By Barry Rubin
“They got them poor boys makin’ frontal assaults with fixed bayonets on that damned ridge and they can’t see the damned Nips that are shootin’ at ‘em….There just ain’t no sense in that….”
–Front-line Marines talking on Peleliu, 1943, in E.B. Sledge, With the Old Breed, p. 103
A reader has asked an excellent question. Is it that Arab leaders (and Iranian leaders today) have believed they’ll wipe Israel off the map? Did they want to do so? Or are they just using this issue cynically to mobilize support for themselves and distract their people’s attention from their domestic failings?
As a starting point, it should be emphasized that using the Israel issue is so attractive and useful because there is a lot of popular support for this attitude. Such a view is deeply rooted in the self-conception of Arabs and Muslims due to their ideology and goals. The “neo-conservative” concept–based on a view of Communist states in Europe–that the pro-democratic masses are being held back by authoritarian rulers who force them to mouth slogans they don’t believe–doesn’t apply so well with the Middle East.
Yet long-term indoctrination has also contributed to this view over the decades as well. Moreover, Muslim Kurds, Turks, and Iranians are far less obsessed with the issue, showing the relative importance of the Arab factor. Still, though, the same thing is now arguable with Islam, when wanting to destroy Israel becomes almost a requirement. On the contrary, however, the Israel card has ceased to protect dictators in Iraq after 2003 and in Syria today.
In other words, there is a long-term and popular basis for this passion but the temperature can be turned up or down by events and rulers.
So the answer, of course, depends on the leader, country, and time. Briefly, I’d say that virtually all Arab leaders have wanted to wipe out Israel but that some have decided that success was impossible and that trying to do so too costly and risky.
A clear way to put it is this: If they could have pressed a button and Israel would have disappeared, almost none of them would have hesitated. But if you have to spend huge amounts of money, fight full-scale wars, and face the possibility (and increasingly they knew the likelihood) of being defeated that was different.
And while the issue was the top priority of the Palestinian Arabs, the leaders of states also had other issues to consider.
Over time in the Arab nationalist era (1952 to 2012), more were convinced that it was just too hard and dangerous to fight Israel, at least directly. The problem is that the rise of Islamism starts over from the beginning. Oh sure, say the Islamists, the nationalists failed or didn’t even try because they were cowards, had the wrong ideology, and were too eager to be friendly with the West.
But with the Islamist approach, in which Allah’s word is followed and everyone is willing to sacrifice himself, things will be different. There is also an element of cynicism even among these folk.
In addition, another way to look at this issue is that some leaders at times believed their own propaganda. And often the nationalist intelligentsia, clerics, and activists believe total victory was not only possible but inevitable.
Remember, too, that these people have their own view of Israel (Yasir Arafat discussed this point in detail) as a failed nation that could not continue to exist—especially if faced with constant terrorism—because it was weak, decadent, divided, and Jews could never constitute a nation. Never underestimate the factor of profoundly believed disinformation in the Middle East. Just because it isn’t true doesn’t mean millions of people don’t fervently believe it.
So far we have True Belief in total victory and Israel’s extinction plus Cynical Manipulation of the Israel card. There is a third element, Peer Pressure. Every leader and politician with few exceptions has known that to be less stridently anti-Israel or to admit openly that victory wasn’t possible would be most dangerous to his career.
Although a few leaders have been assassinated, the main problem would be unpopularity and being discredited, thus having one’s career ruined. That would be true even if the rivals attacking you would be totally cynical themselves and thought the same way as you did.
This also applies to countries. Weaker states and groups had to keep their mouths shut and yell the slogans even louder. In this regard, Jordan comes particularly to mind as well as Lebanese Christians, among others. Of course, Iranian and Turkish leaders also rejected the destroy Israel notion, not being Arab nationalists. Now that they are governed by Islamists, however they have joined the chorus.
Here is a very brief history of this issue.
Pre-1949 period: The Palestine Arab leadership and the governments of Syria, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia engaged in True Belief, assuming that Israel would never come into existence or be quickly wiped out. King Abdallah of Jordan correctly assessed that Israel would survive, did not use the issue demagogically, but could not resist the peer pressure to join the war. The Egyptian government did not want a military conflict but could not resist Peer Pressure and engaged in Cynical Manipulation but the Muslim Brotherhood took a True Belief stance as did lots of political forces in the country.
Arab Nationalist Era: In the shadow of the 1948 debacle, Arab nationalists argued that Israel only survived because of Western backing and the weakness/foolishness of the old regimes in their own countries. By creating strong central governments, modernizing, their own ideology, building up their own armies, getting Soviet assistance, and helping guerrilla/terrorist groups, the new regimes argued and believed that Israel would be wiped out.
For the Egyptian Nasserist regime and the Ba’th Party governments that ruled Syria and later Iraq, the Israel card was part of their hand for trying to seize hegemonic control in the Middle East. There was no contradiction between their True Belief and their Cynical Manipulation. In this atmosphere of hysteria, only the Jordanian monarchy resisted though the Persian Gulf Arabs were pressed into giving more money by Peer Pressure.
The defeat of 1967 showed that the Arab nationalists couldn’t do much better than the old regimes but did not really change attitudes. Only gradually, through the 1970s and 1980s did it become apparent that any destruction of Israel would have to be longer term. In the interim, True Belief continued to flourish but Arab states became more cautious. They also sought to use indirect means—Palestinian guerrilla/terrorist forces from the PLO and other groups—to bring about Israel’s downfall by sabotaging it socially and economically.
One could argue, however, that the proportion of Cynical Manipulation to True Belief increased. In the late 1970s, Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat put Egyptian national interests to the fore, abandoned regional ambitions, and made peace with Israel. The regime largely, though not completely, abandoned True Belief and Cynical Manipulation while also defying Peer Pressure. The opposition rejected this stance but could do nothing about it.
With the collapse of the USSR and Iraq’s defeat by a Western coalition in Kuwait, the leadership in the Arabic-speaking world had largely abandoned True Belief or, more accurately, switched it to a long-term proposition. Israel would be made to fall but it was not clear precisely how. And Arab regimes were unwilling to take many risks or devote as many resources on the issue. They had their own problems, notably a rising threat from Islamism.
“Peace Process”: The Palestinian movement followed a different course and in doing so had some influence on the states. It advocated the creation of a Palestinian state that would not be bound or limited by any commitments to institute a second stage, using the territory and assets it possessed, to wipe out Israel. Until 1993 it was unable to make even the minimum steps necessary to bring this about. Yet while a handful of moderates and a larger group of cynics and those seeking economic benefit were ready for a deal with Israel, the overwhelming majority of the political leadership wasn’t.
Briefly, they wanted to follow a two-stage solution through a temporary two-state “solution” but were unwilling ultimately—as seen in the 2000 Camp David meeting—to take the compromises and commitments necessary to get a state. The creation of Hamas put Peer Pressure on them.Islamist Era:
Islamist Era: Indeed, the rise of revolutionary Islamism put additional Peer Pressure on all Arab regimes. They needed the Israel issue more for Cynical Manipulation and, except for the always moderate Jordanian regime and the Sadat-altered Egyptian one, could not afford to think of peace. The non-Saudi Persian Gulf states were tempted, however, as were the main Lebanese Christian forces.
In 2013, support from the UN for the first time made the original two-stage theory seem possible in practice. If Palestine was now an independent state, it could win that status without making concessions or commitments. Using international backing, it could create an entity which—unlike the one existing under the Camp David accords—could eventually be used as a base for attaining total victory. Many Palestinian nationalist leaders were, literally, of two minds. Simultaneously, they understood better Israel’s strength yet they could not shake the need for True Belief, reinforced both by Cynical Manipulation and Peer Pressure from their own movement and from Hamas.
Islamist regimes and groups—notably Hamas and Hizballah as well as the Muslim Brotherhood and of course al-Qaida and other Salafists plus the Iranian Islamist regime—followed the pattern of the early Arab nationalists. Only the lack of Islam had prevented Israel’s extinction but they were going to do the task the proper way.
It is true that playing the anti-Israel card did not work for Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, in `1990-91 in mobilizing international Arab support during the Kuwait war or for Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad in 2012-13 to prevent a massive uprising against him. Yet these tactics had worked for both governments during decades. As in the case of the pre-1950s monarchies, it was not the antagonism to Israel that was being abandoned so much as the rejection of the old regimes for a variety of reasons, one of which was their ineptness in getting the job done. One result, however, is that opponents of the Islamists may be more cynical about being manipulated by this issue. Still, in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon, the Gaza Strip, and Tunisia, as well as Syria soon, they aren’t in power.
One might posit a long-term evolution of Islamism toward failure, cynicism, and a lower priority on the issue. But the emphasis there should be on the word long. Prematurely declaring that Islamists were moderate or helping them into power only increases their True Belief that they are the tidal wave of the future who will successfully commit genocide on the Jewish state.