Israel and the Arab Spring

By Benjamin Balint, Daniel A. Doneson

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

But perhaps the most eloquent articulation of realist worries in Israel comes from Efraim Halevy, former head of the Mossad and director of the Hebrew University’s Center for Strategic and Policy Studies. In many countries of the region, he has argued,

an attempt at Iraqi-style democratization will place power in the hands of religious-tribal entities, while in others it will topple regimes that identify with the United States and with the West in general. . . . It is highly doubtful that dressing Middle Eastern countries in democratic garb. . . will help them in their fateful battle against al-Qaida and similar groups.

This attitude is not entirely surprising, of course. The aim of Israeli foreign policy has always been to survive in an intensely hostile neighborhood, not to “gentrify” that neighborhood by spreading liberty and democracy.


On several crucial counts, however, these skeptics are wrong. To begin with, they fail to take into account the extent to which extremist Islamic movements are in fact fueled by the Arab world’s authoritarian political climate itself. If the government monopolizes the public square, Islamism retains the allure of purity and the power of protest politics. Governments must open up a genuine public square to allow non-Islamists to make their case against the state so that Islamists no longer monopolize the language of protest and are progressively marginalized. Hence moves toward democracy in the Arab world may be vital steps toward marginalizing Islamist extremists and delegitimizing political violence.


The skeptics also underestimate the stability democratization in Arab states may yield in the long term. This is not the place to rehearse the arguments that democracies tend to recognize the legitimacy of other democracies, to avoid going to war with one another, and thus to contribute to stability. Such arguments have been convincingly advanced recently in The Democracy Advantage: How Democracies Promote Prosperity and Peace, by Morton Halperin et al., and in Natan Sharansky’s The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror. In Sharansky’s memorable formula: “So-called stability brought by dictators brings about long-term instability.” Bush put it equally memorably in November 2003. “Sixty years of Western nations’ excusing and accommodating the lack of freedom in the Middle East,” he said, “did nothing to make us safe, because in the long run, stability cannot be purchased at the expense of liberty.”

The typical realist objection to Arab democratization is that elections in Arab countries are all too often corrupt or go unrepeated; that Arab democracy simply means “one man, one vote, one time.” In Iran, ousting the Shah made way for an election, which in turn enabled the mullahs to destroy democracy. Yasser Arafat rigged an election in 1996 and we had to await his death for another. Algeria’s 1991 elections provoked a military coup and then civil war. Still, even these depressing scenarios are illuminating. The mere fact, for instance, that the mullahs in Iran were elected places on them a burden of legitimacy that even a “moderate” regime like that of the Saudis cannot attain. In an Arab democracy, even a subverted one, citizens are more likely to place the blame for failures with their own leaders, rather than with Israel or the West.

Besides these strategic considerations, much of the skepticism of Arab democratization is driven by the notion that Arab culture is incompatible with democracy. But Israel’s granting to its Arab citizens the full spectrum of democratic rights seems to refute what Bush has in another context called the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” Israel’s example—its 1.2 million Arab citizens are currently represented by three Arab parties with eight Knesset members—contradicts the view that democracy is somehow incompatible with Arab culture, a notion that is as false as it is fundamental to skepticism of Arab democratization. Such skepticism is often rooted in an idée fixe: Arab culture has always been prone to “oriental despotism.” But Bernard Lewis had it right in a recent issue of Foreign Affairs: “To speak of dictatorship as being the immemorial way of doing things in that part of the world is simply untrue. It shows ignorance of the Arab past, contempt for the Arab present, and unconcern for the Arab future.”

Beyond these arguments from hope, however, which offer reasons to believe that democratization will ultimately bring about a regional climate less inimical to Israel than today’s, there is also the argument from what we might call a “new realism.” Halevy and the realists who, relying on a pre-9/11 paradigm, refuse to admit the new strategic reality, have thereby lost touch with a consequence of that reality: The old bargain—stability purchased at the expense of liberty—no longer works at a time when non-state actors terrorize New York, London, and Madrid. They do not see that the attempt to found a democracy in the Arab Middle East is meant to counter the old choice between two now-unacceptable alternatives: Corrupt Western-leaning autocracy and Islamist extremism. They fail to recognize, in other words, the “dark side of globalization” that the 9/11 attacks revealed. If Oslo was premised on a utopian hope in the bright possibilities of globalization as a technological solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, 9/11 laid bare the dark possibilities of the new technologies that served as “force multipliers,” enabling a ragtag band of terrorists to inflict immense harm on the world’s most powerful country. Bin Laden and his minions revealed that the risks in giving democracy a chance in the Arab world are now far more manageable than the risks of not doing so.

Democratic self-government—liberty and equality and the rights dependent on them—are ideals to which all people can aspire. The post-Iraq Middle East and the American-led drive for democratization present Israel with the unique opportunity to seize an old argument with new urgency, and to present itself not merely as no impediment to regional democratization, but as an exemplary instance of it. In most cases, overt Israeli support of Arab reformers would only damn their cause. But a wise Israeli response to the burgeoning pax democratica, one that does not make the mistake of disdaining the American democracy initiative, can work to subtle but powerful effect. The world needs examples of Middle East democracy, and while the Americans work towards this goal with the Iraqis, Israel—undeterred by classical realists, cultural relativists, or isolationist leftists—should exemplify it in its treatment of its Arab citizens and demand it from the Palestinians, especially in post-Arafat and post-disengagement Gaza.

Such a salutary change in thinking would greatly benefit Israel. It would imply abandoning the kind of nearsighted realism that encouraged negotiations, covert or overt, with authoritarian regimes like Bashir Assad’s in Syria and—even as the EU is renewing contacts with Hamas—would strengthen its resolve to avoid implicit legitimization of Hamas and Hezbollah by bargaining with their leaders. A revision of Israeli assumptions, moreover, would insure that the U.S.-Israel dialogue no longer at best ignores, and at worst disdains the subject of regional democratization, and in this way would insure that the U.S. and Israel are firmly on the same page. Finally, a measured jettisoning of its old skepticism—about its own exemplary character as much as about the desirability of Arab democratization—would allow Israel to link peace negotiations with domestic political reforms.


The time is ripe for the dissolution of the region’s authoritarian status quo not only for reasons of politics, but also because of the much remarked-upon revolutions in technology, which play a crucial role in spreading the example of democracy. The technophiles forget that technology is morally neutral: Progress in technology and economy need not compel a corresponding progress in morals and politics. Globalization makes possible global terror networks as surely as it facilitates networks of commerce and communication; the circulation of commodities, technologies, ideas, money, and people can aid networks of terror, as well as trade and travel. Moreover, the dissemination of the terrorist act by mass media amplifies its propagandistic effects and thus helps it achieve its political ends.


But while al-Qaida exploited the revolutions in technology that were to usher in Peres’ wonderfully interconnected “new Middle East,” Israel can harness the very same revolutions to promote democracy. And this is yet another sense in which the skeptics have it wrong. Just as the Soviet regime rested on the control of the production, distribution, and exchange of information—a control made untenable by the communications revolution—the demise of Arab dictators could be determined in no small measure by technological transformations. Modern communications technologies place uncoerced means of expression, as well as new possibilities for seeing other points of view, at the disposal of ordinary people. If the old communications were monopolized by the reigning ideology, the new technologies resist such monopolization by virtue of their universal accessibility. The world is fast becoming a single echo chamber. Sights and sounds from the Iraqi elections, disseminated by television stations like al-Jazeera, amplified the “revolution of purple ink” that captured imaginations in Beirut and Cairo—but also in Damascus and Gaza.

Israel, the region’s most potent example of freedom and democracy, has taken some first steps in this direction, but nothing approaching concerted policy. The Israel Broadcasting Authority, for instance, now offers an Arabic-language Middle East Satellite Channel. In 2001, the Israeli newspaper Yediot Aharonot launched ArabYnet, an Arabic translation of its popular Hebrew news website. ArabYnet today logs nearly a million unique monthly users, giving it the unlikely distinction of being one of the most visited sites in the Arab world. Saudi Arabia ranks first in the number of visitors, and 70 percent of the site’s users have been traced to computer servers in North America, meaning that Arab citizens have bypassed their governments’ attempts to block access.

Other opportunities have originated in the Arab world, allowing young people throughout the Middle East to tune in to Israeli television and see Israeli Arabs and Jews in spirited debate, regularly denouncing their own government’s policies. Viewers who were once confined to tightly controlled state-run television now choose from multiple independent satellite services that influence public opinion in ways Arab governments have found it impossible to ignore. Today, 60 percent of Palestinians receive their news from satellite television. Al-Jazeera, with some 50 million viewers, airs Israeli Channel 2 together with CNN coverage from Israel for up to two hours at a time, at the height of the Intifada showing interviews with Israeli politicians almost daily. There were also broadcasts of policy debates in the Labor party, and the dissenting voice of an Israeli-Arab lawmaker criticizing the closing of a Muslim welfare society for suspected links with Hamas. According to Akram Khouzam, al-Jazeera’s Moscow bureau chief: “For the first time, Arab viewers have seen representatives of Israel.” These onlookers may be critical of what they see, but they see it nonetheless.

Indeed, the sights from this vibrant, proud democracy may already be having an effect. A December 2003 study conducted by the U.S. National Science Foundation found that 84 percent of West Bank Palestinians and 85 percent of Gaza residents agreed with the statement that democracy is the best form of government. According to a survey conducted by the Palestinian Center for Policy and Survey Research in Ramallah and published in June 2004, Palestinians in the territories view Israeli democracy as the preferred model for a future Palestinian state. According to Khalil Shikaki, the center’s director, Palestinians rank Israeli democracy before Western democracies such as the United States, France, Germany, and others. “Despite the discrimination and injustice faced by Arab citizens,” Hashem Abdel Rahman, the mayor of the Arab-Israeli city Umm el-Fahm has said, “the democracy and justice in Israel are better than the democracy and justice in Arab and Islamic countries.” And amazingly, at the World Economic Forum in Jordan this May, over 700 leaders, mostly from the Middle East and North Africa, named Israel as a “possible role model” of governmental transparency and accountability.

Providing an example of the possibility of freedom and explaining the grounds and institutional forms of liberty and equality are among the greatest services a democracy can offer to those who live under tyranny. Although a freer Middle East will take a long time, and there will be daunting and disheartening setbacks along the way, there is no alternative. Today, a patient democratic idealism is more realistic than realism.

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


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