The Arab Spring and Israel

The song of the Arab Spring has ended, but the malady lingers on.  Even the most well-intentioned optimist has to acknowledge that the events in the Middle East over the last two years have not succeeded in introducing anything resembling democratic societies or political structures to replace the existing authoritarian regimes.  Those events have not so much reinforced traditional politics in the Arab countries as served to underline the failure of regimes based on secular politics to emerge.  The path to modernity has not been followed; indeed, the reverse has happened, with a greater prominence of religious doctrine and the fragmentation of some of the Arab states.

The Arab world has gone through a number of possible alternatives in its politics, including Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, and Arab and then Palestinian nationalism.  But the political possibilities have narrowed with the unexpected changes brought about by the Arab Spring.  As a result of the uprisings and violence of the last two years, the Arab Middle East area has witnessed three important developments: an Islamist upsurge and calls for jihad in the name of the glory of Allah, the reassertion of tribalism in a number of countries such as Libya and Yemen, and religious sectarian violence in a number of countries including Syria.  All this is occurring in the context of the demographic factor of the large proportion of youth in Arab societies and the failure to provide employment or other opportunities for them.

The Islamic upsurge has resulted not in the liberation of Muslims, but rather more restrictions over them.  The Arab world has long been a menagerie of autocracies, tyrannies, military dictatorships, and presidents for life.  Though those rulers were Muslims, they attempted, as did Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, to control Islamic insurgencies.  Now, the Arab world, since the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran, is increasingly becoming one in which Islamist groups have gained power or have become a significant influence.  They are even less advocates of freedom of conscience or the press than their predecessors.  Repression has intensified.  The Western world is familiar with the fatwa issued in February 1989 by the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini against Salman Rushdie, which called for the writer's execution and which has not been withdrawn.  It is perhaps less familiar with the stories of other authors who have been forced to flee Iran in 2012 after calling for artistic and intellectual freedom.

Islamic fundamentalists, especially the extreme Salafists, believe that their doctrine is superior to that of Western democracies and have become increasingly active on the political stage in states such as Egypt, Tunisia, and Iraq.  That extremism stems from religious conviction, not from economic grievances.  The leading figures of fundamentalism are in general well-educated; the founder in 1927 of the Muslim Brotherhood, Hassan al-Banna, was a teacher.  The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, which gained 45 percent of the electoral vote while the Salafists got 25 percent, now dominates national and local affairs.  One of the consequences is that the Copts in Egypt, descendants of a religious tradition in existence for 2,000 years, not only face greater discrimination than formerly, but have been assaulted physically and hindered religiously.

The brutal civil war in Syria, leading so far to over 25,000 deaths, can be seen largely as a struggle between the different religious communities and sects in the country.  The Alawite minority regime in power for 46 years faces opposition not only from the majority Sunni population (perhaps 70 percent of the total population), but also from Christians, non-Alawite Shiites, and non-Arab Sunni Kurds in the north among other groups, in a context of changing political and economic alliances.  It is highly probable that because of these internal divisions, Syria in its present form cannot survive as a centralized state.  One possible development would be the creation of an autonomous Alawite entity within a Sunni-dominated country.  The situation is complicated by the support given to the Assad regime by Iran, Russia (which has a naval base in Syria), and China, and to the help given the opposition by the United States.

Two consequences follow from the reality that Arab Middle Eastern states are now more unsettled than ever.  As a result of the current turmoil, an increasing role will be played by the two non-Arab Muslim states, Turkey and Iran.  For Israel, Arab instability means that it does not now face the danger of attack by any consolidated Arab group.  But it does face a greater danger from terrorist groups: Hamas in the Gaza Strip, which has fired more than 600 rockets into southern Israel this year; Hezb'allah in Lebanon, with its 60,000 rockets; and Salafists in Egypt and Sinai.  Whatever the demerits of Syria and Egypt, the two countries did keep the peace with Israel and largely prevented military action for more than 30 years.  It is a matter of some concern that the Mohammed Morsi, the president of Egypt, has said that the implementation of the 33-year-old Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, and the maintenance of peace, depends on "peace and justice" for the Palestinians.

Now that neither country is able to control its borders, especially as regards the Sinai, Israel faces a new security threat.  It has to reckon with asymmetrical warfare as Hamas uses civilians as shields to prevent Israeli retaliation for its terrorist acts.  The dilemma for Israel is how to deal with an enemy the members of which do not wear uniforms except on parade, and which has used schools and hospitals for military purposes.  In its response, Israel, with its concern for proportionality, is obliged to ensure that collateral damage to the Gaza population is never out of proportion to the military benefit obtained so that no unnecessary suffering occurs.  Equally important is Israel's concern to protect its citizens in southern Israel, who are forced to obtain safety in bomb shelters from the attacks of Hamas.  These people are entitled to a normal life.

That normality will come about only when the argument made by George Antonius in his 1938 book The Arab Awakening -- that "the violence of the Arabs is the inevitable corollary of the moral violence done to them" -- is rejected as being unhelpful for all the peoples in the Middle East area.

If you experience technical problems, please write to