by Menachem Klein
In early August 2011, on the same day that Hosni Mubarak — once president of Egypt, now convicted for conspiring to kill protesters during the demonstrations that led to his ouster — was lying on a hospital bed in a Cairo court cage, Israeli Labor Member of Knesset Benjamin Ben-Eliezer revealed an amazing secret. He told the media that he and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu had offered Mubarak political asylum. The offer came shortly after Feb. 10, 2011, the day when Mubarak transferred his authorities and left Cairo to go to his Sharm al-Sheikh palace. Sharm al-Sheikh is not far from Eilat, the city where Israel offered him asylum.i
Had Mubarak accepted this offer, Israel would clearly have put itself in the position of being the Arab people’s enemy, perhaps not far behind Bashar al-Assad, the Syrian president, and Muammar Gaddafi of Libya. Mubarak’s rejection rescued Israel from a very unpleasant situation, yet the proposal shows that Israel prefers the old order. Whereas many people around the world see mostly hope for this region, Israel sees risks. The Arab Spring is Israel’s winter. No one has expressed this idea more eloquently than the skillful orator (in American English) Netanyahu.
The Arab Spring as a Threat
In his speech to the joint session of the U.S. Congress on May 24, 2011, Netanyahu described the Middle East as “unstable”, “a region of shifting alliances” in which “an epic battle is now unfolding…between tyranny and freedom.” He spoke about the Arab Spring positively, as if he stood shoulder to shoulder in solidarity with the Egyptian demonstrators. “Now this historic moment holds the promise of a new dawn of freedom and opportunity. Millions of young people are determined to change their future. We all look at them. They muster courage. They risk their lives. They demand dignity. They desire liberty.”ii
But here comes the twist that exposes where Israel really stands vis-ŕvis the Arab Spring. What seems so bright and promising can be a mirage, argued Netanyahu. “These extraordinary scenes in Tunis and Cairo evoke those of Berlin and Prague in 1989. Yet as we share their hopes, we must also remember that those hopes could be snuffed out as they were in Tehran in 1979. The brief democratic spring in Iran was cut short by ferocious and unforgiving tyranny. This same tyranny smothered Lebanon’s democratic Cedar Revolution and inflicted on that long-suffering country the medieval rule of Hizbullah.” Given his conservative anti-Arab worldview, Netanyahu does not compare the Arab Spring with the fall of the Berlin Wall or the Velvet Revolution in Prague. In his mind, the Arab road will not lead westward, to Berlin and Prague, but eastward, to the Teheran of 1979. The mass demonstration phenomena should not mislead us, he says. The Arabs are not Westerners. What we see is not what we will get at the end of the day. The nice face demanding democracy can be the mask of the Iranian- Hizbullah demon uses to take over Egypt. And if we are not careful enough its local arm, Hamas, will also take over the West Bank after having gained control of Gaza.
It seems clear that Israel welcomes the Arab Spring with a very cold shoulder. Israel has traditionally preferred to maintain close relations with non-democratic monarchs and dictators, rather than communicating with the people. Israel’s security, according to this view, is assured first by its own force, and second by strong Arab leaders who agree to cooperate secretly or openly with Israel.
“Them” and “Us”: Israel’s Perception of the Arab “Other”
Netanyahu’s deep suspicions about the authenticity of the Arab masses’ awakening are accompanied by a sharp division between “us” (Israel) and “them” (the Arab masses). According to Netanyahu, Israel has always embraced democracy, but the Arabs have not yet. “Israel stands out. It is different,” exclusive and without doubt better. “Israel is not what is wrong about the Middle East. Israel is what is right about the Middle East.” The dichotomy between right and wrong is, according to Netanyahu, the same as between Israel and the Arabs. “While we hope and work for the best, we must also recognize that powerful forces oppose this future. They oppose modernity. They oppose democracy. They oppose peace.” Again, on one side stands Israel; a pillar of modernity, democracy and peace. And on the other side stand the Arabs. Indeed, these words recall Orientalismiii, but with two differences. First, they represent a society that is located in the East, yet perceives itself as a progressive Western society. Second, unlike classical colonialism and Orientalism, Israel does not pretend to educate the Arab East and “Israelize” it. Netanyahu puts it more elegantly that his minister of defense, Ehud Barak, who once said that Israel is “a villa in the jungle,” but on substance they are the same.
However, and unsurprisingly, the Israel Defense Forces chief of staff has asked to expand the military budget. Recent regional regime changes, he argued, create instability and growing security threats to Israel.” It looks like the Arab Spring, but it can also be a radical Islamic winter” warned IDF Major General Eisenberg in early September. Referring to what he characterized as the possibility of a “radical Islamic winter,” Eisenberg said: “This increases the likelihood of an all-out, total war, with the possibility of weapons of mass destruction being used.”iv
On the same day that the Arab Spring achieved one of its great accomplishments — namely when the Libyan opposition entered Tripoli and Gaddafi’s headquarters — former Israeli Defense Minister Moshe Arens wrote, “This is not the time to throw caution to the wind… it is a time to think how we are going to assure the security of Israel’s citizens… it may be the time for those demanding ‘social justice’ for ‘the middle classes’ to fold their tents.”v
Not only is the Arab Spring unrelated to what seems to be its Israeli counterpart, but Israeli demonstrators are acting against the state security interest regarding what the Arab Spring might bring.
TV reports about angry Egyptian protesters storming the Israeli embassy in Cairo on Sept. 10, and the threat faced by six Israeli security men who were trapped for hours inside, recalled for many Israelis nightmare scenarios of a lynching by an Arab mob. A hurried airlift of the ambassador and nearly all of his staff members to Israel, achieved after U.S. President Barack Obama’s intervention, showed the average Israeli citizen that his or her state is a safe haven surrounded by deep-seated hatred. In short, the Arab Spring pushes Israel into a self-defensive bunker mentality, which perceives events as existential threats, rather than as circumstances created partially by Israel.
Israel’s Social Protest and the Arab Spring
Moreover, the Israeli public denies the Arab Spring’s impact on its own protest. In July-August 2011 waves of protests for socioeconomic justice flowed through Israeli cities. It began with young students calling their Facebook friends to live in tents in the main city boulevards and parks to demonstrate against the high price of rental housing. The spontaneous protest movement that began in Tel Aviv, immediately followed by young Jerusalemites, soon spread all over the country from north to south. It did not take more than few days to become a mass movement against the high cost of living in general — from nurseries and education to basic shopping and senior citizens’ pensions. After many years of public silence, hundreds of thousands of low- and middle-class citizens demonstrated against Netanyahu’s neoliberal policy. They demanded no less than shifting the neoliberal system to social democracy. In July and August Saturday nights tens and hundreds of thousands of people turned out shouting “The people want social justice.”
Interestingly, when the Israel Democracy Institute asked in February about the chances that the Israeli public would also go out and demonstrate in the streets, starting a civil revolt like in Egypt and other Arab countries, almost 90% of the Jewish public saw the odds as moderately low or very low, with 78.4% defining their overall personal situation as fairly good or very good. This positive perspective came together with the view of 63.6% who assessed the government policy of improving standards of living as not so successful or not successful at all. Moreover, 82.7% said that Israel is not so successful or not successful at all in achieving economic and social equality.vi The root of the summer 2011 Israeli mass demonstrations lies in these figures. It happened when the public was ready to close the gap between statements about a good personal situation and no motivation to demonstrate, and the hard reality of the high cost of living.
Objective observers connected these mass demonstrations with the Arab Spring, and one can rightly argue that Israeli demonstrations followed those in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and Libya. They look very similar despite minor local differences, and they all demand comprehensive change rather than reforming the system. The young generation initiated protest movements through new media, and they succeeded in mobilizing a broad range of age and social groups around a very general goal, thus bypassing their different agendas. In all countries it is an ongoing phenomenon, and although the protesters succeeded in achieving unimagined gains, no one can conclude how the spring will end in each of the countries.
conclude how the spring will end in each of the countries. What looks quite obvious to observers is denied by the majority in Israel. Israelis distance themselves from the Arab Spring. A July 2011 public opinion poll by the Israel Democracy Institute shows that 78% of the Jewish public affirms that this protest is an authentic Israeli protest, with only 13% seeing an influence of the Arab Spring. Most probably, this 13% is made up of Arab Israelis (Israeli citizens of Palestinian origin).vii
From an Ethnic Conflict to a Border Struggle and Back
There is no doubt that Israel perceives itself as belonging to the West and not to the Arab East. Even Jews with Arab origins, who speak Arabic as their first or second language, call themselves Oriental or Mediterranean Jews, and not Arab Jews. Obviously Arab-Israeli wars, and more than l00 years of animosity, created this chasm. In addition, the Zionist movement was founded in Europe and got much help from Great Britain. When Britain lost its superpower status, the United States became Israel’s chief protector. And finally, about 1.5 million immigrants from former Soviet states, who comprise almost 20% of Israeli citizens, strongly reject any identification with the East.
It should be stressed that the Israeli self-divide from the Arab world is created by social and historical, rather than substantial or existential, circumstances I wish to suggest a more nuanced perspective. This began to change, but then shifted backviii. The peace with Egypt in 1979, following President Anwar Sadat’s journey to Jerusalem in November 1977, stood for 14 years as an exception, an agreement made between two states isolated from their neighboring societies. The Oslo Accords of 1993 opened the way for Jordan to sign its peace with Israel a year later, and reformulated the central role of Israeli-Palestinian relations in the region.
The Oslo agreement set in motion a transformation of the Israeli- Palestinian conflict from an ethnic conflict into a border struggle.ix Although it changed the pattern of the conflict in a limited way, the agreement had the potential to evolve into a comprehensive change. It was moving slowly toward the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. This promised to turn the dispute into a border conflict rather than an existential struggle between two forces, each of which denied the other’s right to the land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean.
However, the number of Israeli operations since 1993 , and in particular, after the outbreak of the second intifada in 2000, created a qualitative change. Israel continued to build and increased settlements construction speedily and extensively even after the Oslo Accords were signed, thus creating a paradox. The aim of the settlements was to impose a border to Israel’s liking on the emerging Palestinian state. By the time the Camp David negotiations of 2000 failed and the second intifada broke out, the ground had already been laid for Israeli rule over the entire land between the Jordan and the Mediterranean. In 2001-2 Israel re-occupied the Palestinian territories and de-facto destroyed its autonomy. Israel, with American consent, then confined a powerless Arafat to his Ramallah compound, and turned his successor, Palestinian Authority (PA) President Mahmoud Abbas, into a subcontractor.
Israeli settlement expansion, its security operations since 2000 and the failure of any third party to intervene, have returned the conflict to its ethnic origins.
To a great extent, this shift of the conflict was facilitated by regime changes in Israel, the U.S., and the PA. In Israel, right and center-right coalitions led by Prime Ministers Ariel Sharon, Ehud Olmert and Netanyahu replaced the left and center-left governments of Ehud Barak, Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. And in the PA, Abbas replaced Arafat, while in the Legislative Council Hamas won 2006 elections and achieved a majority. In the U.S. President Bill Clinton’s Democratic administration was replaced by the neo-conservative administration of G.W. Bush, and that was followed by the liberal administration of President Barack Obama. Unfortunately, President Obama did not translate his outstanding Cairo speech to a coherent policy. He distanced himself from mediating between Israel and the Palestinians, and as it stands in December 2011 he also does not function as caretaker or facilitator.
Israel enjoys superiority in this ethnic conflict and uses different security measures in order to manage the conflict and keep the Palestinians weak and divided. The Israeli regime is based on maintaining the superiority of the Jewish ethnic group through security measures taken against the Palestinians. For Israel security is much more than a mere technique. It is a civil religion which some would define as an obsession. The 2011 Summer Protest’s call to change national priorities and budget allocations challenges this state of affairs. The demonstrators ask implicitly to cut security expenses dramatically and move funds to social affairs and education.
Meanwhile, settlement expansion with higher financial investments involves more individuals, families, communities, state agencies, political activists and civil society members in the project. The cost of turning the wheel back to withdraw to the 1967 borders is rising. Under certain circumstances, the evacuation of most settlements, ending the unilateral annexation of East Jerusalem and finding a compromise to the 1948 refugees issue may lead to a civil war and with divided army units. Moreover, greater investment in settling beyond the 1967 line is accompanied by religious radicalism. This is not good news for a future agreement or for the current state of the conflict.
For many in Israel and Palestine the conflict is an ethno-religious one: a clash between Jewish and Islamic civilizations. The ethnic foundation of Judaism is increasingly used to justify the system of Israeli control. Growing numbers of Jews interpret the concept of a Jewish state in exclusively ethnic terms, rejecting any obligation to respect minority rights.
Almost No Hope for Spring or Peace
Joint public opinion polls in June 2011 by Prof. Jacob Shamir of the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, and by Dr. Khalil Shikaki from the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah, found that majorities on both sides regard the chances for the establishment of an independent Palestinian state next to the state of Israel in the next five years as nonexistent or low: 53% on the Israeli side and 62% on the Palestinian side. Twenty-nine percent and 30%, respectively, regard these chances as medium, and only 14% of Israelis and 6% of Palestinians regard these chances as high. Moreover, and perhaps more depressing, is the following finding: The level of threat on both sides regarding the aspirations of the other side in the long run is very high. Sixty percent of Palestinians think that Israel’s goals are to extend its borders to cover all the area between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea and expel its Arab citizens, and 21% think the goals are to annex the West Bank while denying political rights to the Palestinians. Thirty-seven percent of Israelis believe that the Palestinians’ aspirations in the long run are to conquer the State of Israel and destroy much of the Jewish population in Israel; 18% think the goal of the Palestinians is to conquer the State of Israel. Only 17% of Palestinians think Israel’s aspirations in the long run are to withdraw from part or all of the territories occupied in 1967; and 38% of Israelis think the aspirations of the Palestinians are to regain some or all of the territories conquered in 1967.x
Thus, Israelis and Palestinians find themselves trapped between what is unachievable today—the two-state solution — and what can never be achieved — a unitary non-ethnic democracy based on the principle of oneman one-vote. At present a single undemocratic regime that includes Israel proper and the Palestinian territories constructs this problematic reality.xi
Mos t I s r a e l i s cons ide r a resolution of the conflict as irrelevant to their daily life and immediate future. It is off their agenda. The distance they feel from peace with the Palestinians goes hand in hand with building psychological barriers with the Arab Spring, ethno-centrism and the construction of a physical wall in the occupied West Bank to separate “us” and “them”. The combined result is that Israeli demonstrators put at the forefront only socioeconomic demands with no relation to peace with Palestinians. Tactically they are afraid, first, that their rank and file will split along well-established left/dove-right/hawk lines and their protest will lose momentum and fade away. Second, they do not want to provide the government with spin meant to tag their protest as ”extreme dovish/left,” which in Israeli political discourse means cooperating with the enemy, and unworthy of being considered seriously. However, I argue that beyond these tactical considerations lies the strategic shift in the Israeli approach. The Israeli public makes a division between the conflict with the Palestinians and the socioeconomic protest. Whereas the former is unsolvable at least in the near future, the latter calls for immediate radical transformation. According to its current approach, the Israeli public sees the two fields as hardly linked. Moreover, the Israeli public categorizes the Arab Spring in the same rubric where it puts the Palestinians. Both are seen through an ethno-security lens as almost a lost cause.
This article is based on a paper presented at a conference devoted to “Transformation of the Arab World – Where is it heading to?” at the University of Zurich in October 2011.
i Haaretz, Aug. 3, 2011: http://www.haaretz.com/news/diplomacy-defense/mk-beneliezer- israel-offered-political-asylum-to-mubarak-1.376721.
ii http://www.mfa.gov.il/MFA/Government/Speeches+by+Israeli+leaders/2011/Speech_ PM_Netanyahu_US_Congress_24-May-2011.htm.
iii See Said, Edward W. (1978) Orientalism. London: Pantheon Books.
iv Ynet, Sept. 5, 2011: http://www.ynetnews.com/articles/0,7340,L-4118220,00.html
v Haaretz, Aug., 23, 2011: http://www.haaretz.com/print-edition/opinion/israel-mustadjust- to-a-changing-middle-east-1.380154
ix For further analysis see my book The Shift – Israel Palestine from Border Struggle to Ethnic Conflict (London C. Hurst and New York: Columbia University Press 2010).
xi Full analysis of this regime can be found in my book, The Shift, ibid.