Israel and the Arab Spring

According to Israel’s prime minister, the Arab spring is moving Arab countries “not forward, but backward.” It is an “Islamic, anti-western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave.” In other words, the Arab spring is bad for Israel.

Netanyahu is right, the Arab spring is bad for Israel, but not for the reasons he gives. It’s bad because Arabs, by standing up to their own governments, have earned the respect of the rest of the world. And in the zero sum game that Israel plays with the Palestinians, any Arab gain is an Israeli loss.

What can Netanyahu do to stop the ‘wave’, intervene? Get the U.S. to intervene? No, or at least I hope not. There’s nothing much he can do except paint the Arab spring black and Arabs as incapable of establishing democratic governments. Hence his speech on Nov 23rd. The silver lining of the ‘wave’ for Israel is that it justifies Israeli foot dragging in talks with the Palestinian provisional government: “We can’t know who will end up with any piece of territory we give up.” So Israel continues to expand Jewish settlements in the West Bank.

But let’s not look at the Arab spring through the fog of Israeli interests. An op-ed piece in the mainstream Beirut newspaper an-Nahar had an interesting take on the current demonstrations in Tahrir Square.

“The events taking place in the Tahrir Square are apparently a movement of opposition against the persistence of the Military Council at the head of the Egyptian Authority; but, implicitly, this is an attempt at halting the expected political ascent of the Muslim Brothers movement towards power and which is expected to be consolidated in the first phase of the legislative elections that are supposed to take place on the 28th of this month unless some surprises were to occur.” as translated by

Wishful thinking? Perhaps, but no more ‘wishful’ than Netanyahu’s picture of doom and gloom.

Is Tunisia part of the wave Netanyahu describes as Islamic? In the recent elections Ennahda, an Islamist party, got a plurality of votes. But since no one party won a simple majority, no one party controls the Tunisian constituent assembly. Such results are similar to what happens in Israeli elections: a plethora of parties contend for Knesset seats but no one party has ever won a simple majority. So after elections the party with the most votes and therefore the most seats must form a coalition that will support the prime minister in the Knesset. So far so good, but now we come to differences. In Israel, religious parties make or break ruling coalitions, so even though religious parties win only 12 – 15% of the vote in any given election, their position as coalition makers gives them far more influence in Israeli politics than electoral results warrant. In Tunisia the situation is reversed. An Islamist party won a plurality of votes, but it will have to make concessions to secular parties to get a constitution through the assembly. Tunisia has a better chance of adopting a constitution than does Israel, which after 62 years still has no constitution in part because the relationship of state and religion is such a contentious issue.

The uprising in Bahrain was a boon for Israel because Bahrain’s king blamed Israel’s (and the U.S.’s) favorite bugbear, Iran. But a Bahraini commission of inquiry appointed by the king has found no evidence of Iranian meddling. It has found significant human rights abuses on the part of Bahraini forces and courts:

“…security forces systematically raided houses in order to arrest individuals, and in so doing terrified the occupants. These arrests were performed during the night and in pre-dawn raids by hooded persons, who intentionally broke down doors, forcibly entered and sometimes ransacked the houses. This practice was often accompanied by sectarian insults and verbal abuse. Women and children and other family members frequently witnessed these events. In many of the reported cases, the women were asked to stand in their sleeping clothes, thus humiliating the women and other relatives present, and terrifying the children. The arrested persons were taken blindfolded to places of detention that at the time were unknown to the arrested persons. The pattern of these arrests indicated the existence of an operational plan which involved personnel from three government agencies, the MoI, the NSA and the BDF.”

Sounds like Israeli actions in East Jerusalem, Gaza, and the West Bank minus the use of F16s and armed helicopters. Unlike U.S. investigations of torture at Guantanamo and elsewhere, which only turned up a few ‘bad apples’, the report holds the Bahraini legal and security establishment as a whole responsible. Brave in its criticism, the commission does not have a mandate to prosecute or punish. This reminds me of the Israeli Kahan Commission, which found Israeli Defense Minister Ariel Sharon among others indirectly responsible for the massacre of civilians in Sabra and Shatila, but had no power to bring anyone to trial. Sharon remained in the Israeli government and was eventually elected prime minister. The king of Bahrain will also remain in office, and with him many of those responsible for the human rights crimes outlined by the commission’s report, a good result by Israel’s measure.

The Libyan uprising allowed Netanyahu to call for intervention in Iran on the basis that the Iranian government is as brutal as the Libyan government. The Iranian government is certainly no joke, but last I heard the Iranian army was not bombing Iranian cities. As for Syria, does Netanyahu hope that the Assad regime will survive in order to avoid the Islamist wave he predicts? The Syrian government IS bombing Syrian cities.

The Arab spring gets its name from the Prague spring of 1968, although the only similarity between them so far has been their goals: freedom of assembly and expression. Otherwise they are completely different. In Prague, the head of the Czech Communist Party announced reforms; six months later the Soviet Union invaded to squash them. In the Arab world no figure from any ruling party or ruling family has had the credibility or the courage to step forward with an acceptable program of reform, acceptable to citizens not to Israel or the United States. When such leaders emerge from the current opposition movements, will Israel or the United States play the role of the Soviet Union in Czechoslovakia?

Author: Mary Wilson

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