Israel and the Arab Spring

By Benjamin Balint, Daniel A. Doneson

The Jewish state’s role in the new pax democratica.

A new Middle East appears to be taking shape before our eyes, and the form it is taking is surprising both in itself and in the profound ways it implicates Israel.

Declarations of a new Middle East, of course, have been heard before. The first new Middle East was determined by the conferences after World War I that divided up the region—Iraq, Jordan, and Palestine to the British, Syria and Lebanon to the French, Saudi Arabia to the Saud clan. Another “new Middle East,” enthusiastically heralded by Shimon Peres’ book of that name, was proclaimed with the signing of the Israel-PLO declaration of principles on the White House lawn in September 1993. Political rivalries and religious passions, it was optimistically said, would be overcome by the transformations in the same technology and economics that were essential in ending the Cold War. Witnessing these transformations—the information revolution behind the “third wave” economy, missile technology that made strategic depth of territory irrelevant, and the end of Soviet sponsorship of Arab states—Peres concluded that the Oslo accords, the Jordan-Israel peace treaty, and ensuing trade with nations that formerly boycotted Israel would together bring about the dawn of regional prosperity and peace, or what he liked to call a “‘Benelux’ arrangement for economic affairs.”

Today, a new Middle East is in fact emerging, but it is not the one envisioned by either the victors of World War I or the architects of Oslo. It begins, rather, with the American defeat of Saddam Hussein’s regime, itself inspired by the aspiration evident in the Bush administration’s tectonic policy shift after 9/11: To spread freedom to Middle Eastern peoples living under tyrannical, terror-feeding regimes. At the heart of what has come to be called the Bush Doctrine—articulated in the president’s speech to a joint session of Congress on September 20, 2001, his State of the Union address of January 2002, his remarks on the Middle East that June, and the launch of the Middle East Partnership Initiative that December—lies the ambition to cultivate democracy in the Middle East so as to strike at the roots of terrorism.

Since then, a tempest has been gathering in the Arab world: The historic January 30, 2005 elections in post-Saddam Iraq; shortly thereafter municipal elections in Saudi Arabia and presidential and local elections in the post-Arafat Palestinian Authority; massive protests in Beirut after the assassination of former prime minister Rafiq Hariri, resulting in Syria’s withdrawal of its 14,000 troops from Lebanon and the first elections there in three decades in the absence of Syrian forces; Egypt’s first multiparty presidential elections this September; under the banner of kifaya (“Enough!”), crowds protesting President Hosni Mubarak’s twenty-four-year rule; the announcement this July from Gamal Mubarak, Hosni Mubarak’s 42-year-old son, that for the first time the ruling National Democratic Party’s leaders at both the central and regional levels would be choosing the party’s presidential nominee; the decision in Kuwait’s parliament this May to grant women the right to vote and run for office; Oman’s first full-suffrage elections held in October 2003; Qatar’s adoption of a new constitution in September 2004 granting greater political rights; Bahraini elections for municipal councils in May 2002 and for the lower house of parliament that October—the first elections held in that country in 28 years; and King Abdullah’s December 2003 speech calling on his government to make “radical changes” aimed at turning Jordan into “a modern, democratic country.”

Electoral reforms, which in and of themselves do not a liberal democracy make, are simply the most obvious signs of a profound shift in attitude. And yet, Saad Eddin Ibrahim, the well-known Egyptian democracy activist, argued last year that the prospects for democracy in the Middle East have never been so bright. In 2002 and 2003, the United Nations’ Arab Human Development Report, written by Arab intellectuals, included ardent calls for democratic change as necessary to revitalizing Arab society. And the latest survey by the Pew Global Attitudes Project, conducted among nearly 18,000 people in 17 countries this spring and published this June, finds that large and growing majorities in Morocco (83 percent), Lebanon (83 percent), and Jordan (80 percent) say democracy can work well, and not just in the West.

We should have no illusions about the fragility of some of these advances, or about the degree to which those in the more fervently theocratic quarters of the Arab world bristle at the very notion of democracy, which they consider a Western heresy. Some Arab countries, like Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, and Tunisia, are highly authoritarian, while others—like Morocco and Lebanon—are much less so. Some of these changes, moreover, reflect genuine, popular dissent, while others are cosmetic, top-down reforms accepted only under foreign pressure or as exercises in public relations. Indeed, it is too early to tell to what degree they together represent the early stages of a domino effect, or whether the United States will feel the need to “push” the dominos itself. But it is just as clear that in these tentative moves toward expanded political participation, political realities are shifting, and a new Middle East is emerging.


Although a great deal of attention has been paid to these transformations, surprisingly little has been devoted to Israel’s role in the region’s democratization—by which is meant not only free and fair elections, but also the institutions of liberty that protect individual rights of speech, property, and religion through a system of law not subject to arbitrary government manipulation. To the degree that attention has been devoted to the issue, it has tended to be monolithically skeptical—both about Israel’s possible contributions to democratization and about democratization’s possible advantages for Israel. Two contradictory fears are at work with regard to Arab democracy: On the one hand, that it cannot work; and on the other, precisely that it will.


A common objection voiced by both Arab and Western critics of political reform is that, to put it simplistically, Israel—perceived as America’s colonialist lackey—is bad for democratization. A campaign to promote democracy in the Middle East, they say, will be either futile or counterproductive without a Palestinian-Israeli peace settlement. Typical of this view is Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa’s statement in April 2004: “Nothing will change in the region if the Palestine question is not resolved fairly and justly.”

A variant claim is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict fuels anti-American sentiment among Arabs, which in turn impedes democratization. Thomas Carothers, a democracy expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, claims that restoring American credibility in the Arab world will be very difficult “without a substantial rebalancing of the U.S. approach to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.” Former U.S. national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski similarly contends that the United States must “define the substance of a peace settlement in the Middle East and then work energetically to put that agreement in place” so as to “give greater credibility” to its democracy initiative. In this way of thinking, the unresolved Israeli-Palestinian conflict, for which Israel is often held to be primarily responsible, perpetuates a climate that inhibits political reform.

But after the fall of Saddam, the Iraqi elections, and the constitutional convention there, the view that American credibility in the Middle East primarily depends on the Arab-Israeli conflict is no longer tenable. That credibility, rather, is now bound far more tightly to the results of the efforts of the Iraqi people, working with the Americans, to found a new constitutional regime in the heart of the Middle East. The wisdom of the policy, of course, can ultimately be proven only retrospectively. But if the American strategy in Iraq succeeds, Arab peoples will take notice. Nothing succeeds like success.

There is little truth, moreover, to the claim that democratization in the region is in any way held hostage by the Palestinian issue, which in many cases is simply a pretext offered by Arab autocrats to preserve their rule. This is why in Syria, for instance, commitment to the Palestinian cause remains a central pillar of Ba’ath party doctrine, and in Egypt it is used to prop up the Mubarak regime. According to this logic, if there were no Israel, the regions’ Arab states would already be democratic, or at least well along the path to liberalization. The main impediment to Arab democratization is not Israeli behavior but the unfree nature of Arab regimes themselves.

 If the first group of skeptics asks whether Israel is good for Arab democracy, a second asks whether the prospect of Arab democracy is good for Israel. Subscribing to the classic realist doctrine’s faith in the paramount importance of strategic stability, they answer that it is not. Promoting democracy in the Arab world is counterproductive, it is said, because democratic Arab regimes are likely to adopt a more hostile position toward the Jewish state. Such critics frequently point to the overwhelming victory in Algeria’s first parliamentary elections in December 1991 of the militant Islamic Salvation Front (which prompted the military to seize power and annul the results) as an example of Arab democracy gone dangerously awry. Here too, Arab dictators themselves encourage this belief, insisting that nascent democracies emerging from a long period of dictatorship are often politically unstable. “If we open the door completely before the people, there will be chaos,” Hosni Mubarak explained in March 2004.


Yet much of the naysaying about Arab democratization comes from within Israel itself. Indeed, Israeli scholars and public figures, anxious to preserve a more or less stable status quo, rarely discuss Arab democratization, and when they do, it is treated as a product of American naïveté. Yossi Alpher, for instance, former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, worries that “democratization appears to be strengthening pro-Iranian, militant Islamist parties and movements in Iraq, Palestine (Hamas), and potentially Lebanon (Hizballah).” Yehezkel Dror, elder statesman of Israeli political scientists, adds:

Let’s assume a quick democratization of Egypt and Jordan. Will it strengthen their peace with Israel? Certainly not. The ruling elites understand the need for peace with Israel. But the public in the streets, the masses in the marketplaces, definitely do not.

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