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Israel Reacts to the Arab Spring

Spring / Summer 2012 Nez À Nez

Israel Reacts to the Arab Spring

Proposition: The Arab Spring is, on balance, a major strategic problem for Israel

Saeed Rahnema is an award-winning professor of political science at York University (Toronto) (against): Whether or not the so-called Arab Spring is a problem for Israel depends on which Israel we are talking about: the Israel of the hawks, settlers and religious fundamentalists, or that of the country’s pro-peace, secular and progressive forces. For the hawkish Israel, the Arab Spring has been, and will continue to be, negative and dangerous. The loss of a friendly dictator in neighbouring Egypt was a terrible blow. Even the destabilization of a hostile dictator in another bordering state – Syria – has been quite unsettling. Obviously, there is no love lost between Israel and the Assad regime, but Assad’s regime is a known and predictable entity; what might replace it is not, and could be very different.

Whether one views the Arab Spring as a strategic problem also, of course, depends on whose Spring it is and will be: that of the region’s pro-democracy, progressive youth and women’s movements, or that of the Islamists? The former, despite serious grievances in respect of Israel, would nonetheless want to live in peace with the non-hawkish Israel discussed above. But the latter, like its Jewish analogue within Israel, is messianic and regressive, and would ultimately be hostile to the continued existence of Israel.

Even though the Islamists seem – at present – to be winning the Arab uprising, the pro-democracy movement is not dead, and the Islamists will not be able to establish a Sharia-based regime à la Iran. Nor will the military establishment that has survived the uprisings be able to return to the days of dictatorial rule.

A rational policy for Israel would be to take into consideration the region’s changed realities. I believe that the Arab Spring – which, at its core, is a pro-democracy and progressive movement – will not be a problem for Israel, and can potentially move the region toward a genuine peace with Israel. However, this is entirely conditional on the direction of Israeli policy – first and foremost, toward the Palestinians; that is, whether Israel moves toward a genuine peace and final status agreement. The Palestinian issue continues to be one of the thorniest issues in the region. To be sure, there are many problems on the Palestinian side (which I take up below), but Israel, as the far more powerful player, can initiate the peace process if it genuinely sets its mind to so doing. It is the case, however, that Netanyahu’s government has moved in the opposite direction – all the while trying to divert attention to Iran and the so-called ‘existential threat’ that it poses to Israel.

David Tal is the Kahanoff Chair in Israel Studies and a professor of history at the University of Calgary (for): The events that swept the Arab world over the last couple of years bear a single name – the Arab Spring – but are actually quite varied in nature and meaning. The events in Libya, Tunisia and Syria differ in some important respects from those in Egypt. This is not to say that there are not some common features among all of these events. First, they challenge the existing order set by imperialism at the beginning of the 20th century. Most of the states swept by the Arab Spring were created by imperialist forces, and not by indigenous people who acted to exercise their right of self-determination. Consequently, the social and ethnic structures of those states contain the roots of political and social unrest. More than anything else, Libya is a collection of tribes brought together by imperialism, as is the case – to lesser degree – in Syria and Tunisia. As a consequence, the events that take place in those states will lead primarily to changes in their social and ethnic organizations and structures, and less to changes in the very essence of their political systems.

Second, it is unclear which course will be taken by the states of the Arab Spring. The best that we can hope for is not a European-style democracy – which is based on a strong middle class, the sovereignty of the individual, secularism and industrialization – but rather a Muslim version of democracy that would retain traditional social structures, and would also accommodate democratic features. The worst scenario, evidently, would be disintegration. It is still unclear, for instance, whether Iraq – another by-product of imperialism, and itself largely untouched by the Arab Spring – will end up as a valid republic or will disintegrate into three de facto states.

A couple of things seem to be clear right now. For one, the political structures have shifted away from a small elite to the people themselves – even if, in many cases, the elites still retain power, and will probably resurface under a different name or in a different guise. In any event, though, the people will now be a factor with which these elites will have to reckon.

Second, a key result of these revolutionary developments is the significant weakening of the power of central governments. (This results not principally from the economic and political discontent that is the Arab Spring, but on account of the power struggles between different ethnic and religious groups in the context of the Spring.) This weakening of central governments is plain to see in the Sinai desert, in the peripheries of Yemen, and in the villages and towns of Syria: the central government is no longer able to impose its authority, and the region becomes pockmarked by so-called ‘weak states.’ States like Somalia and Afghanistan, in which the central government is no longer able to exercise its power and authority across the national territory, quite often become harbours and safe havens for lawless groups – in some cases, terrorist groups – that further undermine the power of the state. These weak states may then serve as launching pads for activities and attacks beyond the boundaries of the state.

This, therefore, is the real challenge that the Arab Spring poses to Israel. Without a doubt, it is always better – at least psychologically, if not in policy – to deal with ‘the devil we know.’ But on a deeper level, the regime changes in the Middle East are not the central problem for Israel – whether on Israel’s ‘right’ or its ‘left.’ Regime change or not, neither flank in Israel’s political spectrum will change its mind regarding the Arab world. But what really preoccupies all Israeli strategic analysts is the inability of the central government in Egypt to impose law and order in the Sinai and, among other failures of governance in the region, the failure of the Yemeni government to stop the Yemen-based activities of groups associated with Al Qaeda.

Regarding the Palestinians, while Israel’s actions on the Palestinian front certainly influence the attitude of Arab people and regional states, it would be a mistake to assume that the end of the conflict is in Israel’s hands. The Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict precedes and is more deep-seated than what is suggested by the outcome of the Six-Day War. Indeed, for many in the Arab world, the real problem is not post-1967 Israel, but indeed the very existence of Israel. As such, the Arab Spring and its evolution will have a small impact on the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. Similarly, Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians will play a minor role in the region’s developments. Yes, Israel must resolve the conflict with the Palestinians – but not to improve its strategic position in the region; rather, for its own sake, with or without an Arab Spring.

SR: I agree that the ‘forces of imperialism’ created most of the countries of the region, but totally disagree that the indigenous people did not act to exercise their rights of self-determination. Actually, the imperialists’ actions occurred despite the struggles of the indigenous people for independence. The history of the region is rampant with examples of such struggles that were suppressed by the colonial and post-colonial powers. And to argue that we cannot expect a Western-style democracy in the region, and that we can – at best – expect a “Muslim version” of it has a distinct Orientalist undertone. The supposition is based on the perception that these societies are essentially different, and are incapable of following the path taken by European societies. Struggles for democracy in the region have been ongoing for over a century – a century of bloody suppression of efforts favouring modernity, secularism and democracy.

Ironically, what we are witnessing today – that is, calls for a return to ‘traditional’ perspectives, and attempts by the fast-rising Islamists to establish Islamic states – are themselves products of imperial policies and Cold War strategies that supported the religious elements of the region in order to weaken the secular left and liberals. We can see how this same perspective ends up undermining – or not appreciating the nature and the roots of – the pro-democracy movement in the Arab world – claiming that these movements are the results of “power struggles between different ethnic and religious groups.”

Equally surprising is your suggestion that Israeli society has a fixed mindset, and that, whether there is or is not regime change, neither the right nor the left “will change its mind regarding the Arab world.” This suggests that the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict is eternal, and that Israel has no other choice but to continue the policy of separating itself from its neighbours by multiple walls.

If a pro-peace government were to replace the present coalition government in Israel, and move toward a two-state solution peace agreement on the basis of pre-1967 borders – with some possible adjustments along the lines of the Geneva Initiative – and resolve the refugee issues and the question of Jerusalem along the lines of the Taba Agreement, then it would reduce the tension with the Palestinians and gain support among progressive forces in the Arab world; that is, those same progressives who are at the core of the Arab Spring. This is no easy task – for the Palestinian side is still divided between the Islamist zealots of Hamas and the corruption-ridden Fatah; and, naturally, changing Arab opinion toward Israel will take time. But with sincere resolve and a changed policy direction, real peace would be possible.

It is within this context that Israel should embrace and support the Arab Spring. Of course, such support could not and should not be direct. Any direct and publicly expressed support from Israel would paradoxically weaken the pro-democracy movement, and thereby give ammunition to the military and the Islamists in possibly claiming that the movement is an imperialist or Zionist plot. The best indirect support would come through the undertaking of serious and sincere steps toward peace with the Palestinians. Such a peace would, as mentioned, empower the secular, progressive forces in the Arab world in confronting the two anti-democratic forces in their respective countries – the military establishment and the Islamists.

If the Arab Spring succeeds, and to the extent that the progressive, pro-democracy movement gains momentum, tensions with Israel would be reduced. Arab countries, as they agreed in the 2002 Beirut Declaration (Arab Peace Initiative), would recognize the state of Israel, end boycotts and develop formal relations. Israel would then be a major beneficiary of improved relations with its neighbours and the broader Arab and Islamic world.

Israel is a technological, industrial and agricultural powerhouse. If we look at the import/export data of both Israel and the Arab world, we can see how clearly such improved relations would benefit the economies of both sides. Israel’s enormous achievements in intensive agriculture and agricultural technologies can improve the development process in neighbouring countries. Israeli outward and inward foreign direct investment, which is mediocre – considering the country’s skill level and technological capabilities, but largely due to Israel’s poor and insecure relationships in the region – would increase very rapidly and markedly. Bref: Instead of spending on walls of separation, and building and expanding prisons, Israel would be able to invest in constructive development projects that ultimately improve the lot of all Israelis. There would be many undeniable hurdles along the way – starting with the hawks, settlers and religious fundamentalists on all sides, but also including their many international supporters, who prefer the status quo, and who benefit from conflict and war. Nevertheless, pro-democracy, progressive forces in Israel and the Arab world can succeed. The Arab Spring – and prior to it, the Iranian spring – has irreversibly changed the dynamic and dynamism of the region.

DT: Who can argue with the claim that democracy is better than not-democracy? The problem is that democracy is not in and of itself a ‘change-creating’ phenomenon – but rather the result of important changes. Democracy emerged in Europe as a consequence of various major changes – intellectual, economic, social and, finally, political – on that continent. Does this mean that a society that did not go through the historical processes of the West is a lesser society? Not at all. Is a sui generis form of democracy worse than one that fits the more conventional definitions of political scientists? I doubt it. The Arab Spring – as a unique, contemporary phenomenon – cannot lead to a European-style democracy not because the Arabs are somehow inferior to the Europeans, but rather because they experienced and are still experiencing a different course of history. The end result of that journey, however, will not necessarily be worse than Western-style democracy.

I dare say that to assume that the only possible path for the Arab Spring is Western-style democracy is itself a kind of Orientalism. Let us not forget that Hamas – to take but an obvious example – came to power through free and open elections: the Palestinian people brought to power a party committed not to the achievement of a two-state solution, and not to coexistence with Israel, but rather to its very destruction. I do not underestimate and underappreciate the values of the people of the Middle East. I might not like all of these values and ideas, but I do not think that we should prefer to impose Western constructs on non-Western societies.

Similarly, Arab nationalism is a contested idea. The nationalist idea emerged in the West, and was a response to the erosion of the structures and institutions that had existed in Europe for generations, and indeed to the emergence of new structures – foremost among them, the declining status of religion, as well as the industrialization and consequent modernization that destroyed the traditional socioeconomic fabric of Central and Western European societies. Nationalism was brought to the Middle East (as to other places) by imperialism. The indigenous people were forced to deal with it – to respond to it. In many ways, that struggle is not yet over, and the Arab Spring is one manifestation of such continued struggle – at least in some of the states that are experiencing it.

Israel – and the Zionist movement that created Israel – was and still is perceived by Arabs as an alien force in the region. There is, of course, a growing recognition that Israel is a fact that would be difficult to eliminate. Israel also quite likely enjoys relations with more Middle Eastern states than is officially recognized or even known. Still, while Israel certainly has not done its utmost to be accepted in the region, much of what has happened and is still happening in the region vis-à-vis Israel finds its explanation in the extant perceptions and beliefs of many in the Arab world – including very strong and we might even say ‘elastic,’ irredentist beliefs. We must understand and recognize that the negation of Zionism and Israel began well before the 1967 war, and that there are Arabs talking presently about occupied territories dating back to 1948.

Israel is, in many ways, different from the states around it. This does not make it better or worse. And Israel is clearly stronger than the states in its region in certain areas – starting with its economy. This, however, is not necessarily an advantage that Israel can use in order to facilitate its integration into the region. When Shimon Peres, one of the architects of the Oslo Process, coined the term the ‘New Middle East’ – meaning that new horizons were opening to Israel – many Arabs perceived these words as a threat, fearing Israel’s economic imperialism and the introduction of the Western values that Israeli investors and entrepreneurs would invariably bring with them.

It is very comforting to assume that a solution is the inevitable companion of a problem. The history of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict shows that this is not always the case. Does this mean that what happened is bound to happen again, and to repeat itself ad infinitum? Absolutely not. Does Israel do what it ought to do to end the conflict with the Palestinians? Absolutely not. Is the matter entirely in Israel’s hands or control? Again, absolutely not. The blame for the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is equally shared by Jews and Arabs.

As such, as I see it, the Arab Spring should be viewed independently of the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict. The Arab Spring is the result of intrinsic developments and stresses occurring in the various states that are experiencing it, and it will move along its unique path regardless of the way in which the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict develops or even ends.

My concern with the Arab Spring has nothing to do with the power and hierarchy of ideas. It has to do with the way in which I understand it as an event in history’s timeline. And its fate will be found in the manner in which the political systems that experience it deal with the turbulence and numerous upheavals that it presents and will continue to present. From that perspective, the light at the end of the tunnel may quite easily be a train.

SR: It is still not clear to me why the Arab Spring would not or should not be good for Israel. Your arguments continue along the same old stereotypical lines. Denial of the universality of democratic rights is in line with the denial of the universality of human rights, which ironically is also put forward by Islamist zealots. The claim that “European-style democracy” and “Western constructs” are not suitable for “non-Western societies” is deeply problematic. Europe and the Western societies became democratic through stages of development. If democracy is a ‘Western’ attribute, then the West should always have been democratic. Alternatively, how do we explain the fact that a non-Western society like Japan became democratic?

In the discussion about Muslim-majority countries, the stereotypical claim is that these societies are deeply religious, want to live under religious laws, and choose religious zealots as their leaders. Iran and Gaza are given as examples. However, a minimal familiarity with Iran’s 1979 revolution shows that the revolution was initiated by secular, progressive forces calling for democracy, independence and social justice – all denied by the Shah’s regime and his American protectors. In the first Iranian constitutional revolution of 1906, the people executed the then-equivalent of Ayatollah Khomeini, Sheikh Fazlollah Nouri, who had been pushing for the primacy of Sharia law. Yet in the 1979 revolution, for a variety of reasons – among them foreign intervention and the internal mistakes of the secularists – democratic forces were defeated by the Islamists, who imposed Sharia as the law of the land.

As for Gaza, in the 2006 election for the Palestinian Legislative Council, Hamas obtained 44.4 percent of the votes and entered into a coalition government. After a year and a half, Hamas violently took over the government in Gaza. The reason for which Hamas – which was originally supported by Israel in order to weaken the secular PLO – gained increasing popularity with the Palestinian people was its more radical stance against Israel, as well as the social services that it provided. These were social services that neither the PLO nor the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees (UNRWA) were financially capable of providing. The short-sighted policies of some donors – including the present Canadian government – that cut funding to UNRWA, along with the corruption and misplaced priorities of the Palestinian Authority, provided Hamas with the opportunity to expand its services using generous funding from Saudi Arabia and the Iran in order to expand its support base.

One 2006 survey showed that about 70 percent of Hamas supporters in Gaza were women. They supported the organization not because they all became religious zealots, but because they valued the services provided by Hamas, and because Hamas could help them to feed their children. There is no denying that the majority of Iranians and Palestinians are believers – many of them devout – but this does not mean that they all favour a fundamentalist Islamist state. Islamist fundamentalism is a recent phenomenon, and its existence is – to a great extent – related to the mess created by imperialist policies in the region.

Another problematic argument relates to the question of nationalism. Nationalism was not an idea ‘brought’ to the Middle East by the imperialists. It sprang, rather, in reaction to the atrocities of imperialists and their corrupt client states in the region, unfulfilled promises, and indeed humiliation. Iranian nationalism, for instance, came about when Iranian politicians demanded a fair share of the country’s oil. In response to these demands, the CIA and MI6 famously orchestrated a coup d’état against the democratically elected government of Dr. Mossadeq. Just imagine what kind of Middle East we would have had by now if, 60 years ago, Iran had become a democratic nation and the Americans and their allies – including Israel – had not supported and helped the Shah to suppress the progressive opposition? No doubt, Iranian nationalism, like Arab nationalism, went astray, but both – to be sure – were reactive to imperial policies in the region.

As for the suggestion that the Arab Spring should be viewed or analyzed separately from the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict, this overlooks the immense significance of the Palestinian issue for the Arab and Muslim world, and the way in which this conflict affects the psyche of the vast majority of the people in the region. Obviously, the Arab Spring did not start because of the Palestinian issue, but this issue is one of the major grievances of Arabs and Muslims – particularly in Israel’s neighbouring countries. The more the conflict deepens, the more the settlements are built and land is confiscated, the more hostilities will grow and sentiments will harden. There is, therefore, no way to disconnect the Arab Spring from the Arab/Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

As the turmoil inside Egypt and Syria – both immediate neighbours of Israel – demonstrates, a triangular confrontation between the military establishment, the Islamists and the progressive pro-democracy movement is in progress. This last grouping initiated the Arab Spring, but is becoming ever weaker, while the Islamists are becoming ever stronger. They are turning the movement into an Islamist Spring. Israel has a choice: to move toward the path of a just peace and indirectly embrace the Arab Spring, or to continue along the same lines espoused by Netanyahu’s coalition government, and confront the Islamist Spring. Using your same expression, the light at the end of the tunnel in the first case is daylight. The other is indeed a train.

DT: We are debating just as millions of Egyptians are voting in what are considered the first free elections ever to be held in Egypt. The proponents of the Arab Spring might proclaim this outcome as a victory for those who care about freedom and democracy. But will the elections solve Egypt’s problems? I doubt it. As I mentioned above, democracy results from a process, and not from game-changers. The problems from which Egypt suffers – and which were major factors in the popular uprising in that country two years ago – will not disappear after the elections.

This assessment is relevant for the way in which Israel views and ought to view the developments in the region. To be clear, Israel must solve its conflict with the Palestinians, and it should do so in the most just manner possible – for prudential reasons, but not to please those who are revolting against Arab governments in the region. Is the entirety of the solution to the Palestinian question in Israel’s hands? No. Can Israel do more than it is doing now? Most certainly. Even if peace is currently unachievable or unrealistic, Israel can and should do much more to create the conditions that, before long, will allow for a two-state solution.

Still, will such a two-state solution bring peace and tranquility to the Middle East? No. An Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement will play the same role that democracy has in the Middle East: it will address the symptom, not the disease. Israel is tied to the Middle East – and is indeed part of it – whether it wishes this or not. But much more is happening in the Middle East that is not connected to Israel and its conflict with the Palestinians. On the one hand, there are those in the Arab world for whom the conflict started not in 1967, but in 1948, or even in 1882, with the arrival of the first Zionists to Palestine. On the other hand, each of the various states that make up the Arab world experiences its own problems and issues in disconnect from the Israel-Arab conflict or from the issues and problems of other Arab states. I still believe that many of the problems facing the various Arab states are, to great extent, the result of imperialism and the way in which it constructed the region. The Arab Spring should be studied with this firmly in mind.

How should Israel view the Arab Spring? My answer is: with due caution, all the while understanding that there is nothing that it can do about it. It needs to do everything in its power – and not everything is within its power – to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, and it should do so in complete disregard of the Arab Spring. The Arab Spring will carry with it regional consequences that are impossible to predict at the moment. There is a good chance that these will include the weakening of central governments. Israel might be affected by such weakening, but other than watching carefully, the Arab Spring should remain a matter for the people who are experiencing it.


Saeed Rahnema is an award-winning professor of political science at York University (Toronto). He has served as Director of the York School of Public Policy and Administration, as a member of UN Development Program, and as Director of the Middle East Economic Association.

David Tal is the Kahanoff Chair in Israel Studies and a professor of history at the University of Calgary. He is the author of War in Palestine, 1948: Strategy and Diplomacy (2004).

(Photograph: The Canadian Press / AP / Khalil Hamra)

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