Israel and the Arab Spring 
When Arabs Spring, Israel Gets Nervous

Considering why Israel has not been more enthusiastic about revolutions in the Arab world

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu condemned The Arab Spring as "anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic". Photo by Downing Street via Flickr.

Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu condemned The Arab Spring as “anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic”. Photo by Downing Street via Flickr.

As revolutions went viral across the Middle East, so too did a dance remix of an interview with Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu. Commenting on the Arab Spring, he tells CNN that “everything is shaking” – and waves his hands for the next minute or so as his words are caught on a loop over some electro hip-hop beats: “Shake, shake, shake, shake…”

In many ways, this clip symbolises Israel’s reaction to the Arab Spring: it hasn’t said much, but what little it has said has been repetitive and one-note – the Arab Spring is very bad news for the Jewish state.

One of the most intriguing observations in international relations, however, is that democracies never fight wars against fellow democracies. So why is Israel, one of the few recognised democracies in the Middle East, not more enthusiastic about its neighbours’ democratic transformations?

Professors Benny Morris and Avi Shlaim famously disagree on almost everything, but on one thing they are in perfect agreement: Israel’s response to the Arab Spring has been “ambivalent”. The Oxonian Globalist spoke to them to find out why.

Understandably Uneasy

“Israelis have always wanted the democratisation of the Arab world,” observes Morris. David Ben Gurion, the country’s first prime minister, hoped that the region would democratise after the 1948 war. With “decent people at the helm”, peace would surely ensue. Arab kings and autocrats, however, were only replaced by military despots, who were every bit as hostile.

Israel fears that once the regimes that have kept a cold peace disappear, the peace treaties will not be worth the paper they are written on. Morris and Shlaim agree that Israel’s reaction has been dictated by its security fears, which Shlaim dismisses as “imperial paranoia” but Morris takes more seriously.

Mubarak may have been a brute, Israel thinks, but at least he kept peace on Israel’s borders, which radical Islamists might not. In picking between devils, Islamic extremists are the devils Israel would rather not know.

Israel: Surrounded by revolutions on all sides

Israel: Surrounded by revolutions on all sides

Indeed, political Islam is on the ascendency. The Muslim Brotherhood, for example, has won a majority of seats in the Egyptian People’s Assembly. This looks like trouble from Jerusalem’s perspective: the Brotherhood has very close links to Hamas, the internationally-designated terrorist organisation running the Gaza Strip and still firing rockets at Israeli towns.

Jittery in Jerusalem

Shlaim dismisses this as ungrounded panic. “The rhetoric of Muslim extremists [against Israel’s existence] is extremely disturbing from Israel’s point of view,” he notes, but thinks that in reality Islamist parties are highly pragmatic.

He points as evidence to Hamas’s offer of a long-term ceasefire with Israel, which broke down in 2008.

Morris, however, is concerned that the peace treaty is “seriously at risk”. Already trade and diplomacy, keystones of the treaty, have all but evaporated. Not only has the Israeli embassy in Cairo remained shut since it was stormed by a mob last September, but Egypt has also closed its gas pipeline to Israel after intense public pressure and repeated sabotage. Should Egypt ever unilaterally scrap the peace treaty by moving troops into the demilitarised Sinai Desert, Morris warns, then “war is a prospect down the road”.

Shlaim is more sanguine. Israel’s fear is exaggerated because it “doesn’t face an existential threat from any direction”: no Arab state or combination of Arab states could face down its military supremacy or nuclear monopoly. It would be “uncharacteristically unpragmatic for the Muslim Brotherhood to even think about renouncing the peace treaty”, because the treaty serves Egyptian interests too. Israel’s only rational fear, he contends, is that the new Egyptian government will be less pliant on the issue of the Palestinians.

Morris disagrees vociferously. Democracies do not go to war with each other, he notes – but they might if they are led by “doctrinaire, fanatical, religious movements”. The Muslim Brothers have had it “etched on their banners [for decades] to destroy Israel”, so should ideologically like-minded parties come to form a ring around Israel, the country is in trouble.

Besides, Morris is doubtful whether real democracy will emerge: the Russians had their revolution a century ago, he laments, but still have no democracy. “Why should the Islamic world be any better?”

Decisions That Damn

Shlaim is contemptuous of Netanyahu for warning the West that he could not make peace with untrustworthy tyrants but remaining equally intransigent now that the tyrants have gone. He grants that Israel should exercise caution, but lambastes Netanyahu for being “actively and strongly opposed to the Egyptian revolution from the start” instead of taking a “detached policy of wait-and-see, that we want genuine democracy and are on your side”.

Morris insists the Israeli government has had little room for manoeuvre: as far as security goes, nobody thinks that Israel would be better off surrounded by extremist Islamist governments.

Shlaim retorts, however, that Israel is missing a “historic opportunity” to finally become a “democratic role model” for the Arab world. He criticises Israel for “undermining Palestinian democracy” by conspiring to overthrow the Hamas government in 2006, on the grounds that the Palestinians “voted for the wrong people”. If Israel were simply to “stop the relentless settlement expansion,” Islamic hostility would wind down. Peace with the Palestinians would “change the whole climate” and open up opportunities to promote democracy in the Arab world.

Morris denies that Israel could do anything to encourage Arab democracy. “If Israel had come out in favour of someone, that person would have been regarded as a traitor; other Arabs would jump on them and say they’re supported by Israel”. Sadly, he opines, even if Israel wanted to encourage democratisation, any rebel group that received support from the Jewish state would lose all credibility in the eyes of the people. Shlaim remains optimistic: “All the cards are in Israel’s hands. Arab hostility isn’t preordained.”

If one thing is sure, nobody knows how the Arab Spring will turn out. The future, for now, is up in the air. Much like Netanyahu’s hands. “Shake, shake, shake, shake…”

Benny Morris is a professor of History at Ben-Gurion University. He is the author of 1948: A History of the First Arab-Israeli War.

Avi Shlaim is a professor of International Relations and Fellow of St Antony’s College, Oxford. He is the author of The Iron Wall: Israel and the Arab World.