Mondoweiss / December 4, 2022
The World Cup in Qatar has pierced the illusion that the [so-called] Abraham Accords are anything more than agreements between an apartheid state and brutal dictatorships.
In early October, The New York Times published a breathless article about the whirlwind romance between a Hasidic rabbi and his eventual wife. The rabbi lives in the United Arab Emirates, where their wedding was held. The wedding, in typical Hasidic tradition, was large, with many guests. Several of those guests were from the elite class of the Emirati community, according to the article.
The story was framed as demonstrating the success of the Abraham Accords, the agreement brokered by Donald Trump’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, that normalized relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain and, in a more qualified fashion, Sudan. The Accords represent the idea that Israel can find normal relations with the Arab world, and especially the wealthy Persian Gulf autocracies led by Saudi Arabia, without dismantling their apartheid system or recognizing the human, civil, and national rights of Palestinians at all.
Now well into their third year, the effort to maintain the illusion that the Abraham Accords are anything other than a military and trade agreement between an apartheid state and brutal dictatorships in the Gulf is facing serious obstacles. Nowhere has this been more evident than in Qatar, during the World Cup.
Israeli football fans and journalists seemed surprised to find that the Arab fans and workers in Qatar were not welcoming them with open arms. Palestinian flags were in evidence, something new at the World Cup which had, in the past, frowned or even blocked such displays, pretending to a veneer of a-politicism. But more than that, Israelis reported a hostile atmosphere in Qatar.
Israeli journalists who could not or chose not to hide their nationality reported being asked to leave taxis and restaurants, encountering hostility, and having difficulty finding people who would talk to them. Israeli tourists and fans often lied about their nationality. There were no reports of any violence or threatening behavior, but Israelis, for the most part, said they felt unwelcome and uncomfortable.
There were also coordinated shows of public solidarity with Palestine. Tunisian and Moroccan fans, during separate matches, held up banners that said “Free Palestine” in the 48th minute of their matches, memorializing the Nakba of 1948. Throughout the tournament, Arab fans could be seen holding Palestinian flags, wearing supportive t-shirts, or wearing the kaffiyeh.
One Israeli journalist covering the World Cup wrote, “We didn’t want to write these words, we are not the story here. But after 10 days in Doha, we cannot hide what we are going through. We are feeling hated, surrounded by hostility, not welcomed.”
Clearly, the Abraham Accords and the obvious desire of Gulf dictators to warm ties with Israel and sweep the Palestinians under the rug gave these Israelis the false impression that the people of the Arab world were as cynical and hard-hearted toward the plight of the Palestinians as their leaders. They discovered that this is not the case.
In fact, the World Cup has exposed the Abraham Accords for the fraud they are. The right-wing Israeli reporter Lahav Harkov expressed a much clearer understanding of the feeling in the Arab world when she wrote that, “…the Abraham Accords were government-to-government agreement, not people-to-people. And, it must be noted, that these governments are authoritarian to varying degrees … so their willingness to make peace does not necessarily reflect that of the people under their rule.”
Of course, Harkov perpetuates a falsehood here when she refers to the Accords having “made peace” between the UAE, Bahrain, and Israel, as these countries have never been at war. But the UAE and Bahrain did not previously have official, normal, diplomatic relations with Israel. That was what the Accords changed. Still, her basic point is correct: these agreements, like the peace deals the United States brokered for Israel with Egypt and Jordan decades ago, were concluded without the consent, and against the wishes, of the overwhelming majority of citizens of those countries.
In fact a poll conducted last summer by the AIPAC-created think tank, the Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP) found that only 25% of people in the UAE, 20% in Bahrain, and 19% of people in Saudi Arabia had a positive view of the Abraham Accords. And, while they didn’t drill down into that question, it is safe to assume that at least some who had a positive view of the Accords felt that way because of business interests or fear of Iran, not because they were positive toward Israel or indifferent to the Palestinians.
Another example of the shockingly self-deceptive attitude of Israeli visitors to Qatar was presented by Israeli sports reporter Tal Shorrer who said, “I was so excited to come in with an Israeli passport, thinking it was going to be something positive. It’s sad, it’s unpleasant. People were cursing and threatening us.”
This attitude goes well beyond self-deception about the Abraham Accords. It reflects the absence of Palestinians from the Israeli consciousness. The concept of a “peace process,” disingenuous as it might have been, no longer exists in the Israeli mind. The Israeli public has also been repeatedly told that the Arab world is forgetting about the Palestinians. So someone like Shorrer can go to a place with people from all over the Arab world and expect to be warmly welcomed as an Israeli.
A report in The Times of Israel unwittingly demonstrated the depth of Israeli blinders on this subject. They quoted Russian vlogger Vitya Kravchenko, who had encountered great hostility from Polish fans and had taken to telling people he was from Serbia. “This war is the biggest catastrophe in my life,” he said, referring to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. “When I speak to myself, I say I don’t want to be a Russian. The problem is not about other people, the problem is my own conscience.”
The article presented Kravchenko as sharing the Israeli experience in Qatar. But TOI’s writers and editors completely miss the crucial distinction: Kravchenko is ashamed of what his country and its leader have done to Ukraine. His conscience troubles him greatly even though he left Russia months ago because of the war. This, he states clearly, is what haunts him as he faces anger from Poles who are feeling threatened by Russia. He doesn’t blame the Poles or expect anything different from them.
The Israelis came with a very different mindset. One Israeli fan, Duby Nevo, told The Guardian, “I really hope to meet people from all over the world and especially from Arabic countries – if they want to make friends. I just want to enjoy [the football], no conflicts whatsoever.” Clearly this is not the sentiment of a far-right ultra-nationalist. If anything, the statement reflects a sort of divorce from politics.
And that is precisely the trouble. Where Kravchenko felt the terrible weight of what his country is doing to Ukraine, Duby Nevo hoped to be able to make new “Arabic” friends, as if the dispossession of the Palestinian people and the ongoing assault on their human and civil rights didn’t exist. Israelis came to Qatar believing that the people of the Arab world were prepared, like their corrupt leaders, to forget about the Palestinians, to do business and even develop personal relationships with Israelis as if those Israelis were not either actively or tacitly contributing to the ongoing suffering of the Palestinians.
As Harkov noted, those naïve Israelis were in for a rude awakening. Indeed, Harkov seemed surprised not at the treatment Israelis got in Qatar but at their belief that things would be otherwise.
Israel likes to throw around the myth that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” While that claim withers under even the most cursory examination, it is still true that Israeli citizens, particularly Israeli Jews, have voting rights that give them some say in the decisions of their government and that this is different from the system in Qatar, the UAE, Saudi Arabia, and much of the Arab world.
Israel inflates that point well beyond its reality when describing the realities of democracy in an apartheid state, yet, in their hubris, Israelis also miss some important implications of the democratic structures they do have. In the end, the leaders of the UAE, Bahrain, and Qatar are unelected. But in Israel, it is voters who have decided not only to bring back Benjamin Netanyahu and to partner him with the likes of Bezalel Smotrich and Itamar Ben Gvir; they have also created the political atmosphere where even a moderate Palestinian party like Ra’am is labeled “terrorist” during its brief time in an Israeli government; they have created a reality where the opposition to this new government includes blatant right-wing racists like Avigdor Lieberman and Gideon Sa’ar, ex-military leaders who brag about how many Palestinians they’ve killed like Benny Gantz, and a “moderate” like Yair Lapid who kicks off his political campaigns in illegal West Bank Jewish settlements.
Those are the politics that Israeli “democracy” creates. The Israelis who just want to make new friends among the Arabs of Qatar and the UAE participate in creating the government that signed the Abraham Accords while Bahraini and Emirati citizens do not.
Yet even so, there are limits to how far even the autocrats can go. Well before the Israeli election, as it was already becoming clear that Netanyahu would win and that the Religious Zionist coalition headed by Smotrich and Ben Gvir would likely be a key player in the next government, Emirati Foreign Minister Abdullah bin Zayed warned Netanyahu that a government that included those far-right figures could jeopardize the ties forged by the Abraham Accords.
It remains to be seen how that might play out, but with the announcement that Smotrich will be the new Minister of Finance—a key role in facilitating the bilateral trade that some consider the Abraham Accords’ most prominent feature—it is certain that the UAE will be faced with the prospect of having to either work closely and publicly with a minister who will be enacting draconian measures against the Palestinians (Smotrich will also have considerable control over the settlement enterprise, and a new ministry governing the “national mission”) or sever the ties with Israel they worked for so long to establish. Even the autocratic Emiratis cannot afford to completely ignore the will of their people as they embrace an anti-Palestinian racist merely to increase their already enormous wealth.
The World Cup exposed the Abraham Accords for the anti-democratic sham they are. They have not changed how Israel is perceived in the Arab world. Nothing, other than the full recognition and realization of Palestinian rights can possibly do that. Despite the flimflam that the Trump administration pulled on the world and on Israelis with the Accords; despite the ongoing and unwavering support for that scam from the Biden administration; and despite the illusions held by so many Israelis, the new military and trade alliance with Israel is seen as disgraceful and detestable by most of the Arab world. That was one thing that couldn’t be missed at the World Cup.
Mitchell Plitnick is the president of ReThinking Foreign Policy; He is the co-author, with Marc Lamont Hill, of Except for Palestine: The Limits of Progressive Politics