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HomeNewsboxJohn Kerry’s Israel Speech Elicits a Shrug in the Arab World

John Kerry’s Israel Speech Elicits a Shrug in the Arab World

“We have seen pro-Israeli presidents all along, and Israel First was the standard policy of the United States of America over the last 50-plus years,” Mr. Abdulla said. “But Trump is going much further than that. It seems he is even more Zionist than the Zionists.”

Sympathy for the Palestinians has historically been among the few issues that united Arabs across political and sectarian lines, and fiery speeches condemning Israel have long been a reliable way for Arab leaders to fire up their people.

But the Palestinian issue today is not as central as it once was in the wider Arab consciousness. While most Arab states remain unlikely to recognize Israel any time soon, the Arab Spring uprisings and the violence that followed in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya have left heads of state and their populations more focused on domestic concerns. And the rising influence of Iran has created new regional worries for Persian Gulf states like Saudi Arabia, which now share a strategic interest with Israel in checking Iranian power.

“Arab countries have sociopolitical problems that trump the Palestinian cause,” said Ziad A. Akl, a senior researcher at the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo, noting that few Arab governments have done much for the Palestinians over the last decade. Now, he said, “a lot of Arab nations have interests with Israel, and it is part of their national security equation.”


Secretary of State John Kerry had harsh words for Israel in a speech on Wednesday.

James Lawler Duggan/Reuters

“They have realized that Israel is a fact that they have to live with,” he said.

The region’s population is also skewed young, and younger Arabs feel less loyalty to the Palestinians than their elders, said Bassel Salloukh, a professor of political science at the Lebanese American University in Beirut. “There are generations of Arabs who have no idea what Palestine symbolizes and what the issue means,” he said, “and the fratricide among the Palestinians has also undermined the Palestinian cause.”

But one issue that could revive the old passions, he said, is Jerusalem, which is claimed not only by the Arabs but by the wider Muslim community because of its holy sites.

Mr. Trump has vowed to move the United States Embassy to Jerusalem from Tel Aviv, a departure from decades of American policy that could have widespread international ramifications.

“This is no longer an Arab issue, this a Pan-Islamic issue,” Mr. Salloukh said. “It would be throwing oil on the fire and it would give credence to the anti-American discourse.”

Some questioned why Mr. Kerry had waited until his last few weeks in office to articulate criticisms that many in the region have been voicing for years.

“It is difficult to believe that Kerry came to these conclusions this week, since he has been around for four years and the Obama administration has been around for eight,” said Mouin Rabbani, a senior fellow at the Institute for Palestine Studies. “One wonders what is the point here.”

He said that if Mr. Obama had really wanted to advance the two-state solution before Mr. Trump entered the White House, he could have taken more concrete action, like officially recognizing a Palestinian state.

“Instead, this will be another forgotten speech and Trump will very seriously consider moving the embassy to Jerusalem,” he said.

While Mr. Kerry’s speech was seen by many in Washington and Israel as harsh, Mr. Rabbani argued that it was still a mild response to Mr. Netanyahu’s combative actions toward the Obama administration over the last eight years.

“If I were Netanyahu and the only price I had to pay for all my efforts to undo the Iran deal and the two-state settlement was a single abstention by the U.S. at the Security Council and a speech by Kerry, I’d be a very happy man,” he said.

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