Analyzing Arab-Israeli Tensions at the Qatar World Cup 2022

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Despite the Israeli team not playing in the FIFA 2022 World Cup, the presence of Israeli sports fans and journalists has made some headlines. Although not all forms of activism have been permitted at the global event, many Arabs attending the games have been waiving Palestinian flags and displaying other forms of solidarity with the Palestinians, such as snubbing Israeli reporters and boycotting media from the Jewish state. Emotional and sometimes tense encounters between Arabs and Israelis at the World Cup have led to viral videos on social media. These in-person exchanges on the ground in Qatar shed some light on how the Abraham Accords have played out on a people-to-people basis.

The display of pro-Palestinian and anti-Israeli sentiments at the World Cup has been somewhat of a bubble-bursting experience for Israelis and those in Washington who enthusiastically support expanding the Abraham Accords. On the Arab side, these diplomatic deals have been a “top-down” initiative imposed by authoritarian and unelected governments willing to ignore public opinion on the question of normalization. Israelis should realize that it is one thing for representatives of their government to meet with Arab interlocutors from Abu Dhabi, Amman, Cairo, Khartoum, Manama, and Rabat, and something else for Israeli sports fans and journalists to have random encounters with Arab citizens who are not reading a carefully drafted script. 

Since Israel and the United Arab Emirates (UAE) formalized diplomatic relations in 2020, there was a growing belief among elites in Israel and the U.S. that the Jewish state’s image had improved in the Arab world. Although polling data already explained this, contentious exchanges in Doha further demonstrate that the Abraham Accords have had very limited effects in terms of changing Arab opinions about Israel.

This global sports event should result in Israelis and Americans revisiting their assessments about the extent to which the Abraham Accords can bring about “peace” between Arabs and Israelis. There is clearly not much love in the Arab world for Israel. The decades of humiliation, resentment, and anger which many Arabs feel toward Israel cannot simply vanish with the signing of such normalization agreements.

It is doubtful that the experiences of Israeli sports fans and journalists in Qatar this year will change the fact that most Israelis support the Abraham Accords. The Jewish state has benefited from these diplomatic deals in various ways and Israel is set to continue reaping such benefits throughout the future. Nonetheless, these experiences at the World Cup are a reminder that the Abraham Accords are much more popular among Israelis than among Arabs. There is every reason to expect any future government in Israel to continue efforts to bring more Arab-Muslim countries into formalized relationships with Tel Aviv. Yet, one outcome of the 2022 World Cup will likely be Israelis becoming less naïve about what expansion of the Abraham Accords can achieve for people-to-people relations between their country and the wider Arab world.

Article by Giorgio Cafiero, CEO of Gulf State Analytics

Giorgio Cafiero (@GiorgioCafiero) is the CEO of Gulf State Analytics, a Washington, DC-based geopolitical risk consultancy.

Read more about the Building a Legacy: Qatar FIFA World Cup 2022 project here.

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