Does Arab Public Opinion on Palestine Still Count in 2020?

Although public opinion research in the Arab world has evolved significantly in recent years, it does not seem to be taken seriously by American policymakers in their deliberations and pursuit of US interests in the Middle East. Watching the widespread neglect in Washington of political opinion development in the Arab world, particularly over the last four years, leaves objective observers with the impression that in 2020, the majority of Arab citizens remain predominantly inactive, marginalized, and uninvolved in the process of governance in their countries. Arab public opinion, even for those officials who grudgingly acknowledge its existence, remains essentially inconsequential. This blind spot in the American field of vision persists despite the proliferation of dozens of think tanks, research centers, and polling firms and institutions within the United States and the Middle East that focus on Arab public opinion. Unfortunately, this myopic approach quite often degenerates into complete blindness, where Arab opinion becomes totally absent from the official American policy vision for the region.

Normalization with Israel: Some Context

A case in point is the recent wave of normalization agreements brokered by the outgoing Trump Administration between some Arab countries and the State of Israel. Motivated essentially by its own domestic electoral agenda and the dismal failure of the Trump peace plan, the US administration characterized the normalization process as an unprecedented historic “diplomatic breakthrough” aimed at the pursuit of peace, security, and prosperity and destined to advance “the interests of lasting peace in the Middle East and around the world.” In reality, the “Abraham Accords” were neither treaties nor peace accords by any serious diplomatically sanctioned standard or definition. Instead, they represented limited agreements between states that were never in a state of war with each other but had engaged, for decades, in commercial, political, and security related cooperation, albeit covertly. Practically, the documents simply managed to rid the parties of the fig leaf they hid behind for years.

Nonetheless, the original Arab signatories—the United Arab Emirates (UAE) and the Kingdom of Bahrain—did not waste an opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to Palestinian rights, including independent statehood, and insisted that their main motive in normalizing relations with Israel was to halt plans by the Netanyahu government to annex or extend its sovereignty over large sections of the occupied Palestinian West Bank. This way, they were purportedly rescuing the option of a two-state solution from oblivion under the ever-expanding and intensifying Israeli military occupation, one that acquired a sense of permanence over the past 53 years. UAE Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed reiterated at the White House signing ceremony that this accord will enable his country “to continue to stand by the Palestinian people and realize their hopes for an independent state within a stable and prosperous region.” Similar statements followed by Bahraini and Sudanese leaders, clearly manipulating and exploiting the Palestine cause to justify their separate deal with Israel at the expense of the internationally recognized inalienable rights of the Palestinian people.

Frankly, the August 13th arrangement signed a month later at the White House and the subsequent deal with Sudan on October 23rd were not unique in terms of the long history of clandestine Arab dealings with Israel since 1948 and the recurrent attempts to undermine Palestinian rights. This is despite Arab public commitments to the contrary, like the Arab Peace Initiative (API) of 2002, endorsed collectively by the League of Arab States. However, it is shocking that some of the same Arab countries that ratified the API joined the Trump Administration in its underhanded attempt in 2020 to dictate a political outcome to the Palestine question by circumventing Palestinian rights without even the basic courtesy of consulting with the Palestinian leadership or taking into consideration the opinions and sentiments of the Palestinian people. Worse yet, they failed to factor in the public opinion in the signatory countries themselves, which makes their official signatures practically meaningless and untrustworthy in light of the overwhelming domestic opposition to normalization with Israel. Again, that deliberate myopic disregard for Arab public opinion was publicly flaunted at the White House celebrations on September 15 with the typical animus and hubris displayed by the Trump Administration since January 20, 2017, particularly toward the Palestinians. The impression one gets from observing this whole ordeal is that the Palestinians, as well as fellow Arabs in general, are “children of a lesser God” whose voices and opinions are not worthy of consideration.

The Arab Opinion Index: How Arabs View US Policy toward Israel and Palestine

On November 16, 2020, Arab Center Washington DC (ACW) released the findings of the seventh Arab Opinion Index (AOI) conducted since 2011 by the Arab Center for Research and Policy Studies (ACRPS) in Doha, Qatar, with which ACW is affiliated. Among many political issues, the annual poll explored attitudes in 13 Arab countries, representing about 350 million people, about their assessment of the policies followed by foreign powers in the region, including the United States. The sample of 28,288 individuals answered questions about their views of foreign threats to the region, their attitudes toward the Palestinian cause, and their support or opposition to their countries’ diplomatic recognition of Israel. The list of countries covered this year include three GCC members: Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Qatar.

The AOI findings highlight several issues of specific interest to the United States. First, American policymakers in Washington should note that in contrast to their official government policies, 58 percent of Arab respondents held negative views of US foreign policy in the region. Ironically, that is exactly the same percentage of Arabs who also view Iranian foreign policy toward the Arab world negatively. It seems that the architects of Trump’s problematic and partisan deal never considered why most Arabs resent US policy with the same intensity they express this resentment toward their regional nemesis in Tehran. The poll’s results were unambiguous in this respect: US policy toward Palestine was opposed by an overwhelming majority—81 percent—of Arab respondents. Clearly, Jared Kushner, who currently formulates US policy in the Middle East, could have benefitted from adding past AOI findings to his list of 25 books he claims to have read about the region.

Second, when asked to assess the country that poses the largest threat to their national security and to stability in the region, 89 percent of the Arab public chose Israel and 81 percent chose the United States. A smaller proportion, 67 percent, chose Iran as their top regional threat.

Third, at a time when so many in Washington seem convinced that Arabs, in general, are losing interest in the Palestine issue, AOI findings prove the exact opposite. Three-quarters of citizens in the Arab world confirmed that the Palestinian cause concerns all Arabs and not simply the Palestinians. In terms of public opinion in the Gulf, 89 percent of Saudis, 88 percent of Qataris, and 69 percent of Kuwaitis responded similarly.

Finally, with regard to the issue of recognition of Israel (see figure 35 of the AOI), 88 percent of all Arabs indicated their opposition to such recognition, with only 6 percent expressing support. Opposition in GCC states stood at 65 percent in Saudi Arabia and 88 percent in both Kuwait and Qatar. The highest opposition to normalization with Israel was reported in Algeria, with a full 99 percent against it, compared to 91 percent in Palestine. It is interesting to note that 19.4 percent of respondents attributed their opposition to diplomatic recognition of Israel to reasons related to the Arab world in general, such as Israel’s occupation of Arab land and racism toward the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel. But the largest category of opposition, 45.3 percent, based their views on reasons stemming from their concerns for the Palestinians’ plight, including Israel’s colonization, dispossession, and oppression of the Palestinians.

Clearly, the significant resentment of US policies in the Arab world stems from precise and long-term Arab public perception of these policies as articulated and implemented by successive administrations in Washington vis-à-vis conflicts such as those in Palestine, Syria, Yemen, Libya, or Iraq. Yet, these policies continue to be formulated without any serious consideration given to indigenous public opinion in this strategic region of the world. It behooves policymakers at the White House and the US Department of State to direct serious attention to their blind spot regarding the demands of the crucially relevant spectrum of public opinion in the Arab world to better assess the credibility and the effectiveness of US policies in the Middle East.