This month Egypt, known as the “mother of the Arab world” will, for the first time, hold a free and transparent Presidential election. This election will have a great impact both regionally and internationally not least upon its neighbour Israel.
In the last few decades Israel has wasted no opportunity to make its claim to be the sole democracy in the Middle East sharing the same values as the liberal democracies of the West. It has suited Israel’s interests to hold this “unique” image of a country surrounded by Arab dictatorships.
Most of Israel’s and the US’ Arab allies in the Middle East are characterised by their corruption and undemocratic regimes such as Mubarak, Bin Ali, Saudi Arabia and the rest of the Gulf States. The people of these countries have experienced political and economic corruption, grinding poverty and frequent violations of their human rights. The first response to the Arab revolutions, by both the Israeli public and the politicians, was one of complete surprise and denial portraying it as unauthentic and short lived. As time went by, their propaganda focused upon the “danger to Israel” and the risk that the “Muslim Brothers” and other Muslim “extremists” would gain power and become a source of threat to Israel and the world. The Israeli image of the Arabs is one of being “anti-Semitic” and “Islamist in nature”. Arabs are perceived as undemocratic, fundamentalist and accepting of oppression and hierarchical authority, so it does not fit with this belief that they will call for social justice, freedom and democracy. Israel wants to maintain its image as the only democracy in the Middle East – as the “shining star” in the Arab darkness. Essentially Israel does not associate itself culturally, politically or economically as part of the Middle East, but rather as part of the West.
It came as no surprise then when Netanyahu, Israel’s Prime Minister was very clear and blunt about the Arab Spring describing it as an: ‘Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave’ and claimed that the Arab countries were ‘moving not forwards but backward’.
Israel’s main concern is the impact of the Arab revolutions on the relationship with their peace partners; Egypt and Jordan. There is a growing public demand from the Egyptians to return the Israeli ambassador to Israel and show clear support to the Palestinians. There are also demands to reopen the contract to export gas to Israel that contained the subsidised conditions signed by the Mubarak regime.
The Arab leaders lacked credibility and support amongst their people because they violated their basic human and political rights. This seriously undermined their moral legitimacy and political power to criticise Israel about its violation of human rights and international law in the Palestinian-occupied territories. How could such a regime make any credible demand from Israel for statehood for the Palestinians whilst being the main cause of political and social injustice to their own people?
Since 2007 Egypt has played a leading role in mediating between Hamas and Fatah. However, different factors have contributed to the failure of the reconciliation efforts. Any agreement was dependent upon Israel and US approval. Both had the leverage over Mubarak not to support any agreement that might strengthen Hamas and increase the influence of its allies. Under Mubarak, Egypt also aided Israel to reinforce a tight economic and diplomatic siege on the Hamas administration in the Gaza Strip and to hermetically seal the Rafah crossing. An accountable parliament and president in Egypt will challenge this status quo; indeed we are already witnessing indications of this.
In fact, Israel has never supported democratic change in the Arab world or publicly condemned violations of human rights in the Arab countries. It also failed to encourage or support civil society organisations against such oppressive regimes.
The mass participation of the Arab Spring has challenged the West and the US attitudes and values. There is no longer any meaningful credibility in the claim that they can bring democracy to the Middle East through “regime change” and establish Western style liberal democracy and economy in the region.
For decades the Arab-Israeli relations have been characterised by Israel’s military superiority and the use of military power to maintain its control over the region. The civil resistance in the Middle East has questioned this Israeli doctrine of military force. Israel is now aware that military might will not be able to deal with a determined popular nonviolent movement in the occupied territories and its Arab neighbours. As the Israeli defence Minister Barak told Haaretz newspaper “the Palestinians’ transition from terrorism and suicide bombings to deliberately unarmed mass demonstrations is a transition that will present us with difficult challenges”.
On a domestic level, the wind of change in the Middle East also inspired thousands of Israelis last summer. It is estimated that more than 300,000 demonstrators took to the streets of Tel Aviv to press their demands for social justice and to protest over the lack of housing, and the high cost of living that has hit mainly the poor but also the middle-income bracket in Israel. The campaign started with a handful of tents erected in the centre of Tel Aviv to highlight the social and economic injustice in Israel and the movement rapidly mushroomed into many Arab and Jewish localities in Israel with wide public acclaim and enthusiastic support. This movement was exceptional for Israel and managed to bring under one umbrella political and social groups from the entire political spectrum. The change in dynamics caused by the Arab Spring could change the balance of power between Israel and the Arab countries for years to come. PR
* Marwan Darweish is Principle Lecturer in Centre for Peace and Reconciliation Studies at Coventry University.