Matthias Küntzel

Indiana University, Bloomington, U.S.A., March 26, 2019

Israel is confronted not only with the threat of a war but with the threat of an antisemitic war. This difference is significant. While conventional war – such as the ongoing war in the Ukraine or the many wars in Syria – is aimed at gaining territory and influence, the antisemitic war is aimed at extermination. What matters here is that Jews are being killed.

Two forms of antisemitism are in play in the Iranian case: First: This regime is obsessed with the world view for which the Holocaust historian Saul Friedlaender coined the term “redemptive antisemitism”. If you annihilate the Jewish state you will redeem the world. Let me quote Ahmad Montazemi: “If Zionism collapses, the world will be free. Humanity will be free.”[2] Liberation through annihilation – that’s the essence of redemptive antisemitism.

In addition, there is Islamic antisemitism, based on the paranoid claim that the Jews want to eradicate Islam. Already in 1963, at the beginning of his career, Ruhollah Khomeini concentrated his antisemitic attacks on the claim that Jews in league with Israel are behind a plot to destroy Islam: Khomeini propagated the extinction of Israel for religious reasons – as a precondition for Muslim unity and Islamic revival. In the same vein, Khomeini’s successor, Revolutionary Leader Ali Khamenei, has described “the war on Palestine [as] a war on the existence of Islam”. He claims: “The fate of the world of Islam … depends on the fate of Palestine.” His conclusion, as you all know, is clear: “We believe that annihilation of the Israeli regime is the solution to the issue of Palestine”.[3]

Today, Tehran’s War against Israel continues despite increasing protests in Iran. During recent demonstrations against the regime, slogans such as “To hell Palestine!” Or “No to Gaza, No to Lebanon” have often been chanted. Posters of Qassem Soleimani, the leader of the Al Quds Brigades, have been torn down and pictures of Khamenei burned. Nevertheless, Tehran is continuing to expand its influence in Syria on a daily basis. Meanwhile, Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah has warned all “non-Zionist Jews” living in Israel to leave the country before the war between Israel and his troops takes place.

That Israel is today on the brink of a hot war on its border with Syria is the bad news. But there is also some good or at least encouraging news.

Just consider what happened in Warsaw last month. Here Israel’s prime minister, for the first time, met with representatives of ten Arab states in one and the same room to confer on the situation in the Middle East. The decades-old taboo against Israelis meeting with Arab leaders had been broken. At this conference, Arab countries – with the important exceptions of Lebanon, Syria, Qatar and Iraq – were willing to accept Israel as an ally in the defense against Iran.

Since the 1930s, absolute hostility to Israel, based on antisemitic imagery, has been the creed in the Arab world. The Jewish state was the devil and guilty of everything. Working towards “normalization” was considered a betrayal. Those who took steps towards peace risked their lives.

Now, however, Netanyahu has been welcomed in Oman for an official visit, now Saudi Crown Prince Mohammad bin Salman acknowledged that Israelis have “the right to live peacefully in their state.” Now, for the first time, the Israeli flag has been hoisted in Abu Dhabi and the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva, performed in the presence of an Israeli minister. What has sparked this remarkable change?

The first reason is security: The Arab world’s interest in stopping the Iranian advance in the region. To quote Ahmad Al-Jumay’a, former deputy editor of the Saudi Daily Al-Riyadh: “Today, the Arabs have no choice but to reconcile with Israel, and to sign a comprehensive peace agreement [with it], in order to free themselves up for confronting the great Iranian plan in the region”.[4]

Israel is not afraid of direct conflict with Tehran as the ongoing secret war against the Iranian advance to the Israeli-Syrian border proves and is therefore a desirable partner. Moreover, the Jihadi challenge within the Arab states in the form of ISIS and al Qaida is compelling them to focus on the internal enemy and seek Israeli assistance in defeating it: Egyptian president Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi, for example, has confirmed reports that his army and the IDF are working closely together to eradicate Islamist terrorists from the Sinai Peninsula.

The second reason is technology and development: There is a growing understanding that in order for the Arab world to progress and modernize, it would make sense to cooperate with Israel. Most countries in the region want to benefit from the amazing technology emerging from the Jewish state. Thus Arab states are acting not only out of desperation for allies against Tehran, but also out of enlightened self-interest.

The third reason is the miserable state of Palestinian politics. We are witnessing the rise of new Arab leaders who feel a decreasing commitment to the Palestinian cause, though it will still play a role: In my opinion, Israeli ties with the Arab world won’t become normal until there is at the very least a modicum of a diplomatic process with the Palestinians.

Finally, there seems to be another, fourth motive for the change, if we want to believe the promise made by the Saudi crown prince that “I will return Saudi Arabia to a moderate Islam.”[5] Is it true? Is Saudi Arabia ready to support modernity, liberalism and secularism?

Some recent statements by dignitaries from Saudi Arabia are indeed remarkable. Let me quote just two of them. The first is from Abdelhameed Hakeem, the former director of the Jeddah-based Middle East Center for Strategic and Legal Studies. Hakeem said:

The Arab mentality must be liberated from … the heritage of political Islam …, which … has sown the seed of the culture of hatred towards the Jews, and of denial of their historic rights in the region. … If we, the Arabs, really want there to be a solution, we need to reexamine ourselves and conduct an ideological revolution in the way we treat the Jews.[6]

He called for the opening of an Israeli embassy in Riyadh and even created the hashtag #We want Israeli embassy in Riyadh.[7] He supported the U.S. decision to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. “We have to admit and realize”, he maintained, “that Jerusalem is a religious symbol for the Jews; this is just as holy for them as Mecca and Medina are for Muslims.”[8] And he added: “Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel” – something Germany and European governments cannot bring themselves to acknowledge.

The second person I would like to quote is a high-ranking Muslim religious official, Muhammad al Issa. He is the General Secretary of the World Muslim League which claims to represent more than one billion Muslims. He is also head of the “Centre of ideological warfare”, a department of Saudi Arabia’s ministry of defense. Al Issa met with Sara Bloomfield the director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, visited this museum and wrote a strong note against Holocaust denial:

We consider any denial of the Holocaust or minimizing its effect, a crime to distort history, and an insult to the dignity of those innocent soules who have perished.[9]

Al-Issa, to quote Ben Cohen, “is an asset to a Saudi government eager to convince the West that, finally, it stands resolute against both Sunni and Shi’a variants of Islamism, and is determined to establish Islam as a religion of peace and coexistence.”[10]

It would be mistake to reduce these statements to a strictly political calculation; it is, at the same time, impossible to measure the real significance of such words. What, for example, would happen if the Iranian threat were to be neutralized? Would Saudi Arabia then still pursue relations with Israel and Judaism or would it revert to its previous malign animosity?

We all know the Arab Middle East as a global hub and disseminator of all kinds of antisemitism. Even as some Arab leaders are visibly warming toward Israel and Jews, the widespread culture of antisemitism and anti-normalization persists at key levels of Arab societies, ingrained over generations through Arab media, schools, and mosques. Against this background, will leaders of the Arab world have the courage to trigger a real debate about and fight against antisemitism within their countries?

Today, on the one hand, many influential sectors of public opinion still oppose any expression of normalization. In Egypt, for example, a member of parliament was ousted from the assembly because he once met the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt. 465 of 490 MPs – that is: 95 percent – voted for his expulsion.[11]

Or look at Tunisia: Here in 2018 a court prevented an Israeli delegation from entering the country to attend a conference of the “World Forum Interfaith Dialogue Ambassadors”.[12]

Another example, published in January this year, relates to Mona Prince, a since fired English literature professor at Suez Canal University. Her meeting with the Israeli Ambassador to Egypt sparked a wave of attacks and insults from public and media figures who described her as a “traitor”. Prince said she and the ambassador met as a step toward public and cultural normalization between Egypt and Israel. Meanwhile, several complaints were filed against her, her meeting with the ambassador was described as “a crime and collaboration with the enemy of the Arab world” and she was expelled from the Egyptian Writers Union.[13]

But that’s still not the whole picture. Today, on the other hand, seeds of an effort to challenge Arab antisemitism are sprouting across the region. A growing number of Arab citizens not only view Israel and Jews in a positive light but espouse, openly, a “peace between peoples.”

A case in point is the Israeli foreign ministery’s Arabic Facebook page: “Israel Speaks Arabic,” which has attracted 1,7 million followers in the Arab world with 2,700 daily comments. An internal study of the page’s Arabic-speaking audience finds one third of all daily comments to be “positive‘”and 17 percent to be “neutral”. “Among the positive comments”, to quote Joseph Braude writing in Mosaic magazine

are calls for an Israeli embassy in most Arab capitals, tens of thousands of requests for tourist visas to Israel, expressions of regret over the flight from Arab countries of nearly all of their 900,000 indigenous Jews, and, amid ongoing violence between Israel and Hamas, statements of solidarity with the IDF.[14]

These Facebook responses correspond with polling data reflecting a similar outlook. In 2017, there was, for example, a survey of citizens in Kuwait. It is a fact that antisemitic incitement remains a mainstay of Kuwaiti domestic media. Nevertheless, fully 60 percent of respondents agree that “Arab states should play a new role in Palestinian-Israeli peace talks, offering both sides incentives to take more moderate positions.”[15]

So we get a mixed picture: Today, there are new opportunities to roll back generations of antisemitic messaging in Arab media, mosques, and schools. The open expression of such attitudes, however, is still rare. And the opponents of those attitudes tend to remain at the helm. Will Muhammad bin Salman really return to a moderate Islam, will he encourage this new approach to antisemitism and Judaism? At the time being this question remains open.

Let me finish this short report with three observations:

First. The Jewish question is the acid test for the Muslim world. The Islamic world will and cannot reform itself until and unless it makes its peace with Judaism and the Jewish people. This makes the fact that a window of history has opened so important. The Western nations, however, do not care. They do nothing to promote the Arab critique of antisemitism. They ignore the fight of courageous citizens such as Mona Prince. They are not interested in the question of whether, e.g. Saudi Arabia has changed its school curricula as promised or not. This indifference is in my opinion inexcusable.

Second. The positive changes in key parts of the Arab world refute the mantra of racists and right-wing populists who want to keep the Muslims trapped in the cage of an immutable culture, who try to construct a kind of homo Islamicus incapable of change. Saudi Arabia will remain the hub of Islam. Recent developments there show that Islam as such does not stand in the way of a normalization of relations with the Jewish state but its anti-Semitic and Islamist interpretation. At the same time, the whole absurdity of the BDS movement and its currently most prominent member, Ilhad Omar, becomes particularly evident: While the Arab world is about to end its boycott of Israel, this movement takes exactly the opposite direction in order to immortalize hatred of Israel.

Third. I am a fan neither of Benjamin Netanjahu nor of Donald Trump. And I know about the appalling human rights situation in Saudi Arabia and the dreadful murder of Jamal Khashoggi which we have to condemn sharply. At the same time, I believe that Israel’s realpolitik has no alternative to the provisional alliance with Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf States against Iran.

Some reject this position by saying that Saudi Arabia is at least as bad as Iran. But what does this statement mean? It obviously means that it does not matter if a state wants to destroy Israel or wants to move closer to Israel; that it does not matter, if a regime’s policy tries to proliferate antisemitism day and night or not.

The Iranian regime is not a status quo power like Saudi Arabia but a revolutionary power. Its foreign policy – inscribed in its constitution – is motivated by the desire to conduct a religious war and to fulfill an Islamic duty, based on an antisemitic reading of the Quran. The effects of this policy are devastating, as is evident not only within Iran but also in Yemen, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq.

The greater the freedom of action of the Iranian regime, the greater the disasters in the region and the greater the threat to the Jewish state. Or, conversely, the more effectively the Revolutionary Guards are countered, the greater the prospect of peace not only in the region but in the world, the greater the chance that the hatred of Jews might be reduced and the greater the support for all those within Iran who fight for human dignity and human rights.

[1] I delivered this speech on March 26, 2019 at Indiana University, Bloomington on the occasion of the International Scholars Conference „Contending With Antisemitism In A Rapidly Changing Political Climate”, organized by the „Institute for the Study of Contemporary Antisemitism”, directed by Professor Alvin Rosenfeld.

[2] Founders Of Iranian ,New Horizon‘ Conference – That U.S. Recently Added To Its List Of Sanctioned Organizations: U.S. Is Worried About Iran’s Ideological Influence; Jewish Community Asked For Asylum in Iran, MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7934, March 11, 2019. Mr. Montezami is the excutive secretary of New Horizon.

[3] Ali Khamenei, The Most Important Problem of the Islamic World. Selected Statesments by Ayatollah Khameinei About Palestine (Teheran 2009) 13, 51, 101, accessed May 3, 2018, http://s15.khamenei.ir/ndata/news/18463/Palestine-english.pdf.

[4] Z. Harel, Shift in Saudi Media’s Attitude To Israel – Part I: Saudi Writers, Intellectuals: Iran Is More Dangerous Than Israel; Peace With It Is Vital In Order To Repel Iranian Threat, MEMRI, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1398, May 29, 2018, p.2.

[5] Martin Chulov, I will return Saudi Arabia to moderate Islam, says crown prince, in: The Guardian, October 24, 2017.

[6] Saudi Researcher Abdelhameed Hakeem: Jerusalem as Israeli Capital with Palestinian Management of Islamic Holy Places Is a Framework for Peace; Arabs Must Change Anti-Jewish Mentality, MEMRI, Clip No. 6324, December15, 2017, p. 1.

[7] Z. Harel, Shift in Saudi Media’s Attitude To Israel – Part II: Saudi Writer Who Visited Israel: We Want An Israeli Embassy In Riyadh; We Should Make Peace With Israel; Uproot Culture of Hatred For Jews, MEMRI, Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 1399, May 29, 2018, p.1.

[8] Saudi Academic Says Arabs Should Accept Israel’s ,Historic Right‘, in: The New Arab, December 17, 2017.

[9] Robert Satloff, A Historic Holocaust Awareness in Saudi Arabia, of All Places, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, January 26, 2018

[10] Ben Cohen, Islam Respects Right of Jews to ,Live in Dignity‘, Muslim World League Chief Muhammad al-Issa Declares, in: The Algemeiner, February 27, 2018.

[11] Business Insider, Egypt Parliament Expels MP for dining with Israeli ambassador, March 2, 2016, on: https://www.businessinsider.com/r-egypt-parliament-expels-mp-for-dining-with-israeli-ambassador-2016-3?IR=T .

[12] Mohammed Majid, Hamas hails Tunisian court ruling against Israeli visit, middle east monitor.com, November 4, 2018.

[13] George Mikhail, Will Egyptians ever accept normalization with Israel?, www.al-monitor.com, January 7, 2019.

[14] Joseph Braude, As Arab Leaders Warm Towards Israel And Jews, Are Arab Publics Following?, Mosaic Magazine, February 8, 2019.

[15] David Pollock, New Kuwaiti Poll Shows Mostly Positive Views On U.S. Policy Push, But Some Splits, The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, October 25, 2017.

Image: Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, Sultan of Oman Qaboos Bin Said Al Said (montage) · License: Public Domain