The establishment of peaceful relations between Israel, the United Arab Emirates, Bahrain and Morocco introduces a new model of normalization, highlighting warm receptions between the people themselves and positive media coverage of Israel.
Yet, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s and the Israeli press’s focus on this normalization ignores the fact that many in the Arab world still boycott Israel and refuse to normalize relations with it.
It is enough to look at the story of the Egyptian actor and singer Mohamed Ramadan as a reflection of another model of peace, which exists between Israel and Egypt and Jordan.
It was during a November 2020 rooftop party in Dubai that Egyptian celebrity Ramadan had his picture taken with Omer Adam, a very popular Israeli singer. The picture of the two went viral on social media, and the Israeli Foreign Ministry also took the liberty of sharing the picture on its official accounts in Arabic, adding: “Art always unites us.”
The post ignited an unprecedented outcry on Egyptian social media against Ramadan, who was accused of being a Zionist, a traitor and an actor in the “normalization carnival” serving the “Zionist project” in the region.
It took only a few days for the attack against Ramadan to expand way beyond the social media sphere, when the Egyptian actors union suspended his membership, and the journalists union forbid its members from publishing any news about Ramadan.
In the eyes of Egyptians, Ramadan’s crime was that he violated the prohibition of any form of normalization with the “occupying state.”
Things did not end there for Ramadan, as a lawsuit was filed against him for “insulting the Egyptian people.”
In an effort to minimize the damage he suffered, Ramadan argued on Instagram that he was not aware of Omer Adam’s Israeli nationality, and that he “salutes the Palestinian people.” He even later changed his profile picture to that of the Palestinian flag.
Admittedly, the response in the Egyptian social media is not a new phenomenon but, rather, a reflection of ingrained negative images and perceptions of Israel and the Jews, both in Egypt and Jordan.
These perceptions surface from time to time against anyone suspected of promoting normalization with Israel. Such was the case in 2016 with Egyptian member of parliament Tawfik Okasha, when he was expelled from parliament after meeting the Israeli ambassador. On other occasions, the anti-Israel sentiment causes violent outbreaks, such as when the Israel Embassy in Cairo was attacked on September 9, 2011.
Throughout the decades since the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, the regimes allowed the anti-Israeli hate discourse to thrive, and, in fact, it managed to play on both sides. On the one hand, both president Hosni Mubarak and King Abdullah preserved the peaceful relationship with Israel and solidified their position as mediators between Israel and the Palestinians; on the other hand, they never promoted the importance of peace with Israel at home, allowing the public to express hostility against Israel and did little to prohibit anti-Zionist and antisemitic voices. Attempts to censor antisemitism were mainly due to pressure from the United States.
Such a dual position served them on their home front to cope with Islamic elements, such as the Muslim Brotherhood, which regularly preached against Israel and Judaism, and with the leftists and liberals, whose opposition to Israel concentrated on the objection to what they perceived as the Israeli occupation.
This approach also characterizes Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, who despite having strengthened the diplomatic and military cooperation with Israel behind the scenes and publicly supported the UAE move, still abstains from supporting civil normalization with Israel.
For Sisi, his legitimacy to rule is rooted in projecting himself as the only leader who can stabilize the country and protect it from its internal and external enemies. The depiction of Israel as a potential enemy, in addition to the Islamic threat, serves his argument for the necessity of military autocracy.
The ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, together with the absence of any solution on the horizon, continues to fuel the anti-Israel discourse in the Egyptian and Jordanian publics.
The leading elements propagating anti-Israeli and sometimes antisemitic discourse include the Islamic associations and labor unions. For them, opposition to normalization constitutes an implicit form of attacking the regime without being branded a traitor or hurting Egypt’s interests and honor. To put it simply, attacking Israel is the only “legitimate” form of protesting against the autocratic regime.
In this context, the attack against Ramadan serves both as an opportunity to condemn Sisi’s “traitorous” relationship with Israel, while also an opportunity for the Egyptian public to declare its disapproval of the Gulf states’ “appeasement” of Israel, “serving the Zionist dream of leading the Arab world.”
HOWEVER, UNLIKE previous attacks against Israel, the regime’s response to this latest anti-Israeli outcry was not absolute silence. In the government-owned Al-Ahram newspaper, a senior intellectual attacked the unions and defended the relationship with Israelis, especially among the younger generation which never witnessed wars against Israel.
This new approach is important because it indicates that the regime is aware that protests propagated in the media are also aimed against it and thus endanger it. It is also possible that the UAE’s and Bahrain’s normalization with Israel, with Saudi consent in the background, empowered the regime’s confidence in its relationship with Israel.
Either way, it is too soon to say whether the regime’s reaction signifies a shift in its position against anti-Israel or anti-normalization expressions, but its reaction does demonstrate that the regime has an important role in changing the hostile discourse against Israel and reshaping it.
It’s difficult to compare the Gulf states, which have no vociferous labor unions or Islamist opposition, with Egypt, Jordan and other Arab states which have a vibrant, though subdued, civil society. It is clear, though, that in the absence of channels of attacking the regime, anything involving Israel serves as a valve for a “legitimate” protest. Hence the attack against Ramadan enabled Egyptians to voice their discontent with the Gulf states’ policy toward Israel and an opportunity to mock and condemn Sisi’s relationship with Israel.
Israel is facing two types of normalization: the one with the Gulf states (and perhaps with Morocco and Sudan) and the one with Egypt and Jordan. It will be interesting to follow which type will affect the other, if at all, and whether a progress or a solution to the Palestinian conflict may warm the cold type of normalization.
** The article was published on Jpost, 28 December 2021