The view from Israel is that if they indeed succeed, the Tunisian and Egyptian revolutions are bad, very bad. Educated Arabs — not all of them dressed as “Islamists,” quite a few of them speaking perfect English whose wish for democracy is articulated without resorting to “anti-Western” rhetoric — are bad for Israel.
Arab armies that do not shoot at these demonstrators are as bad as are many other images that moved and enthused so many people around the world, even in the West. This world reaction is also bad, very bad. It makes the Israeli occupation in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and its apartheid policies inside the state look like the acts of a typical “Arab” regime.
For a while you could not tell what official Israel thought. In his first ever commonsensical message to his colleagues, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu asked his ministers, generals and politicians not to comment in public on the events in Egypt. For a brief moment one thought that Israel turned from the neighborhood’s thug to what it always was: a visitor or permanent resident.
It seems Netanyahu was particularly embarrassed by the unfortunate remarks on the situation uttered publicly by General Aviv Kochavi, the head of Israeli military intelligence. This top Israeli expert on Arab affairs stated confidently two weeks ago in the Knesset that the Mubarak regime is as solid and resilient as ever. But Netanyahu could not keep his mouth shut for that long. And when the boss talked all the others followed. And when they all responded, their commentary made Fox News’ commentators look like a bunch of peaceniks and free-loving hippies from the 1960s.
The gist of the Israeli narrative is simple: this is an Iranian-like revolution helped by Al Jazeera and stupidly allowed by US President Barack Obama, who is a new Jimmy Carter, and a stupefied world. Spearheading the Israeli interpretation are the former Israeli ambassadors to Egypt. All their frustration from being locked in an apartment in a Cairean high-rise is now erupting like an unstoppable volcano. Their tirade can be summarized in the words of one of them, Zvi Mazael who told Israeli television’s Channel One on 28 January, “this is bad for the Jews; very bad.”
In Israel of course when you say “bad for the Jews,” you mean the Israelis — but you also mean that whatever is bad for Israel is bad for the Jews all around the world (despite the evidence to the contrary since the foundation of the state).
But what is really bad for Israel is the comparison. Regardless of how all this would end, it exposes the fallacies and pretense of Israel like never before. Egypt is experiencing a peaceful Intifada with the deadly violence coming from the side of the regime. The army did not shoot at the demonstrators; and even before the departure of Mubarak, already seven days into the protests, the minister of interior who directed his thugs to violently crash the demonstrations had been sacked and will probably be brought to justice.
Yes, this was done in order to win time and try to persuade the demonstrators to go home. But even this scene, by now forgotten, can never happen in Israel. Israel is a place where all the generals who ordered the shootings of Palestinian and Jewish anti-occupation demonstrators now compete for the highest post of Chief of the General Staff.
One of them is Yair Naveh, who gave orders in 2008 to kill Palestinian suspects even if they could be peacefully arrested. He is not going to jail; but the young woman, Anat Kamm, who exposed these orders is now facing nine years in jail for leaking them to Israeli daily Haaretz. Not one Israeli general or politician has or is going to spend one day in jail for ordering the troops to shoot at unarmed demonstrators, innocent civilians, women, old men and children. The light radiating from Egypt and Tunisia is so strong that it also illuminates the darker spaces of the “only democracy in the Middle East.”
Nonviolent, democratic (be they religious or not) Arabs are bad for Israel. But maybe these Arabs were there all along, not only in Egypt, but also in Palestine. The insistence of Israeli commentators that the most important issue at stake — the Israeli peace treaty with Egypt — is a diversion, and has very little relevance to the powerful impulse that is shaking the Arab world as a whole.
The peace treaties with Israel are the symptoms of moral corruption not the disease itself — this is why Syrian President Bashar Asad, undoubtedly an anti-Israeli leader, is not immune from this wave of change. No, what is at stake here is the pretense that Israel is a stable, civilized, western island in a rough sea of Islamic barbarism and Arab fanaticism. The “danger” for Israel is that the cartography would be the same but the geography would change. It would still be an island but of barbarism and fanaticism in a sea of newly formed egalitarian and democratic states.
In the eyes of large sections of Western civil society the democratic image of Israel has long ago vanished; but it may now be dimmed and tarnished in the eyes of others who are in power and politics. How important is the old, positive image of Israel for maintaining its special relationship with the United States? Only time will tell.
But one way or another the cry rising from Cairo’s Tahrir Square is a warning that fake mythologies of the “only democracy in the Middle East,” hardcore Christian fundamentalism (far more sinister and corrupt than that of the Muslim Brotherhood), cynical military-industrial corporate profiteering, neo-conservatism and brutal lobbying will not guarantee the sustainability of the special relationship between Israel and the United States forever.
And even if the special relationship perseveres for a while, it is now based on even shakier foundations. The diametrically-opposed case studies of the so far resilient anti-American regional powers of Iran and Syria, and to some extent Turkey, on the one hand, and the fallen ultimate pro-American tyrants, on the other are indicative: even if it is sustained, American support may not be enough in future to maintain an ethnic and racist “Jewish state” in the heart of a changing Arab world.
This could be good news for the Jews, even for the Jews in Israel in the long run. To be surrounded by peoples who cherish freedom, social justice and spirituality and navigating sometimes safely and sometimes roughly between tradition and modernity, nationalism and humanity, aggressive capitalist globalization and daily survival, is not going to be easy.
Yet it has a horizon, and it carries hope of triggering similar changes in Palestine. It can bring a closure to more than a century of Zionist colonization and dispossession, to be replaced by more equitable reconciliation between the Palestinian victims of these criminal policies wherever they are and the Jewish community. This reconciliation would be built on the basis of the Palestinian right of return and on all the other rights the people of Egypt so bravely fought for in the last twenty days.
But trust the Israelis not to miss an opportunity to miss peace. They would cry wolf. They would demand, and receive, more funds from the American taxpayer due to the new “developments.” They would interfere clandestinely and destructively to undermine any transition to democracy (remember what force and viciousness characterized their reaction to democratization in Palestinian society?), and they would elevate the Islamophobic campaign to new and unprecedented heights.
But who knows, maybe the American taxpayer would not budge this time. And maybe the European politicians would follow the general sentiment of their public and allow not only Egypt to be dramatically transformed, but also welcome a similar change in Israel and Palestine. In such a scenario the Jews of Israel have a chance to become part of the real Middle East and not an alien and aggressive member of a Middle East which was the figment of the hallucinatory Zionist imagination.
Ilan Pappe is Professor of History and Director of the European Centre for Palestine Studies at the University of Exeter. His most recent book is Out of the Frame: The Struggle for Academic Freedom in Israel (Pluto Press, 2010).