Israel and the Arab awakening

Israel’s political class is struggling to make sense of a crumbling Arab order and the loss of the certainties it embodied, reports Thomas O’Dwyer.
Thomas O'Dwyer
9 March 2011

Guy Rolnik, the editor of Israel's leading economic newspaper The Marker, recently wrote a scathing condemnation of the nation’s complacency over the wave of revolution sweeping through Arab countries. Under the headline - “State of a nation, rolling in slime” - was a catalogue of incidents of sleaze, corruption, criminality and abuse of public trust among Israel's political and economic leaders.

The article, published in the newspaper Ha'aretz drew a pointed conclusion for Israel from the Arab upheaval: “Its sheer speed and the intensity of the surprise portend an era of many crises, which will all be unexpected and tremendously powerful.”

Rolnik is here attacking the “it couldn't happen here” attitude prevalent in much public commentary on the astonishingly rapid collapse of the Tunisian and Egyptian governments. And as events have gathered pace there and elsewhere in the Arab world, he also reflects a general shift in the Israeli media towards sharper criticism of the perceived inadequacy of the official and diplomatic responses to the turmoil.

A brittle mindset

The word “hypocrisy” has begun to appear more often in broadcast and written opinion - used mainly in reference to past suggestions by prime minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Israel could not engage properly with Arab states unless they democratised. Now, even as democracy appeared to be erupting in Cairo's Tahrir Square, Netanyahu was openly pressuring President Barack Obama's administration to do everything possible to keep Hosni Muburak in power on the grounds that his fall would have dire consequences for the whole region.

Fawaz A Gerges,professor of middle eastern politics and international relations at the London School of Economics (and contributor to openDemocracy) assessed the implications in an article for BBC News:

“Regionally, Israel is the biggest loser. It has put all its eggs into the basket of Arab dictators and autocrats, like Egypt’s deposed Hosni Mubarak. Israel fought tooth and nail to support Mr. Mubarak, who played a key role in tightening the siege of Gaza and the noose around Hamas’s neck. Time and again, the Israeli political class has proven to be its own worst enemy.”

This is a view now common in the “democracy hypocrisy” debate in Israel. The democracy that Israeli leaders once patronisingly recommended to their neighbours is now viewed by many of the country’s current leaders as a serious threat. Democracy, the argument goes, will sweep Islamic radicals into power (Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood being the favourite bogeyman) and allow Iran to fish for advantages in the troubled regional waters.

The French political commentator Corinne Mellul, also writing in Ha’aretz, wondered “why so many Israelis watch in anguish” as the democratic tidal wave sweeps onwards. “Why did a panicked Netanyahu keep waving ... the red flag of an Islamic threat - one of two pillars of legitimacy for his brand of leadership, the other being Ahmadinejad's Iran?”

In this respect, the innocuous passage of two Iranian destroyers through the Suez canal on 21 February en route to Latakia port in Syria was a gift to the government, giving it a brief and (as it proved) largely ineffectual opportunity to raise alarmist claims that Tehran was taking advantage of the hiatus in Egypt to send warships through the canal for the first time.

Yoram Meital, who heads the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, said that “Israel very cynically played with this ship movement.” In an interview I undertook on behalf of openDemocracy, Meital said:

“There was very little sign of anything new in this move. Israeli ships, both civilian and naval, including submarines, also use the Suez canal, so it's not a sign there is a change in Israel's perspective of Iran or Iran's perspective of Israel. Both Israel and Iran are trying to play their cards amid new developments in the middle east, but they play under the rules of the very old game. There’s nothing new here.”

While no one could have predicted the course of events unleashed by a marketplace incident in Tunisia, it could be assumed that Israel, like other governments, would have contingency plans on file for reacting to sudden crises - such as the overthrow of Mubarak. The flailing Israeli government responses made it appear to Meital that there had been no such planning.

“Over the past few years I got the impression that Israeli decision makers, including the security establishment, paid very little attention to internal political developments in Arab states, including the countries that Israel has peace treaties with, and very little attention even to the political power struggle between various groups and parties in Egypt”, Meital said.

“Yes, there were voices raised sometimes about the danger of the Muslim Brotherhood. But this reading of the internal situation in Egypt was not based on a serious study of the political forces. When Mubarak resigned they were statements by senior Israeli officers saying that tomorrow the Muslim Brotherhood would take power - actually a very simplistic reading of the political struggle. ... Even now, in the post-Mubarak era, they stick to this simplistic view and ignore the fact that we are on a new tack in the political life of Egypt.”

Fouad Ajami, a professor and middle-east expert at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies, said in an interview with Ha’aretz that Israel had nothing to fear from Arab democracy:

“Natan Sharansky has pointed out that democrats who hate you are less dangerous than dictators who love you. There is a certain level of security that comes from autocracies, and Israel is not alone in this. ... But the bargain with an autocrat is never a good bargain. Israel had made peace with pharaohs, but the peace between Israel and the Arab people has not yet come.”

Yoram Meital said it is important for Israelis to understand that the Arab uprisings are national in character. “There were some voices with a pan-Arab or Islamic discourse, but these are not the mainstream, not the voices of the vast majority of the people on the streets. The first struggle in Tunisia was wrapped in national Tunisian colours, and it's the same in Egypt and in Libya.”

Meital said the interim authorities in Egypt have made it clear that they intended to honour international treaties and agreements, including peace with Israel and its rights of passage through the Suez canal.

“However”, he said, “I assume an elected Egyptian leadership will have to express the real criticism which is prevalent among the Egyptian people regarding Israel and its policy toward the Palestinians. This may have an effect on the relationship between the two countries - I’m differentiating here between the relationships of countries on one hand, and the state keeping commitments to the peace treaty on the other.”

Meital said it should be noted that the response of the Palestinian leadership to events in Egypt mirrored those in Israel - astonishment and fear. The Palestinian Authority of President Mahmoud Abbas, based in Ramallah, had lost its main supporter, Mubarak, in its internal political struggle with Hamas.

“Egypt will now most likely open a new page with the Palestinians, especially in relation to Hamas and the Gaza strip. This will have an impact not only on Abu Mazen [Abbas], but on the way Israeli-Egyptian relations could develop in the coming new status era.”

Meital dismissed Netanyahu's recent promises of a new peace initiative to break the stalemate with the Palestinians as “mainly trying to buy time and defuse some of the criticism coming his way from home an abroad.” He said Netanyahu had been particularly shocked by an angry attack on his polices in late February from Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, since Germany for decades has been Israel’s staunchest and most uncritical supporter in Europe.

“The bottom line is that we must look at these events in the Arab states with more respect and with a more positive attitude”, Meital said. “We should give a lot of credit to the civil society forces within the Arab world. For far too long we have talked and written about Arab public opinion in a very orientalist and negative manner.”

A matter of time

In concluding his article on Israeli complacency, Guy Rolnik wrote: “If the beneficiaries of the status quo don't come to their senses and start pursuing reforms, and change their thinking about the rest of Israeli society, they will wake up one morning, be it in 10 or 20 years, like the leaders of Libya, Egypt and Tunisia - in the middle of a nightmare.”

By contrast, Yoram Meital is guardedly optimistic. The starting position is now far more promising than it was under the old Arab regimes, he says:

“I see more chances or more opportunities than risk in this new development. I don't belong to the pessimists' camp, and you know that we have a lot of these voices in Israel. ... The vast majority of Israeli society is still thinking inside a middle-east box of dictatorial and authoritarian regimes. They have no choice but to start thinking outside this box - hopefully soon, but it will take time for Israeli public opinion and politicians to do this.”

“Do they have time?”

“That’s exactly the problem. They think they have time, but we don’t.”

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