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Al Jazeera host calls Israel most successful project in 120 years; drama ensues

Faisal al-Qassem’s Arabic tweet garners critical responses, but huge majority responding to poll on his Twitter feed then seem to agree; IDF spokesmen and Netanyahu hail him

Faisal al-Qassem (Screen capture: YouTube)
Faisal al-Qassem (Screen capture: YouTube)

A firebrand Arab television host called Israel the most successful project of the 20th and 21st centuries in an Arabic tweet on Saturday, stirring up intense debate about the Jewish state on social media.

“For most Arabs, if they want to curse you, they will describe you as a ‘Zionist,’ even though they know that the most successful project in the current and last century is the Zionist project,” tweeted Faisal al-Qassem, the host of Al Jazeera’s The Opposite Direction, a well-known debate show.

“All of the Arabs’ projects, especially that of Arab nationalism, failed. So… before you use the term ‘Zionist’ as a curse, you must first come somewhat closer to what Zionism has accomplished and then we will talk,” he also said.

Qassem has frequently criticized many Arab regimes on his show and Twitter account, which has 5.5 million followers, for their anti-democratic policies. He also courted controversy in 2018 when he hosted Arabic-language IDF spokesman Avichai Adraee on his program.

Many critical responses poured into Twitter on Saturday and Sunday after Qassem posted the tweet.

Meshaal al-Nami, a Kuwaiti researcher, tweeted that Qassem and Al Jazeera’s “mercenaries are serving Zionism by spreading chaos and failing and frustrating Arabs and Muslims.”

But when the television host asked Twitter users later on Sunday to vote in a poll as to whether they consider Israel or Arab regimes to be more “advanced, developed, democratic and successful,” an overwhelming majority chose the Jewish state.

Tel Aviv skyline, September 10, 2018 (Matanya Tausig/FLASH90)

Eighty-two percent of 6,168 respondents selected Israel, while the remaining 18.3% chose Arab regimes.

Twitter does not publicly provide data on the identity of poll respondents. However the tweet and the poll were notably in Arabic, as is Qassem’s feed in general.

While a number of Arab states, especially many of those in the Gulf, have expressed greater openness to Israel in recent years, several experts have argued that Arab public opinion has remained largely hostile to the Jewish state.

Israeli officials heaped praise on Qassem for his comment, which they highlighted on their Twitter accounts.

“Dr. Faisal al-Qassem is right. The Zionist movement achieved the Jewish people’s ambition to return to its homeland and build a national state anew on the land of its forefathers,” Ofir Gendelman, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Arabic-language spokesman tweeted on Saturday.

“I am a Zionist and proud. In 71 years, we have transformed from a poor state that lacks resources to a state that is at the top of the world’s rankings with regard to modernism, innovation, sciences, medicine and agriculture,” he added.

Adraee, the IDF spokesman, tweeted on Saturday: “Faisal al-Qassem is speaking the word of truth. ‘Zionist’ is not a curse word but rather one of admiration.”

Al Jazeera is one of a handful of Arabic-language television stations which has hosted Israeli officials.

Many Al Jazeera hosts, however, often express considerable criticism of Israel and its policies vis-a-vis Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.

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