Israel and the Arab Spring

By Benjamin Balint, Daniel A. Doneson

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

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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.

Benjamin Balint is Associate Editor of AZURE. Daniel A. Doneson is Literary Editor of AZURE.

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