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May 29, 2018 No.
1398

Shift In Saudi Media's Attitude To Israel – Part I: Saudi Writers, Intellectuals: Iran Is More Dangerous Than Israel; Peace With It Is Vital In Order To Repel Iranian Threat

By: Z. Harel*

Introduction:

The mounting tension between Israel and Iran, which came to a head with Iran's firing of missiles at Israel from Syrian territory and Israel's counterattack on Iranian sites in that country, sparked a debate in Saudi Arabia regarding which side Saudis should support. Many Saudi intellectuals declared that, in case of a military confrontation between Iran and Israel, they would certainly support Israel, for Iran is the one threatening Saudi Arabia.

Iran's military involvement in the region – its presence in Yemen and its support of the Houthi rebels there, who are fighting Saudi Arabia and firing rockets at its cities, as well as its military presence in Syria and Iraq and its involvement in Lebanon – are perceived by Saudis as an existential threat to their country. Israel, on the other hand, is not perceived as a threat to Saudi Arabia, but as a potential ally in the struggle against Iran.

Against this backdrop, Saudi intellectuals, journalists and writers have been increasingly expressing open support for Israel, approving of its policy towards Iran and even calling to normalize relations and make peace with it. This, they said, could put a stop to Iran's hostile policies, since the perpetuation of the Arab-Israeli conflict serves Iran's expansionist ambitions.

In some cases, the Saudi intellectuals and journalists also expressed support for Israel in matters pertaining to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, especially to the clashes on the Gaza border as part of the "Great Return March" campaign. Some of them blamed the events on Hamas and on Iran, which they said were promoting their interests at the expense of the children of Gaza.

It should be noted that this is not the first time such voices are heard in Saudi Arabia. In June 2017, Musa'id Al-'Asimi, who writes for Al-Riyadh, called on the Arabs to stop regarding Israel as an enemy state and focus instead on the "real enemy" – Iran.[1] In addition, over the past year there have been increasing reports on rapprochement between Israel and Saudi Arabia, and on Saudi involvement in the formulation of U.S. President Donald Trump's "Deal of the Century" for resolving the Palestinian problem, in a manner favoring Israel at the expense of the Palestinians.

It should also be mentioned that, alongside the clear trend of articles supporting Israel, the Saudi media continues to publish many articles that criticize it.

This article reviews the pro-Israel Saudi voices that have recently increased.

Al-Riyadh Former Deputy Editor: We Must Make Peace With Israel, Focus On Iranian Threat:

On April 14, 2018, Ahmad Al-Jumay'a, the former deputy-editor of the Saudi daily Al-Riyadh,[2] published an article titled "The Al-Dhahran Summit: Peace with Israel, Confrontations with Iran." In the article, published the day before the April 15, 2018 Arab League summit in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, he stated that Iran was a more serious threat to the Arabs than Israel, and that the Arabs should therefore arrive at a comprehensive peace agreement with Israel in order to free themselves up to concentrate on the Iranian threat."

He wrote: "For 72 years, the Palestinian issue has been a permanent item on the [agenda of the] Arab League summits...

"Israel was and remains the main important topic on the Arabs' agenda, and on the agenda of the permanent Arab League conferences. Despite all the resolutions passed [on this issue], we have reached no solution – or, [more precisely,] no solution that satisfies Israel. [Our] preoccupation with this issue has kept us from [dealing with] essential Arab matters, first and foremost the Iranian threat in the region and its ramifications, which have reached the point that four Arab capitals [i.e. Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut, and Sana'a], and three UAE islands are occupied by Iran. At the same time, Israel occupies [only] one Arab capital. Iran is spreading its sectarianism, exporting terrorism, supporting extremist organizations, and interfering in others' affairs, while Israel has never gone beyond its own borders, at least not in the past decade.

"The Arabs must realize that Iran is more dangerous than Israel, in particular [Iran's] ideology that it is advancing through expansion [and through obtaining] control and influence, and there is a great deal of proof for this. It has turned its slogan 'Death to Israel' into justification for the fundamental assumption of [its] ideology, for its sectarian oppression and discrimination, and for its recruitment of cells [in the Arab world] for carrying out its great project.

"Today, the Arabs have no choice but to reconcile with Israel, and to sign a comprehensive peace agreement [with it], in order to free themselves up for confronting the great Iranian plan in the region, and [Iran's] nuclear program, and to end [Iran's] intervention in Arab affairs...

"Rectifying [the Arab approach to Iran] will be a new way for [all the Arabs] to deal [with Iran], not [just] for the countries [already] doing so and suffering from the ramifications of the Iranian plan and the partisan militias that support it [as] other [countries, a reference to Qatar] extend a hand to Iran seeking to draw closer to it. This rationale [i.e. attempting to draw closer to Iran] is no longer acceptable, and can no longer be overlooked – particularly when the most important Arab country, Saudi Arabia, is exposed to the threat of missiles [fired at it by the] Iran-sponsored Houthis, and its southern border is the line of confrontation with these militias. 


Ahmad Al-Jumay'a (Source: Scbnews.com, November 25, 2017)

"The Dhahran summit will conclude only with the passage of an historic resolution: peace with Israel and confrontation with Iran's sectarian plan. That is because the conclusion is that those who reject peace [with Israel] are serving Iran, and must bear the responsibility for the consequences of their decision."[3]

In an article published on April 30, 2018, following the summit between the leaders of North and South Korea, Al-Jumay'a called on the Arabs and Israel to learn from the Korean example, because the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict only enables Iran to continue its regional expansion, whereas the attainment of a just and comprehensive peace would usher in a new era of security and stability in the region. He wrote: "The political reconciliation in the Korean Peninsula, the historic meeting of the leaders of the two Koreas after 65 years of no relations, the arrangements that came out of the meeting and the end of Pyongyang's nuclear tests – all these clearly prove that dialogue and peace are the solution to every conflict, no matter what its causes, its problems or its duration, because hostility cannot last forever...

"We in the Middle East are in a unique situation with the Arab-Israeli conflict, which has not yet ended despite the Arab peace initiative [presented at the 2002 Arab Summit] in Beirut, and despite the international work meetings and the U.S. sponsorship and guarantees for the peace [process]. The main reason for this is that the Palestinian issue has turned into a political issue [used] for bargaining and for brandishing slogans. An [even] more significant reason is Israel's rigid position. All this has given rise to a polarized and problematic Arab discourse, which has been infiltrated [by hostile elements]. The Jerusalem Summit, as King Salman called the [April 15, 2018 Arab League] summit in Al-Dhahran, and the emphasis on the Palestinians' rights and on political and financial support for them, are the road map to a just and comprehensive peace with Israel, because the conflict cannot go on.

"The Arabs and Israelis must learn a lesson from history regarding peace agreements, and hasten to initiate [peace]. The region can no longer tolerate conflicts and division. Some countries in the region still regard the failure to attain Israeli-Arab peace as an opportunity to spread and [expand] their influence and control. The first of these is Iran, who brandishes the slogans of 'death to America' and 'death to Israel' as a way to feed the flames of conflict, infiltrate Arab forces and actualize the goal of spreading the rule of the jurisprudent. Attaining a just and comprehensive peace means... halting the Iranian plan and ushering in a new era of stability and peace in the region."[4]  

Al-Jumay'a's articles sparked responses and criticism. For example, Jasser Al-Harbash, a senior columnist for the Saudi daily Al-Jazirah, responded to Jumay'a in a three-part series of articles titled "A Comparative Look at the Iranian and Zionist Plans." He argued that both plans are dangerous for the Arabs, but that the Iranian one is slightly less dangerous because it is a short-term plan.[5]

Saudi Columnists: Israel Does Me No Harm On A Daily Basis; Iran Is The Greater Threat

As stated, the recent uptick in tension between Iran and Israel, including Iran's firing of missiles at Israel from Syrian territory and Israel's counterattack on Iranian sites in that country, as well as the U.S. withdrawal from the nuclear agreement with Iran, gave rise to pro-Israeli discourse among Saudi journalists and intellectuals, who wondered which of the two sides Saudis should be supporting. 'Othman Al-'Omeir, editor of the Saudi news site Elaph, tweeted: "If war breaks out between Israel and Iran, aimed at eliminating the foreign militias Iran has brought into Syria, who will you support?!..."[6]


Al-'Omeir's tweet

'Ali Sa'd Al-Moussa, a columnist for the government daily Al-Watan, addressed the same question in a column titled "Iran vs. Israel – Who Will You Support?!". Reviewing the dangers posed by Iran to Saudi Arabia, he concluded that Iran and its allies were a greater threat to the kingdom than Israel:  "My dear friend 'Othman Al-'Omeir tweeted the day before yesterday: 'If war breaks out between Israel and Iran, aimed at eliminating the foreign militias Iran has brought into Syria, who will you support?!'... [My] answer, which does not take a lot of courage to utter openly in the paper, is that I will side with Israel, as long as all the circumstances and goals mentioned in Al-'Omeir's tweet actually obtain [i.e., as long as the war is aimed at driving the pro-Iranian militias out of Syria]...

"Iran is the one that today threatens my country's northern border by means of its Iraqi Al-Hashd Al-Sha'bi militias. Iran is the one openly funding the Houthi militias on [my] homeland's other border [i.e., the southern border, with Yemen]. It is the one firing its miserable rockets at every Saudi city [with the help of the Houthis], and it is the one openly occupying Baghdad, Damascus, Beirut and Sanaa... Iran is the one who torched our embassy and consulate [in Tehran], which did nothing but provide entry visas to pilgrims from that perverted country. Iran is the one behind every organization, every party and every Arab satellite channel that come out against this kingdom. There is no space in this article to detail everything it has done to us... Does it take much courage to write clearly: Israel does me no harm in my personal daily life? [Houthi leader 'Abd Al-Malik] Al-Houthi and his gang, as well as [Hizbullah secretary-general Hassan] Nasrallah and his gang, threaten me more than the Haganah, Israel and its radical right. Both sides [Iran and Israel] represent deadly ideas, but unfortunately I must choose between Khamenei's turban and the rabbi's brimmed hat."[7]

Senior Saudi journalist 'Abd Al-Rahman Al-Rashed, the former editor of the London-based Saudi daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat and former director of Al-Arabiya TV, likewise argued that the Arabs' interests compel them to side with Israel against Iran at this time. In his May 11, 2018 column in Al-Sharq Al-Awsat, he wrote: "Who do we support, Iran or Israel? This is a very embarrassing question, since it flies in the face of the entire outlook underpinning our political culture... [But] in politics, positions [sometimes] change to suit interests. Had we asked the majority of Syrians what they thought [of this question], they would have cheered for Israel, expressing support for its attacks on the Iranian forces and militias in Syria. There is no argument more compelling than defending the truth as embodied by 600,000 [Syrians] who have died and ten million who have become refugees as a result of the crimes of Iran and its allies.

"Some positions, even justified ones, aren't sacred. Some stem from rational considerations and others from emotional ones. [Our] position would have favored Iran had it supported the Palestinians, but it favors Israel when it strikes the Iranian forces in Syria. [We] support the Palestinians when Israel attacks them, and we supported the Lebanese-Iranian Hizbullah when it promised to liberate South Lebanon from the Israeli occupation. [But] we supported Israel's attack on Hizbullah forces when [Hizbullah] harmed Lebanese people and took part in murdering Syrians. We side with the attacked against the attacker. Is that rationale so hard to understand? It is the reasonable position to take in a crazy region..." [8]

Saudi Columnist: I Will Support Israel; Iran Is An Existential Threat; Peace With Israel Is Vital

Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh, a senior columnist for the Saudi Al-Jazirah daily, shared a tweet by Bahrain Foreign Minister Khalid bin Ahmad Aal Khalifa, who supported Israel's right to defend itself and eliminate Iranian forces threatening its security. Muhammad Aal Al-Sheikh called this a "courageous stance."[9] The following day he tweeted: "If Israel attacks on Iranian soil and a war breaks out between them, my conscience and reason will compel me to support Israel, because our number one enemy is Iran, not Israel, and the Arabs of the north [Lebanon and Syria] need to realize this truth."[10]


 Aal Al-Sheikh's May 11 tweet

Aal Al-Sheikh expressed a similar view in this May 15, 2018 column in the Al-Jazirah daily. Under the title "Yes, I Will Side with Israel If It Attacks Iran," he wrote: "A question that comes up these days in any social gathering is: 'If there's a war between Iran and Israel, whose side will you take?' I answered without hesitation: Of course I will support Israel with all my might and help it any way I can, because Iran is a mortal enemy whose war [against us] is based on ideological tenets..., and which views the existence of our Sunni countries as an affront to the [spilled] blood of Hussein, whom it falsely accuses us of killing.[11] Hence, the existence of the [Iranian] state means the demise of our [countries], and its demise means our [continued] existence and stability...

"Our conflict with Iran and our battle against it are fateful, and touch on our very survival. We and the Iranian rule of the jurisprudent are on two sides of the barricade. Our interest is that Iran cease to exist as a regime and disappear off the face of the earth. I don't care who carries out this task, but I will support him with all my might, whoever he is, and help him in any way I can. As for the [Iranian] people, they are helpless. The Arabs of the north [Syria and Lebanon], [especially] those of them who purport to be devout Muslims or pan-Arabists, must know that we will never sacrifice our national security, let alone our very survival, just so their cause can be victorious. If you do not care about our security, stability and survival, and therefore support our mortal enemy, do not expect us to treat you any differently. Any Saudi who says otherwise is an enemy of his homeland, acting to turn it into another Syria or Libya...

"I know for a fact that peace [with Israel] is a necessity, not a choice, and that the Arabs who oppose it are merely spewing empty words..."[12]

In a May 20 tweet, Aal Al-Sheikh even expressed support for normalization with Israel, writing: "Yes, I am in favor of normalization with Israel, but it has a price [that Israel must pay, namely] regional peace." [13]


Aal Al-Sheikh's tweet

Saudi Liberal: Enough With The Blind Hostility Towards Israel, The Real Threat Is Iran; Zionism Is Preferable To Arab Nationalism

Joining the debate in Saudi Arabia following the Israeli attack on the Iranian positions in Syria, liberal thinker Turki Al-Hamad also took a pro-Israeli stance. In a series of tweets he wrote: "I was with a group of friends and an argument broke out about the Israeli attacks on Iranian positions in Syria. One of them stood up to condemn the Israeli attacks on an Arab country. To be honest, I was surprised at this. What does he expect Israel to do when it sees the Iranian snake coiling itself around it?... Naturally, it couldn't stand idly by. We are hostile to Israel [just] because it is Israel, not because it poses a threat. That's how we were brought up and how they [the Israelis] were brought up, so that a psychological barrier has been created between the sides. The real threat in the Gulf today is Iran, but the veil of the traditional resentment towards Israel prevents us from seeing this reality. Let them call [me] pro-Zionist. Zionism is better for my country than the Arab nationalism that has caused us losses. Israel is no doubt a usurping and occupying country, but that shouldn't prevent us from understanding things from its perspective as a state. The state [of Israel] is a fact on the ground, even if we hate it. From this point of view we can understand its behavior. Enough of refusing to face reality, when in the end the superior civilization wins. Let us forsake [all this] nonsense..."[14]


Al-Hamad's tweets

Al-Hamad has also often sided with Israel on the issue of the conflict with the Palestinians. For example, following the "Return March" confrontations on the Gaza border on May 14, 2018, the day the American Embassy in Jerusalem was opened,[15] Al-Hamad placed the responsibility for the deaths of dozens of Palestinians in the confrontations on Hamas and Iran. He wrote, "If this had been true resistance against the occupation, no one would have hesitated to stand up and support it, just as we support virtuous [causes] everywhere. But the whole thing was an Iranian maneuver carried out by Hamas at the expense of the children of Gaza, and this is unacceptable. The day will come when the hidden [facts] will be exposed."[16] He also harshly criticized the Palestinians in a series of tweets in November 2017, provoking the ire of numerous Twitter users.[17] In one of these tweets Al-Hamad wrote that the Palestinian issue no longer interested him: "Sorry friend, the [Palestinian] issue doesn't interest me [anymore]. It has become boring, [just] a source of income for some people and a way to grant false legitimacy to the activities of others."[18]

Saudi Businessman: Allah, Give The Children Of Israel Victory Over Our Common Enemy

Saudi businessman Khalid Al-Ashaerah also supported Israel in its conflict with Iran, posting tweets that sparked furious responses on social media. On May 18, following an attack on Iranian sites in Syria that was attributed to Israel, he tweeted: "About Israel's airstrikes on Iran's mercenaries in Syria today: The minute I heard this good [news] I beseeched Allah to guide the weapons of the Israeli pilots [to their targets]. We must understand that the war is now between the coalition of rational [forces], which includes the U.S., Europe, the Arabs and Israel, and the terrorist militias of the Russia-Iran-Turkey coalition."[19] On May 15 he also posted a tweet that evoked angry responses: "Allah, give victory to the Children of Israel against their enemy and ours. Allah, if there are Palestinians who sold their land..., betrayed the Muslims, [marched] under the banner of the Zoroastrians [an epithet for Iran], violated norms, made false accusations against Muslims, killed Muslims in Syria and behaved with arrogance, then disperse them, abandon them and give the Children of Israel victory over them. That is my prayer this Ramadan." [20] 


Khalid Al-Ashaerah's tweet

Following the recent clashes between Palestinians and the Israeli army on the Gaza border, Al-Ashaerah rejected the claim that Israel was deliberately killing Palestinians, tweeting: "[Examining] Zionist history, we find no bombing of our mosques, no targeting of the sacred compounds [in Mecca and Medina], and no incitement against us [Saudis]... They haven't attacked us or supported our enemies. Those who say the Zionists are killing Palestinians[21] should look and see who is burning our flag, inciting against us and helping our enemy occupy our countries when his own country is occupied. We must correct our way of thinking!"[22]

*Z. Harel is a research fellow at MEMRI.

 

[1] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 6951, Saudi Columnist: Iran Is The Real Enemy, Not Israel, June 6, 2017.

[2] In October 2016, the Saudi e-daily Sabaq reported that Al-Juma'ya had stepped down from his position as deputy editor, which he had held since 2014. It should be noted that the page of his articles on the Al-Riyadh website still states that he is deputy editor, but the website may not be updated. Sabq.org, October 9, 2016.

[3] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), February 14, 2018.

[4] Al-Riyadh (Saudi Arabia), April 30, 2018.

[5] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), April 18, 23, 25, 2018.

[6] Twitter.com/OthmanAlomeir, April 22, 2018. Al-'Omeir reposted this tweet on May 11.

[7] Al-Watan (Saudi Arabia), May 12, 2018.

[8] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), May 11, 2018.

[9] Twitter.com/alshaikhmhmd, May 10, 2018.

[10] Twitter.com/alshaikhmhmd, May 11, 2018.

[11] Hussein son of 'Ali, an important figure in Shi'ism, was killed in the battle of Karbala between his supporters and the supporters of the Umayyad Caliph Yazid. His death is a pivotal event in the rift between the Shi'ites and Sunnis.  

[12] Al-Jazirah (Saudi Arabia), May 15, 2018.

[13] Twitter.com/alshaikhmhmd, May 20, 2018.

[14] Twitter.com/TurkiHAlhamad1, May 11, 2018.

[15] It should be noted that the transfer of the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, which sparked condemnations across the Arab world, was also met with some positive responses in the Saudi media. For example, Saudi journalist Amal 'Abd Al-'Aziz Al-Hazzani called on the Arabs and Palestinians to accept reality and to act wisely by leveraging this event to renew the negotiations with Israel. See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7473, Saudi Journalist: The U.S. Has The Right To Choose Its Embassies' Locations; The Move To Jerusalem Is An Opportunity For The Arabs To Renew Negotiations, May 15, 2018.

[16] Twitter.com/TurkiHAlhamad1, May 14, 2018.

[17] See MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 7203, Twitter Clash: Saudis vs Palestinians On Palestinian Cause, Palestinian Resistance, November 30, 2017.

[18] Twitter.com/TurkiHAlhamad1, November 21, 2017.

[19] Twitter.com/KHALID_ASHAERAH, May 18, 2018.

[20] Twitter.com/KHALID_ASHAERAH, May 15, 2018.

[21] Al-Ashaerah calls the Palestinians "Floustiniyyin," from the colloquial Arabic word "flous", meaning money, implying that they are ungrateful for the Saudi financial aid, or that they have sold their homeland for money.  

[22] Twitter.com/KHALID_ASHAERAH, May 14, 2018.