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Israel and Arab Spring: “Do Not Ask for Whom the Bell Tolls, It Tolls for Thee”

egyptian protests

Democracy is comin’ to the Middle East!

Several reporters have written lately about the rightist Israeli government’s misapprehension of the Arab Spring.  They note that instead of calling it “Arab Spring,” ideologues like current defense minister, Bogie Yaalon, called it the “Islamic Winter.”  Further, they espoused to a certainty the conviction that these uprisings would bring radical Islamists to power throughout the region.

Whether they believed this or not (it’s likely they didn’t, but that’s for another post), it was a convenient conviction because it further bolstered Ehud Barak’s old saw that Israel was “a villa” in the Middle East “jungle.”  If the region could be portrayed as a nest of Muslim terrorists or terrorists-in-the-making, it would make Israel the only friend the U.S. would have left.

This, of course, was the same thinking that led Bibi Netanyahu to see 9/11 as good for Israel because of his certainty it would show that Israel and America were lone bastions of democracy amid a sea of Islamic terrorism.  Unfortunately, Netanyahu’s vision was largely realized thanks to a Bush administration that played the terror card quite deftly and an Obama administration that inherited and expanded upon this sordid legacy.

But developments in Egypt and Turkey have shown beyond a shadow of a doubt that there is no such thing as an Islamic Winter.  That the revolts of the Arab Spring are progressing toward more democracy and more openness.  I won’t go so far as to say they’re progressing toward secularism, because that’s a loaded term in countries like Turkey.  But there is a clear movement away from authoritarianism and toward something radically different.

Far be it from me to predict what will happen in either country.  Egypt’s Pres. Morsi got a shot across the bow from the Egyptian military, who seemed to threaten a coup unless he capitulated to protester’s demands and resigned.  Military intervention would be disastrous in the current delicate political context.  One hopes the military understands this and allows political developments to take their own course.

In Turkey, Tayyip Erdogan seems to have weathered for now, a spate of massive protests against his increasingly authoritarian rule.  But those protests were the most significant outburst of democratic values in the entire decade since his Islamist party took power.  Though physically beaten and repressed, the people will not remain silent for long.  Turks will find their voice.  Undoubtedly, Erdogan will overplay his hand at some point in the future and the next time he will not remain in power.

Whether Morsi stays or goes (and the same holds true for Erdogan), it seems clear that at least in these countries, if not others in the region, the people are not afraid to make their voices heard and their feelings known.  They are not afraid to bring down Islamist governments if they are ignored.

Even in Iran, a country which as recently as 2009 brutally suppressed massive reformist protests against a disputed presidential election, a new president has himself embraced the message of the Arab Spring.  Hassan Rouhani has told his people that his election represents the fruition of the hope for change represented by those earlier revolts.

What does this mean in terms of what I wrote earlier about Israeli interpretation of these events? It means that, to quote Donne: “Do not ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.”  In other words, the lessons of the Arab Spring will not be lost on Israel either.  It already had a massive J14 social justice protest two summers ago.  But this movement gazed inward rather than outward.  It did not acknowledge in any serious way a connection to the other social movements in the region.  It dealt solely with internal Israeli social justice issues.

But the latest developments show that again, as Donne wrote: “No man is an island.”  Nor is Israel.  It can isolate itself all it wishes.  But it remains a nation in the Middle East.  The currents in this region will impact it whether its leaders wish them to or not.  Israel, despite believing itself to be a democracy, is not.  This was one of the legacies of the J14 movement.  Israel was seen for the first time by a massive cross-section of the public as a state controlled by an economic oligarchy of eighteen families who control a massive amount of the country’s capital (80%).  It was seen as a country with one of the biggest discrepancies between the richest and poorest in the developed world.

Israel, during the J14 protests, experienced its own version of the Arab Spring.  But that massive outpouring of protest and anger wasn’t sustained.  Nor has Israel’s government pursued any path toward reform or shown any sign it heard or understood the message of the protesters.  That means that Bibi Netanyahu, rather than being the enemy of the Arab Spring, is actually much closer to the autocrats and Islamists who took control in Egypt and Turkey.  He is little different from Erdogan or Morsi and just as out of touch as them, if not more so.

Israel, like these two bell-weathers of the Arab-Muslim world, is bending toward a Middle Eastern arc of justice and democracy.  It may not happen today or this year or even this decade.  But to paraphrase Leonard Cohen , democracy is comin’ to the Middle East.  And specifically to countries like Israel, Egypt and Turkey.  Not the ethnocracy that passes for democracy in Israel today.  But a genuine democracy that promises one state for all its citizens.

{ 23 comments… add one }
  • Bob Mann July 2, 2013, 3:15 AM

    Looking at the last paragraph you wrote here, is it fair to say that this means you’ve officially become a member of the “one-state solution” camp? It certainly seems so.

    It has been interesting to watch your journey from support for two states, to being “agnostic” on the issue, to what appears to be an embrace of a single state.

    I wonder if it’s the circumstances that have changed or your understanding of them (or some combination of the two). I’d also wonder if you would still identify yourself as a Zionist and defiantly rebuke those who would suggest otherwise. It appears that this self-identification may have undergone some reconsideration as well.

    At any rate, your contributions to the discussion have been invaluable.

    This article in particular points out many incongruities in how Israel views itself with respect to the other countries in the region. Indeed, there are similar (yet at the same different) views of Israel from without as well. Note, for instance, Israel’s inclusion in the West European regional grouping at the UN.

    One wonders if the forces that are at work in the countries you name will also take shape not only in Israel but in other parts of the world. Imagine a protest like what we’re seeing in Egypt taking place in the United States in the face of the NSA wiretapping revelations!

    • Richard Silverstein July 2, 2013, 8:21 PM

      is it fair to say

      Whenever someone like Bob asks me if it’s fair to say I believe X, I invariably know the answer is going to be “No,” as it is in this case. I don’t support any particular solution to the conflict. That answer will become clear in time and will be resolved by those closest to the matter, Israelis and Palestinians. But if the one state solution ever becomes the path chosen, it will be largely because of Israel’s leaders themselves & their intransigence & rejectionism.

      It appears that this self-identification may have undergone some reconsideration

      No Bob, it hasn’t.

      • Bob Mann July 3, 2013, 3:07 AM

        As you know, I’ve been following your blog since the early days, and we’ve discussed ways in which your perspective has changed since 2003 (such as with respect to Right of Return).

        I was just thinking that there may have been other areas of similar reconsideration. It seemed so from the tone of this post (specifically that last line “… a genuine democracy that promises one state for all of its citizens”), but that impression is apparently a mistaken one.

        Considering everything you’ve written on this website, it is sort of surprising to read that you don’t support any particular solution to the conflict, and also that you think it can be resolved by Israelis and Palestinians. If they haven’t resolved it by now, and in light of the current government in power, what makes you think that? You have written repeatedly that the Israeli government has no interest in peace and is in fact working against it aggressively in a variety of ways. What indication do you have that Israelis and Palestinians will find a resolution together?

        Also, I’m not sure what you mean by “someone like Bob” exactly. It seems like a slight, but I can’t tell for sure.

        • Deïr Yassin July 3, 2013, 7:13 AM

          Everyone who’s been reading this blog for a while knows what Richard means when he writes “someone like Bob”. Everyone except Bob…. Reminds me of the Michael Oren by now classic response to Bob Simon who told Oren that in his 3O years of journalistic career no one had ever complained about one of his documentaries BEFORE seeing it (referring to the “Christians in the Holy Land”-documentary that totally debunked the Hasbara). Oren turned red and said “There must be a first time to everything….., Bob”.

          • Bob Mann July 3, 2013, 5:08 PM

            I seriously have no idea what you are talking about. I wish you would spell out what you mean rather than being obtuse about it. I very much respect your opinion and have appreciated our spirited but friendly disagreements here over the time we’ve both been posting.

        • Richard Silverstein July 3, 2013, 1:50 PM

          @Bob Mann: I meant to quote or echo Azmi Bishara’s motto “a state for all its citizens.” I didn’t mean to imply that I have chosen to embrace a single state for Israelis & Palestinians. I am more concerned with the nature of the current state, Israel & guaranteeing full, equal rights for all its citizens; than I am predicting or projecting whether there will be two states or one. As I wrote, I’m agnostic on this issue.

          I didn’t say Israelis & Palestinians should be left to resolve all outstanding issues in the conflict. Outside intervention will be required at least initially. But at some point, the two main parties will determine their future, which may be a single state or something else. I think all this is too fraught to work out right now, at least for me personally. I’d rather stick with what I know or feel confident about. Determining whether the future should be two or one state is beyond where I feel comfortable going.

  • bluto July 2, 2013, 5:49 AM

    I’ve generally been a Morsi supporter (though I didn’t like his recent comments on Syria) – as compared to a continuation of the Mubarak dictatorship by hand-picked successors backed by the Army, which was what Peres, Abdullah of SA and the Neocons wanted. I am very interested to see if the US-supported Egyptian military manages to pull off a soft coup by using the secularists that are interested in real democracy as it’s useful idiots – and how long that will last – or if something really unexpected begins to develop in Egypt and the secularists actually get away with taking more steps in garnering power without being squashed

    I think the Israelis/Neocons have somewhat successfully managed to get out ahead of the Arab Spring and divert and channel the some of the energies of the Arab Spring to destroy Libya and Syria – as well as ‘protect’ Jordan from the Arab Spring – and keep in the Israeli/Neocon client sphere – as well as continue to prop up the Israel/Neocon-friendly states of Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and others in the GCC

    The Israelis are trying to create and fuel the Sunni/Shiite Intra-Muslim War as a regional policy as a means to save Apartheid Israel – so far they partially successful in having continued to do this before the chickens come home to roost in Israeli itself, with either being drug to the ICC by the Palestinians or a Palestinian Spring.

    The Israelis and Neocons are trying to make the Arab Spring as violent as possible – they are always cheering a turn into violence and supporting it – in order to sow the seeds of it’s destruction before it sweeps Palestine and Israel

    Until the Apartheid State is dismantled – DEFENDING Israeli Apartheid by any and all means – the destabilizing influence of Apartheid as created by the need to desperately defend Apartheid – will continue to be the prime underlying source of instability in the Middle East

    Once there is One State there will no longer be generations of Israeli politicians and their Neocons shills in the US – like McCain and Grahman – willing to destroy the world – including hoaxing the US into further wars with Syria and Iran – in order to try to save the wheels coming off Apartheid.

    As long as Israel and her Neocons can make the Middle East burn – the longer the Palestinians are ‘forgotten’ – that’s the BIG ISRAELI/NEOCON Clean Break/Yinon Policy

    I totally agree with you regarding your line about ‘a genuine democracy that promises one state for all its citizens’

    • Bob Mann July 2, 2013, 6:59 AM

      You think the Sunni/Shiite conflict was created by the Israelis? Am I reading that right?

      • Oui July 2, 2013, 11:57 AM

        The Islamic faith has this division for nearly 1400 years. The ill-fated decision for the Iraq War had the full support of Sharon/Israel. Saudi Arabia had strongly advised not to wage a war fearing the outcome as we see today, a boost for Iran’s influence. Israel is well versed to invest in short-term conflicts and has the intelligence and timing to join a piggy-back coup in neighboring states. Israel has a long-term goal but lacks vision for life beyond violence and a conflict. Peace is not a word in Israel’s vocabulary.

        Then crown-prince and now King Abdullah does have a long term vision for the Middle-East, I’m afraid US and Western values/influence will not be part of Al-Sham. Not surprisingly, most Arab states cannot unite as even Qatar and Saudi Arabia illustrate today.

        I do consider Egypt’s 2nd Revolution helpful to determine a more secular, perhaps enlightened form of democracy the people of Egypt deserve. President Morsi was a failure and will soon be forgotten for doing the bidding of the Muslim Brotherhood. Erdogan in Turkey has the democratic majority and the arrogance to steer towards an autocratic state, just short of crowning himself sultan of the new empire.

        Interesting times, hoping the seed of democracy falls in fertile soil.

        • Daniel July 2, 2013, 3:15 PM

          @ Oui: “I do consider Egypt’s 2nd Revolution helpful to determine a more secular, perhaps enlightened form of democracy the people of Egypt deserve. President Morsi was a failure and will soon be forgotten for doing the bidding of the Muslim Brotherhood.”

          My sympathies lie, of course, with the leftist and secular elements of the Egyptian people. But I am concerned that they are on an ego trip and letting themselves be exploited, as commenter bluto puts it, as the useful idiots of the military.

          Morsi may be too conservative for our palate, but the Muslim Brotherhood has struggled for this moment for the past eighty years. The Brotherhood was on the frontlines against the tyranny of Mubarak while the liberal bourgeoisie of Cairo, who today fancy themselves modern-day Jacobins, did nothing.

          To put it simply and bluntly: I suspect the Muslim Brotherhood may be the only force in Egypt strong enough, broad enough and robust enough to withstand the power-bids of the military fascists. And since you bring up Erdogan, remember that it was only he, and his strong conservative movement, that finally had the strength and the guts to purge the fascist, anti-democratic elements of the military — to flush out the Deep State. The self-styled liberals of Turkey (some of whom today seem nostalgic for Ergenekon), who look down their noses at the Anatolian peasants who carry Erdogan on their shoulders, never had the power or the political will to do that.

          Because let’s not fool ourselves, as so many twitter revolutionaries seem to be fooling themselves tonight, that the Armed Forces of Egypt are some kind of Chavistas. Do people have such short memories? Have they already forgotten? The military must be kept out of Egyptian politics at all costs. This new, unabashed disruption of the political process should be a red flag for everyone involved.

          The Tahrir assembly is inspiring, charismatic and impressive — optically irresistible. But the protesters are playing a very dangerous game, with very high stakes, in destabilizing this government. Because the officers of the military are waiting in the wings, and they are salivating. The ongoing violence too is a bad omen — both the targeted violence against the Brotherhood’s members, and the general chaos that’s building in Cairo and elsewhere. Furthermore, the protesters should not underestimate the depth of popular support for the Brotherhood. If there’s going to be another wave of revolution, this time much of the violence will play out on the streets, and it will be ugly.

          Morsi’s Messidor may be poetically appealing but I have strong doubts whether it is good for Egypt. I’m happy to let time be the judge, instead of getting swept away by passions beforehand and end up looking foolish. In the end I hope enlightenment and socialism wins — I always do — but I also know better than to take my eye off the forces of reaction.

          • Oui July 3, 2013, 12:30 AM


            I will forward some arguments of mine why the Muslim Brotherhood, Salafists and Wahhabists are part of a major Sunni revival started in the 1990’s and is build on terror acts across the Middle-East. The billions of funding from Qatar and Saudi Arabia are used to obfuscate the true religious goal of Al-Sham. Morsi failed as an Egyptian leader because he did not encompass the opposition. In a new democracy one cannot rule absolutely when at the polls he got the smallest margin in a majority. Morsi followed the lead of Erdogan, he should have taken advice from Nelson Mandela. In a revolution, you get only one chance.

            The Arab leaders are building their policy not just on their immense wealth, but are using the shortcomings and short-sightedness of their major foes Israel and the US to their benefit. Keep on signing those major civilian and military contracts …

  • Patrick July 3, 2013, 11:58 AM

    Unfortunately, I think that you are very much mistaken that many ME countries are turning their back at authoritarianism and are striving towards secularism. It shows, in my opinion, the ways in which you would *like* them to develop. The underlying causes for the Arab Spring and similar developments in historical precedents point to something else entirely.

    What the Arab world is suffering from is a population explosion along with a Youth bulge of epic proportions (Syria, as an example for many of them, quadruped its population since the 60’s and more than 20% of its population is below 15 years old). These young men need jobs and income to have families of their own. If they can’t have that they get very upset and choose an ideology to rationalize their demands, be it “freedom”, “Religion”, “Democracy”, or anything else.

    The effects of this Youth bulge are exacerbated by a drop in oil production in many of these countries and the concurrent problems this brings. E.g. less subsidies by the government (e.g. bread subsidies in Egypt) and other spoils to share.

    In addition, most of these countries do not produce enough foodstuffs to nourish their populations and have to fight with ever increasing water scarcities.

    These are the very real issues these people have to fight with. Incidentally, we in the western world feel these scarcities as well, but they express themselves through high gas prices, increasing unaffordable luxury items, expensive cottage cheese, and so forth and so on.

    History shows that if societal upheaval ensues because of these and other underlying issues, that the countries/nations will suffer severe regression in terms of their cultural, political and financial situation for at least a decade or more. In fact, most of the times a strong man with the right “ideology” comes as a replacement to recreate some semblance of law and order after the chaos.

    Israel’s politicians, generals and secret services have a right to be worried, because it is very likely that the winning ideology in the ME will be religion. Furthermore, nations with such a Youth bulge like to externalise their problems by sending their excess young males to fight some nice wars. Israel and Ethiopia (new dam project across the blue Nile) should be wary.

  • Moses July 3, 2013, 2:37 PM

    Mr. Richard,

    Israel already is a state for all its citizens. The majority of the population is Jewish and so the state, democratically, reflects that dominant culture in its national symbols. There is nothing anti-democratic about any of that. But Israel also greatly respects the minority cultures as well, and performs admirably in that regard, certainly a model for the entire region, and perhaps the world as a whole.

    There is nothing that needs to be changed. When you talk about Israel becoming “a true democracy”, that is simply code, for you, for eliminating its Jewish character.

    Israel is not an ethnocracy. It is a democracy, which democratically reflects the fact that the majority of its citizenry is composed of Jews. For some reason, that bothers you. One can only guess why….


    Moses Sparkman

    • Daniel July 3, 2013, 3:34 PM

      @ Moses: “Israel also greatly respects the minority cultures as well, and performs admirably in that regard, certainly a model for the entire region, and perhaps the world as a whole.”

      You must be joking. Because this is beyond hilarious.

      “There is nothing that needs to be changed.” — The last words of every colonial enterprise.

      There’s nothing to add to your manifest of lunacy, except to say that I find in utterly poor taste your absurd implication that Mr. Silverstein is anti-Semitic. In conclusion, you should be ashamed of yourself.

      • Moses July 3, 2013, 3:57 PM

        I am not joking. I have visited Israel on numerous occasions, and though I am not a Jew, I am beyond impressed with the tolerant, democratic nature of the State of Israel. The Jews have succeeded in creating a beautiful country, which is truly peace loving. The caricatures I have found on this site and among the majority of the posters is where the true hilarity lies, creating an image at odds with everything I’ve seen with my own eyes regarding daily life on the streets of Israel.

        • Deïr Yassin July 3, 2013, 4:21 PM

          Perfect example of what Ziocaine does to the human brain.

        • Richard Silverstein July 3, 2013, 8:33 PM

          @Moses: Something doesn’t smell right about this guy. Either he’s an MFA paid-troll masquerading as something he isn’t, or he’s playing some sort of game.

          I have visited Israel on numerous occasions, and though I am not a Jew,

          I think this is a lie. I don’t think you’ve visited Israel ever (or perhaps once). You either are not a Jew or you’re a Jew trying to pretend you’re not. Your ignorance about virtually everything to do with your chosen subject is appalling & indicates you’re either not Jewish or a fraud (or both).

      • Moses July 3, 2013, 4:17 PM

        And how on earth can you label Israel a colonial enterprise? That is truly delusional. For centuries the Jews were condemned as foreigners and colonialists for NOT living in Palestine! It would be funny if ut wasn’t so sad. Jews have always prayed three times a day, from Poland to Yemen, to return to Palestine, and also manintained their holy language of Hebrew wherever they went.

        And there was always a Jewish presence in the country, but Jews began immigrating in the modern era there until they became a majority, once again, in the land. What is wrong with this picture? Nothing.

    • Richard Silverstein July 3, 2013, 8:28 PM

      @Moses: Lord you are obtuse & know nothing about Israel. Israel is a state for its Jewish citizens, half-a state (if that) for its non-Jewish citizens. Israel is not a democratic state. It is an ethnocratic state, favoring one ethnic group over all the rest. The only word you use correctly is “dominant.” Judaism & Jews are dominant, as in superior. Israel does not respect minority cultures. It respects one dominant culture…till it becomes the minority, then it will respect a minority culture & disrespect the majority (non-Jews).

      Your comment doesn’t pass the smell, or the laugh test. You’re recycling stupid pro-Israel memes without offering any proof for your vacuous claims. Stop offering slogans & start offering facts. I have very little patience for cheerleading of the sort you’re trying to pass off as credible.

      that is simply code, for you, for eliminating its Jewish character.

      I don’t speak in “code.” You’d know that if you’d gotten your lazy ass to explore my blog, where the things I’ve written on this very subject disprove your claim. I’m moderating you because you’ve violated the comment rules by mischaracterizing my views on this subject. If you violate the rules again you’ll lose your privileges.

      The United States is a democracy in which the majority of its citizens elected a president from the minority ethnic group. That’s because we’ve struggled over the centuries with the nature of our democracy and attempted (imperfectly) to offer every citizen of minority or majority ethnicity equal rights. Israel hasn’t come anywhere near that ideal. It would never elect a Palestinian citizen prime minister or president.

      Consider yourself on notice. Read the comment rules & respect them & take this warning seriously.

      • Moses July 4, 2013, 6:48 AM

        I’m sorry Mr. Silverstein, but I seriously cannot comprehend what it is you are saying. It goes completely
        contrary to what I have actually seen; and what I have learned, about Israel. It IS most certainly a state
        for all its citizens. The Jews have done an admirable job, in creating their state, which also respects the
        rights and cultures of its minorities. I remember visiting Rosh Hanikra, in the north of the country, and
        being squished in a cable car with Jewish and Arab families. Nobody batted an eyelash. I remember seeing Jews and Arabs on the beaches, Jews and Arabs on the streets, Hebrew and Arabic street signs, Arab culture festivals (Muslim and Christian), and the list can continue (and does).

        All I can conclude, from the observation of your blog, is that it is some sort of self-contained alternate reality, which is itself part of a small network of similar sites with similar views and similar commenters, which come together to create a small, alternate universe where the reality of Israel is turned upside down.


        Moses Sparkman

        • Richard Silverstein July 4, 2013, 6:45 PM

          What you have “actually seen” or “learned” is almost nothing. Frankly, I think you’re a fraud.

          You’ve just repeated virtually word for word your past comment. Again, you haven’t read the comment rules which prohibit repeating arguments or comments.

          So from the few items you list you ascertain that Israeli Palestinians are equal to Jews? How feeble of you.

          • Moses July 4, 2013, 8:13 PM

            [comment deleted for violating comment rules: 1. repeated previous comments verbatim; 2. offered no proof for claims; 3. spouted hasbara nonsense]

      • Moses July 4, 2013, 7:22 AM

        And lastly, regarding the Arab prime minister issue, you shouldn’t compare the situation
        to the United States. Mainly, the state of Israel is and has been in a state of conflict with
        its Arab neighbors, and the same ethnic group within Israel has often identified with those
        said enemies. In other words, the US is not a small, country, surrounded by much larger dictatorships, and theocracies, which contain the same ethnic group as the country’s largest minority, and with which the US has been in conflict! The situations arenot even apples and oranges, more like apples and flamingos.

        Even with that said, however, namely the history of the conflict betweeb Arabs and Jews,
         it is astounding how tolerant Israel is of its Arab cousins, despite that geo-political reality. If the larger Arab and Muslim world ever decided to be tolerant of a Jewish state in the region, and hence end the Middle East conflict, there is no question in my mind that an Arab PM of Israel would be possible.

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