The Soccer World Cup, the Middle East and Israel- Hard Questions, Tough Answers (December 12, 2022)


Yossi Alpher is an independent security analyst. He is the former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University, a former senior official with the Mossad, and a former IDF intelligence officer. Views and positions expressed here are those of the writer, and do not necessarily represent APN's views and policy positions.

Q. The threat of a new Netanyahu government full of criminals, fascists and messianics is not pressing enough? You have time and energy to deal with the soccer World Cup?

A. We’ve been dealing with the outcome of Israel’s election for more than a month. There will be ample opportunity to look at Netanyahu’s new government once he has completed it, this week or next, with legislation that deals with the needs and demands of the more scandalous ministers. Meanwhile the World Cup, which concludes within the week and is captivating audiences everywhere (and not just sports fans), offers some fascinating commentary on the Middle East as a whole and Israel in particular.

Q. Commentary on the nature and depth of Arab-Israel normalization and peace?

A. Definitely. On the one hand, Qatar--which is the first Middle East country to host the prestigious tournament and has no official relations with Israel--has allowed Israeli journalists and soccer fans to attend the tournament and even to fly directly from Tel Aviv to Doha. Israeli TV viewers are delighted they can watch top-notch sports in a country whose clock is only an hour ahead of us. That sounds like normalization.

On the other hand, once the World Cup began, both Israel’s TV broadcasters and the fans from Israel were plainly shocked by the aggressively hostile reception they received on the Doha ‘street’ from Arabs who made clear their adherence to the Palestinian cause.

Nothing could be further from the atmosphere of brotherhood between rivals that has prevailed on the soccer field itself. When the United States played Iran (‘death to America’), the opposing players embraced one another. Politics were discarded. But when Morocco, now the only surviving Arab participant, won its games, Moroccan fans conspicuously waved both Moroccan and Palestinian flags. Bedouin in the Negev and Palestinians in East Jerusalem celebrated Morocco’s latest victory with violent demonstrations.

Israelis came back down to earth.

Q. Morocco has normalized ties with Israel. Rabat and Marrakesh are flooded with Israeli tourists. HaBima is performing in Hebrew in Morocco! How do you explain this dissonance?

A. The Qatar soccer World Cup signals us that even when there exist varieties of peace and normalization between Israel and Arab countries, they have not trickled down to the popular level. The peace is between elites, not peoples. The Arab elites need Israel for reasons of security and cyber and for Jerusalem’s good offices in Washington. But not for brotherhood.

While Israelis are welcomed in distant Rabat (Morocco), they are not welcomed in Rabat Ammon (the ancient Hebrew rendering of Amman, capital of Jordan). In other words, distance--geographic distance and the accompanying legacy of lack of direct involvement in Arab-Israel wars—seems to permit the UAE and Morocco to do what Jordan and Egypt will not to. But only up to a point. Note that few if any Arabs from either neighboring Jordan or distant Morocco, from Egypt or the United Arab Emirates, come as tourists to Israel.

Q. The United States and Europe have been critical of Qatari attitudes toward human rights and LGBTQ persons. Thousands of Asian and African guest workers were killed and injured while building Doha’s impressive stadiums, while Qataris remained indifferent. Other Middle East countries among the 32 teams that opened the World Cup--e.g., Saudi Arabia, Iran--have highly problematic human rights records. Where are all these concerns?

A. These concerns are nowhere to be seen among game attendees in Doha. No European team boycotted the tournament. Qatar reportedly spread bribes far and wide--lately, among European Parliament officials--to persuade the West to ignore its human rights record. A few attempts to express solidarity with the oppressed--e.g, the Iranian players’ refusal to sing their own national anthem--were alternately tolerated or suppressed by the tournament organizers. The predominantly Arab fans attending the games seemed largely indifferent to these issues.

Only elites objected. As scholar/urbanist Yasser Elsheshtawy, a Columbia University professor of architecture just wrote, “Plaguing this World Cup is the sordid relationship between autocracies, architecture and megaprojects, through which regimes seek to whitewash—or sportswash in this case—their abusive human rights records, presenting their country as a beacon of inclusivity and progress.”

This, after all, is still the Middle East.

Q. Which still holds anti-colonial grudges . . .

A. Morocco beat both Spain and Portugal on its way to this Wednesday’s semifinal against France. All three European countries have colonial histories in Africa, including Arab North Africa. France ruled Morocco; Spain still holds a few colonial enclaves there. None of this was lost on Moroccans and other Arabs and Africans celebrating Morocco’s victories.

Yet many of Morocco’s footballers were born in France and Belgium; many play in teams all over Europe. It seems that alongside the grudges, lots of economic and political paradoxes characterize relations between the West and the Middle East/North Africa.

Q. Are there lessons the incoming Israeli government should learn from the Qatar World Cup?

A. Michael Milstein, an expert on the Palestinian issue at Tel Aviv and Reichman universities, summed it up with a warning to the most right-wing set of ministers ever to take office in Israel: “The next [Israeli] government should in the Palestinian context prioritize, at least in the foreseeable future, maintaining the status quo rather than taking revolutionary steps that could set back strategic achievements. [The latter], as demonstrated in Qatar, rest on relatively fragile foundations.”

Q. Any other messages for Israel from this first-ever Middle East World Cup?

A. Israel’s growing right-messianic mainstream should take a long, hard look at the police states playing in this World Cup. Iran, Saudi Arabia, even Morocco--this is what we could begin to look like if we allow the likes of Itamar Ben Gvir, Bezalel Smotrich and, yes, the ultra-Orthodox too, to set the tone in Israel.

Note, too, the demographic reality in energy-rich Qatar, as in neighboring ultra-wealthy Gulf principalities. Foreign guest workers outnumber the natives by something like eight to one. The inevitable outcome is police-state tactics and gross abuses of human rights. Nothing quite as demographically grotesque can happen in Israel-Palestine. But a Palestinian majority between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea already exists.

Soccer is fun to watch. The displays of brotherhood, except toward Israel, are heart-warming. But at the end of the day, everyone goes home to a very different reality.