Veteran Arab journalist Abdel Bari Atwan says Saudi Arabia’s latest attempt to soften Israel’s image among the public has spectacularly backfired.
Images of a Saudi activist who visited the occupied Palestinian territories at the invitation of the Israeli foreign ministry, as part of a six-member delegation of Arab “journalists,” have gone viral on Arab social media.
He was shown being taken on a walking tour of the Old City of Jerusalem and the al-Aqsa mosque compound by his Israeli minders. Wherever he went, he was cursed and insulted by local Palestinians, shoes and plastic chairs were thrown at him, and young children ran up to him and spat in his face.
Throughout the Arab and Islamic worlds, this reception has been wholeheartedly applauded by the overwhelming majority of social media users. Nothing could better illustrate the scale of public opposition to, and revulsion at, the creeping campaign of normalisation with Israel currently being conducted by the Saudi and other Arab regimes.
Whether or not the so-called activist, Muhammad Bin Saud, was acting out of true conviction, or even understood what he was doing, it is his country’s government that caused his humiliation. He was being used, as others have been, to pave the way for official normalisation with Israel by accustoming Saudi public opinion to the idea and rebranding the occupier and oppressor of fellow Arabs as a friend.
This without the slightest regard for the Arab Peace Initiative, originally authored by Saudi Arabia itself, which made the establishment of normal relations between Arab states and Israel contingent on a two-state solution.
There is no way the activist could have accepted the Israeli invitation without the active support and encouragement of his government. Not in a country where a single tweet critical of some aspect of government policy, however mildly expressed, can consign the tweeter to 15 years behind bars.
There is certainly a segment of Saudi society, including this activist, that supports his move, either at the government’s behest or out of personal conviction. This group is much beloved by Israeli officials and propagandists such as army spokesman Avichai Adraee. He likes to boast that he has thousands of Arab followers on his Twitter account, especially in the Arabian Peninsula, and has been invited onto several Arab TV channels to air his views.
But make no mistake: The vast majority of Saudis, like people in the other Gulf states, are utterly opposed to normalisation. They are prepared to stand up and make sacrifices in defence of legitimate Arab, Islamic and Palestinian rights and to liberate the holy sites from occupation.
By strutting around in traditional robes, the activist and his hosts tried to depict him as representative of his country and the Gulf as a whole. Nothing could be further from the truth, as has been amply demonstrated by countless other Saudi and Gulf nationals.
It is, regrettably, the Palestinian Authority (PA) that paved the way for these normalisation steps, specifically its president, Mahmoud Abbas. He came up with the quote “visiting the prisoner does not mean supporting the jailer,” thereby opening the door to Arab regimes to send officials and informal envoys on trips to occupied Jerusalem, and even to use the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PA as cover for opening representative or trade offices in Tel Aviv.
The backlash against the Saudi normaliser’s arrogant walkabout, and his statements professing his love for Israel and singing its praises, was also a protest against the PA for facilitating this backdoor normalisation by Arab regimes.
They thought they could use seemingly innocent visits by supposedly independent groups or individuals — which are obviously staged by their governments and the Israeli authorities — to whitewash the occupation and its depredations and embrace Israel as a friend and ally, largely to ingratiate themselves with the U.S., in the belief that Arab public opinion had been cowed into acquiescence.
The reaction of outraged Jerusalemites to the Saudi visitor’s diplay of derision for them and their rights was fully justified. It sent a powerful message to these governments that the people have not been cowed and their envoys are not welcome, and will be treated with the contempt they deserve.
As for the wider Arab public, its true feelings were best demonstrated on the eve of his visit by the Algerian football team after they won the African Nations’ Cup: they raised the Palestinian flag as they celebrated their triumph and dedicated their victory to the struggling people of Palestine.
These normalisers and their sponsors may have unintentionally achieved the opposite of what they intended. They have raised awareness of and fuelled a growing backlash against the backdoor normalisation campaign, not just in Palestine but throughout the region.
The real normalisers – the decision-makers and ministers who have been hoping to pay visits to occupied Jerusalem, open embassies there and hold public meetings with Israeli officials – may have to reconsider their plans.