After issuing a rare rebuke of Iran’s repeated calls for Israel’s destruction on Monday, Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov added that Moscow also opposes “attempts to view any regional problem through the prism of fighting Iran.” Unfortunately for him, that’s precisely the way most of the Middle East does view many regional problems, as revealed by a stunning informal poll which an Al Jazeera talk show host conducted among his tens of thousands of Arabic-language Twitter followers on February 10. Asked which side they supported in a recent Israeli-Iranian clash in Syria, fully 56 percent–12,800 people–said they backed Israel.
Needless to say, this is not because the respondents love Israel. But it’s a stunning measure of just how much they hate Iran and its Syrian protégé, the Assad regime. As one Syrian wrote, “no Syrian in his right mind” would support Israel in most situations, “but you will find millions of Syrians queuing up with the blue devils”–his charming term for Israel–“against the fascist sectarian regime that has surpassed all the monsters on earth in killing Syrians.”
What makes the results even more noteworthy is that the poll was conducted by the host of a show on Al Jazeera, a Qatari-owned station that still views Israel as public enemy number one. Unlike Saudi Arabia, whose government openly loathes Iran and whose media outlets routinely echo this view, Qatar maintains close relations with Iran. Indeed, these close relations are one of the main reasons why Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states severed ties with Qatar last year. In other words, this wasn’t a case of respondents telling a pollster what they thought he wanted to hear; Al Jazeera’s coverage would have encouraged them to label Israel a greater evil than Iran. Yet a decisive majority nevertheless backed Jerusalem against Tehran.
That most Arab governments now consider Iran a greater enemy than Israel isn’t news; their behind-the-scenes cooperation with Israel against Tehran has become an open secret. Indeed, if you read Reuters’ interview from the Munich Security Conference on Sunday with the names blacked out, you could easily think the interviewee was Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu rather than Saudi Foreign Minister Adel al-Jubeir. The four steps Al-Jubeir deemed crucial–reining in Iran’s ballistic missile program, reining in its support for terror, canceling the sunset provision in its 2015 nuclear deal, and altering the deal to allow inspections of undeclared and military sites–are the same steps Netanyahu advocates at every opportunity.
But since Arab governments are far from democratic, anyone unwilling to abandon his faith that the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is the root of all Mideast evils had an out. Arab regimes might view Iran as the number-one problem, they argued, but for ordinary Arabs, the Palestinian issue still has pride of place.
What Al Jazeera’s informal poll shows is that this argument is simply false. It’s not just in Arab capitals that Iran is now more widely loathed and feared than Israel, but also on the Arab street, to the point that Arabs are even willing to openly back Israel in a clash with Iran. If Israel and its treatment of the Palestinians were still their top concern, they would instead be rooting for Iran against Israel–just as most of the Arab world did back in 2006 when Israel fought a month-long war with Iran’s wholly-owned Lebanese subsidiary, Hezbollah.
This sea change in Arab attitudes has serious foreign policy implications for anyone who calls himself a realist. As John Podhoretz correctly argued in COMMENTARY’s March issue, the realist view that Israel was the source of most Mideast problems could always more properly have been termed “fantasist”; most of the Arab world’s ills have nothing to do with Israel. But realists did have one unassailable fact on their side: When you stack Israel up against the Arab world, the latter has both the numbers and the oil. Consequently, it was at least tenable to argue–as long as you ignore all the other considerations Podhoretz cites–that America’s interests were better served by siding with the Arabs against Israel.
Today, the Arab world still has the numbers and the oil, but it’s siding with Israel against Iran. So for any realist who holds that America should align itself with Arab concerns because numbers and oil are crucial considerations, the top priority now shouldn’t be another fruitless Israeli-Palestinian peace process, but reining in Iran’s malignant behavior. To its credit, that is something the Trump Administration is trying to do by threatening to scrap the nuclear deal unless the four Israeli-Saudi-American concerns cited above are addressed.
As for all the self-proclaimed realists who remain fixated on Israel despite the change in Arab attitudes that has destroyed their main argument, perhaps it’s time to drop the “realist” label. The more accurate term for people who see Jews as the root of all evil under any and all circumstances is “anti-Semite.”
Originally published in Commentary on February 21, 2018