The Dirty Side of Democracy: Israel’s Dilemma

Israel and Arab Spring
By Ramee Mossa

While the world cheered on the protesters and the Arab Spring which forever transformed the Middle East, regional powers trembled at the possible outcomes of the uprisings of which few, for them, would be favourable. Many of the regional and global powers which play a leading role in Middle East relations are relatively unpopular amongst the Arab youth and the general population. The Middle East is arguably not a better place today than it was eight months ago. The Arab Spring was only the first step, and if it is mismanaged it could pull the Middle East into a series of wars, the impact of which the whole world would feel.

Democratic transitions are often long and painful; sometimes the process collapses, sometimes it explodes. In a Foreign Affairs article, Edward Mansfield and Jack Snyder argued that democratizing states “go through a rocky transition, where mass politics mixes with authoritarian politics in a volatile way”. History shows that formerly authoritarian states in a transition process are more likely to go to war.  In fact, in the decades after an authoritarian state transitions to democracy, it is twice as likely to launch or participate in a war as a democratic or autocratic state. The repercussions in the Middle East, a region which is being swept by pro-democracy protests full of contradictions and tensions, could be disastrous.

The country most affected by these changes is Israel. It is facing serious challenges in its relations with its neighbours, especially Turkey and Egypt, its two strongest and most important allies. While Turkey is considered a democratic country and not actually in a transition phase, its military has historically played a major role in politics, and has orchestrated three coups in 1960, 1971 and 1980, a so-called post-modern coup in 1997, and an attempted coup in 2004. The military, however, is losing its grip on power in Turkey.

A Washington Post article by Janine Zacharia in April 2010 argued that as a result of corruption allegations and scandals, combined with an increasingly assertive and confident public, the power of the military is being eroded. Furthermore, the EU membership bid would require Turkey to rewrite its constitution, increase democratization and limit the military’s role in domestic politics. The combination of these events means that in reality, Turkey is undergoing a democratization process which will result in an increase of influence by anti-Israeli Islamic parties.

This process is already affecting Israeli-Turkish relations. The two nations are locked in an escalating dispute which began with Israel’s heavy-handed tactics against the May 2010 aid flotilla headed to Gaza in which nine Turkish nationals were killed, according to some reports, execution style. Israel’s refusal to apologize for the incident has resulted in Turkey expelling Israel’s ambassador and axing military ties and defence trade. Turkey has also recently accused Israel of not honouring defence contracts related to unmanned reconnaissance airplanes currently in Israel for repairs.

The Arab Spring also puts Israel’s Egyptian alliance at stake. The emboldened protesters in Egypt have turned their attention from domestic to international politics. In reaction to the allegedly accidental killing of several Egyptian police officers on the Israeli-Egyptian border, crowds surrounded the Israeli embassy in Giza, Cairo, demanding that their government sever ties with Israel and expel the ambassador. After weeks of protests, the situation reached a boiling point, and on 10 September, the crowds began tearing at the walls protecting the embassy. Within hours they had looted the entire embassy and the ambassador was sent fleeing back to Israel.

Egypt has not even elected a new leader, yet this a warning sign that the next Egyptian leader may not be a reliable one for Israel or the West. If the military loses control of Egyptian politics, the result could very well be a disruptive force in the Middle East. Egypt hosts one of the region’s largest and most competent armies, perhaps the only one which poses an actual threat to the Jewish state.

For decades, Israel has controlled the situation around its borders. Thanks to its vastly superior army, American backing and carefully negotiated backroom dealings with Arab dictators, it has been able to remain relatively safe while maintaining its occupation of Palestine. This situation, however, may be coming to an end.

The perception of Israel internationally is at an all-time low, and Palestine is on the verge of UN state recognition;it should easily be able to raise the two thirds majority it needs in the general assembly, including much of Western Europe. Israel faces increasing pressure from the western world and its regional allies, and Syria, one of Israel’s most stable borders, is on the verge of collapse.

In a recent interview by Benjamin Gottlieb, a member of the Israeli Knesset, Arieh Eldad, stated that Israel could not care less what happened to Bashar al-Assad in Syria. He said that the only benefit to Assad was that he is “the devil that we know”. However, his statement seems more like political rhetoric than a carefully formulated strategy. Clearly, a “devil that we know” is more desirable to the stability of the region than a new democratic and inexperienced regime attempting to assert itself in the region. Like in Iran and Turkey, a newly elected Syrian government would surely play on the population’s deep hatred of Israel to gain supporters and legitimize its rule, and Israel’s occupation of the Golan Heights would surely be a source of tension.

Commenting on the situation in Jordan, Eldad seems tobelieve that the Hashemite kingdom is next in line. Oddly enough, despite Jordan’s large Palestinian population and high odds that any new government would oppose and undermine the state of Israel, Eldad was optimistic about that government’s potential downfall. In his dangerously out of touch vision of the future, if the Hashemites fall, then Jordan would be transformed into the new Palestine, offering the Israelis the opportunity to  deport Palestinians there.

It is not a surprise, then, that Israel is feeling increasingly isolated. The Israeli population is anxious for a permanent solution with Palestine and a normalization of relations with its Arab neighbours. Israel is in the process of losing any Arab and Muslim allies it may have had in the past, and its borders are becoming less certain.

Israel is playing a very dangerous game. It should be well aware of the repercussions of Arab democracy, but the country is held hostage by a dangerous right-wing coalition government. Despite the possible outcomes, it continues to vocalize its arrogant and short-sighted foreign policy and antagonizes its neighbours. Sooner rather than later, the support of the US will be insufficient to protect Israel from real world consequences. If Israel is incapable of adopting responsible policies towards the creation of a Palestinian state and towards its Arab and Muslim neighbours, it risks forcing the hands of Arab governments to unite against it despite their differences.


7 October 2011


Related Article:

Andrea Dessi, Palestine's Countdown to September