Israelis watch ‘Arab Spring,’ with fingers crossed

Since Dec. 18, 2010, when the first rebellion in the Middle East erupted in Tunisia — causing a chain reaction called the Arab Spring — Israelis were following the unfolding events with perplexity. Watching the masses in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen, Libya and Syria chanting “The people want to bring down the regime,” many in Israel have been wondering: Is this a step towards the true democratization of the Arab world, or will it only cause chaos, instability, more repression, or the rise of radical Islam?

Looking at this from an Israeli perspective only might sound too narrow, and maybe even condescending, but being the only democracy in the Middle East gives us some vantage point.

On the theoretical level, of course, the Arab Spring is a blessing. For too long the people of the Middle East and North Africa have been suffering under tyrannical regimes. Now, when they have discovered the power of social media, they have probably found a way to break away from their shackles.

If the Arab states become democracies, then maybe the vision of the German philosopher Immanuel Kant will come true, namely, that democracies, which are not warmongers by nature, will live with each other in a “perpetual peace.”

Israelis want nothing more than to be surrounded by democracies. Assuming that good old Kant was right, just think about the potential of this region if instead of investing huge sums of money in weapon systems and wars, all this fortune would be funneled into higher education, healthcare and leisure. And Arabs and Israelis would then go into each other’s territory not on a military raid, but in tourist buses.

The question, again, is whether the Arab Spring is leading the Middle East towards democracy, because pulling down the regime is not enough.

Almost 10 years ago, the United Nations published a survey prepared by distinguished Arab scholars, titled Arab Human Development Report. After specifying some progress, the report, in the words of its authors, “makes it clear how much still needs to be done to provide current and future generations with the political voice, social choices and economic opportunities they need to build a better future for themselves and their families.

“It notes that quantitative improvements in health and education have not yet reached all citizens, and finds that too often expansion of services has not been matched by needed qualitative improvements in their delivery.

“It underlines how far the Arab states still need to go in order to join the global information society and economy as full partners, and to tackle the human and economic scourge of joblessness, which afflicts Arab countries as a group more seriously than any other developing region. And it clearly outlines the challenges for Arab states in terms of strengthening personal freedoms and boosting broad-based citizen participation in political and economic affairs.”

Excuse the long citation, but this is truly the crux of the matter. If the Arab people, who dared pull down their dictatorial regimes, were now to find themselves helpless again, because of poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and lack of civic society, would they not become easy prey for radical Islam? For that kind of extremism flourishes precisely on the hotbed of social despair.

So as far as Israel is concerned, this is the paradox: If embryonic democracy emerges, say, in Egypt, and there are totally free elections, it is not unthinkable that the Muslim Brotherhood will take over.

Once in power, overwhelmed by the socioeconomic challenges, these Islamic radicals will have to use an iron fist to stay in power (see Hamas in Gaza). And then, if not before, they will direct the rage of the people against the usual suspect: Israel. At least, with an authoritarian ruler like Mubarak, we knew exactly where we stood.

I’m not sure Immanuel Kant had the Middle East in mind when he wrote his treatise more than two centuries ago. In the meantime, the Arab Spring is now approaching the Arab Fall. Israelis are watching this with caution.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem.

Zenga Zenga

On Sunday, I posted a blog about a video on YouTube that had captured the attention of the Libyan resistance movement and become the unofficial anthem of its youth.

“Zenga Zenga” takes Libyan crackpot Muammar el-Qaddafi’s bizarre Green Square speech of Feb. 26, puts it through Auto-Tune, re-edits it to a disco beat and fills out the frame with a gyrating go-go dancer. At the time I first wrote about it, the homemade music video had 500,000 YouTube hits. As of Tuesday, it has nearly 2 million.

What many Libyans didn’t know at first was that the video was created and posted by a 31-year-old Israeli Jew in Tel Aviv named Noy Alooshe.

As that fact became known, the comments section on Alooshe’s post became a founding document of the new Middle East, the history being refashioned each day before our eyes, the one very few policymakers, pundits and Jewish activists seem to get.

Plenty of comments attacked Alooshe for being Israeli, but more defended him and his video. Anyway, the majority of the Arab comments said, the point is that Qaddafi is a fool and a tyrant, and if “Zenga Zenga” can help bring him down, they’re all for it.

Something is happening here: The Internet’s astonishing power is breaking down borders and “flattening” the Middle East. Years ago, it took months of expensive long-distance phone calls, circuitous third-party interventions, and snail-mail letters to get Israelis and their Arab neighbors together. Now, with YouTube, Facebook and a quickly improving Google Translate, the connections are instantaneous. The implications of this force us to take a fresh look at what is possible in the region.

Consider what happened a  few days before the “Zenga Zenga” phenomenon, when Rabbi Donniel Hartman of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem posted online a “Letter to the Egyptian People.” The rabbi laid out his hopes for future understanding and cooperation with Egyptians.

“We don’t know, first and foremost, who you are,” Hartman wrote. “You see, for the last 30 years it seems, we never got a chance to talk. We spoke with your leaders, but as you so aptly proved, they don’t speak for you anymore, if they ever did.”

Hundreds of Egyptians wrote back.

Typical of the many responses was this one from “Hisham — An Egyptian”: “I appreciate your wishes for us. Let’s keep in touch and work together to resolve our differences and build upon achievements of the past.” 

And yes, there were “flames” too:


OK, the last place to go looking for kumbaya is the comments section following any blog. But the exchange shows the importance of beginning the process of winning hearts and minds.

I ran my theory by Yigal Palmor, a spokesman at Israel’s Foreign Ministry, the branch of government in charge of the country’s branding efforts. 

“Reaching out to the Arab world is particularly difficult in the case of Israel,” Palmor e-mailed me from Jerusalem, tossing wet hummus on my enthusiasm. “Anything Israeli is systematically distorted when reported in the Arab media, with painfully few exceptions.”

Palmor said the Ministry tries to connect to Arabs through official social media outlets — an Arabic-language Web site and a Facebook page. But he said that the results of these efforts have been negligible. 

“Fear of backlash from neighbors or government prevail,” he wrote. “We haven’t seen any signs so far that the widespread use of social media in the Arab world makes for a more open-minded approach to Israel.”

Palmor might want to recalibrate his pessimism slightly in view of the “Zenga Zenga” reality. What he said is true if the idea of connectivity is limited to state-sanctioned or pro-Israel activist Web sites. Those money pits of communal dollars don’t get traffic or interest from most Jews I know, much less Arabs.

Plenty of pessimists look at what’s happening in the streets of Cairo, Tripoli and elsewhere and point to failed revolutions past, from 1917 Russia to 1979 Iran, to make a point that after liberation comes just one election, then another tyrant. But what’s different this time is that two revolutions are going on simultaneously: real and digital. 

For most of human history, we knew people first by their place of origin. My own last name derives from Oshmyany—a town near Vilnius where my ancestors once rolled cigars and stole horses. On the Internet, countries still matter, but less than values and interests. It occurs to me as I glance over my list of Facebook friends and Twitter followers that I couldn’t tell you for certain what country many are from, much less what state or city.

As social networks improve and deepen, and if the Internet stays open in the Middle East, Arabs and Jews will identify first through interests, values and “Likes,” rather than through nationality. Some 24-year-old Libyan DJ will find he has more in common with Noy Alooshe in Tel Aviv than with the religious kook down the block. What I’m talking about is the unofficial, user-to-user connections, the social network, if you will. The Internet has overwhelmed the old model of “top-down-only” official contact with “all-at-once” unofficial, unfiltered contact.  

It is the frequency, intensity and quality of these connections that can break down barriers and help Israel finally integrate into the Middle East. If that happens, Mark Zuckerberg will take his place in Zionist history, right beside Theodor Herzl. Thanks to him, the free flow of information will open up the blind alleyways of hate.

Oh, the word for “alleyway” in Arabic? Zenga.

Arab unrest alters power balance in as yet unseen ways

They were the devils they knew.

Though Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by countries whose leaders or people wish its destruction, over the years it had adjusted to the status quo, more or less figuring out how to get by while keeping an eye on gradual change.

But the sudden upheaval in the region that in a matter of weeks has toppled regimes in Tunisia and Egypt, and threatens autocrats in Libya, Yemen, Bahrain and elsewhere, is forcing Israel to grapple with how to recalibrate for dramatic change.

For the time being, as Israel sits and watches how things play out from Tripoli to Manama, Bahrain, it’s not clear exactly how the game will change.

“The best answer is we don’t know,” Ron Pundak, the director of the Peres Center for Peace in Herzliya said this week at the J Street conference in Washington.

“The biggest change since 1967 is this tsunami rolling across the region whose end results no one really can foresee,” said Samuel Lewis, a former U.S. ambassador to Israel who attended the conference. “Something new is happening in the Arab world.”

In some places, like Libya, the immediate effects on Israel are minimal. Libyan strongman Muammar Gadhafi’s state has had no ties to Israel, so the dictator’s demise—if it comes—wouldn’t change much for Israelis.

“The civil war raging in Libya poses no immediate cause for concern in Israel,” Israeli journalist Avi Issacharoff wrote in Haaretz.

However, the cumulative effects of the Middle East unrest are prompting shifts throughout the region that may require dramatic strategic rethinking in the Jewish state.

Every time a protest movement in the Middle East succeeds, protest movements elsewhere are emboldened, and that has put many regimes that for decades have not been hostile to Israel—including those of the Persian Gulf, Jordan and North Africa—on alert and at risk.

With Israel and the West engaged in a proxy war with Iran for regional hegemony, the fall of autocratic regimes allied with the West provides an opening for Iran to expand its power and sphere of influence.

And Iran is intent on doing so. It was no accident that just days after the fall of Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, Tehran dispatched two warships to sail through the Suez Canal—something Iran had not dared to do since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. The ships docked in Syria in what Iran’s Navy chief, Rear Adm. Habibollah Sayyari, described as “a routine and friendly visit” to “carry the message of peace and friendship to world countries.”

In truth, it was an exercise in saber rattling.

Iran is projecting “self-confidence and certain assertiveness in the region,” Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak told CNN. Nevertheless, he said, “I don’t like it, but I don’t think that any one of us should be worried by it.”

When a pair of rockets fired from Gaza hit the Israeli city of Beersheba last week, some Israeli analysts saw it as another example of Iran’s saber rattling. Iran has sent weapons to Gaza and seeks more influence there, even though the strip’s Hamas rulers are Sunni Muslims, and Iran is a Shiite power.

“I do not recommend that anyone test Israel’s determination,” Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said after the rocket attack.

The great fear is that regimes friendly toward Israel (Egypt, Jordan), or friendly with Israel by proxy via the United States (Saudi Arabia, Bahrain), or not actively hostile (Libya, among others), will be co-opted by elements with greater animus toward the Jewish state.

That hostility could come from any one of a number of places. On the Egyptian front, the long-outlawed Muslim Brotherhood, an ally of Hamas, stands to gain greater power. In the cases of Tunisa and Libya, there is fear that al-Qaeda could capitalize on a power vacuum and take root. In Bahrain, which is overwhelmingly Shiite but ruled by a Sunni king, the concern is that genuine democracy could throw the country the way of Iran.

“The regional balance of power is changing, and not necessarily in Israel’s favor,” Robert Serry, the U.N. secretary-general’s special coordinator for the Middle East peace process, said at the J Street conference.

But there could be some good news, too. The uprisings that have spread from North Africa to the Persian Gulf have been broad-based, loosely organized protest movements led by young people networking through the Internet and social media like Facebook. They have not been dominated by Islamists, and the protesters have not made Israel a focal point.

Whether these young people really will take hold of the levers of power, and how they will relate to Israel in the future, are open questions.

For those concerned with Israel, the unrest is being interpreted one of two ways, depending largely on political leanings. Those on the right point to the instability as a reason for Israel to be more wary of concessions in any peace agreements, since their peace partner could disappear at any time.

“Why should Israel expect that another agreement would not be overturned by some new revolution, change of mind or cynical long-term plan?” columnist Barry Rubin wrote in The Jerusalem Post.

Those on the left say that if Israel does not resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict quickly with a peace deal, the new generation of leaders emerging in the Arab world won’t be able to see Israel as anything other than an occupier and repressor of Palestinian rights. Arab commentators echo that thinking.

“The hatred of Israel will not end until you start treating Palestinians with freedom and dignity,” Egyptian journalist Mona Eltahawy said at the J Street conference. “This is the time for Israel to sit down and make concrete concessions.”

In Jerusalem, the government is still in the wait-and-see mode, albeit with as much handwringing as possible.

Israeli Deputy Foreign Minister Danny Ayalon, speaking Tuesday in Brussels, warned that the danger is that democracy movements in the Arab world will be “hijacked,” emulating the “model of Iran, the model of Hamas in Gaza, the model of Hezbollah in Lebanon,” according to the German news agency DPA.

Ayalon also said the unrest in the Arab world demonstrates that the notion of the Arab-Israel conflict being the region’s most serious issue is just not true.

“The real major problem of the Middle East, which is now so glaringly evident, is the dysfunctionality of the Arab societies,” Ayalon reportedly said, noting the absence of “rights of any kind.”

AJC: Suspend Libya from U.N. Human Rights Council

The American Jewish Committee called on the United Nations General Assembly to suspend Libya’s membership in the U.N. Human Rights Council.

“The Gadhafi regime’s widespread use of brutal force against protestors makes a mockery of the U.N. Human Rights Council,” said AJC Executive Director David Harris said in a statement released Monday.

“The world must not stand by while hundreds of people are being systematically killed, and many more brutalized and threatened as Gadhafi seeks to hold to the power he seized nearly 42 years ago.”

Hundreds are reported dead in protests calling for an end to Gadhafi’s 41-year reign; Gadhafi took power in a 1969 coup. Anti-government protests began Monday for the first time in Libya’s capital, Tripoli. Media reported that pro-Gadhafi supporters and security forces were firing into crowds of demonstrators and government buildings were set on fire.

Libya was elected to a three-year term on the Human Rights Council in May 2010. It received 155 votes from the 192-member U.N. General Assembly.

AJC is urging the General Assembly to gather immediately in New York to take up the suspension of Libya’s membership in the Council in a special session.

According to the 2006 U.N. General Assembly resolution creating the Council, “the General Assembly, by a two-thirds majority of the members present and voting, may suspend the rights of membership in the Council of a member of the Council that commits gross and systematic violations of human rights.”

The U.N. Security Council was set to convene Tuesday in New York to hold a consultation on the unrest in Libya.

U.N. Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon said Monday night that the Libyan violence was a “serious violation of international law,” is “unacceptable” and “must stop immediately.”

The uprising in Libya has come at a time when Libyan leader Muammar Gadhafi seemed willing to address some of the former Libyan Jewish community’s grievances.

In an interview published Monday in the Jerusalem Post, Raphael Luzon, chairman of the Jewish Libyan Diaspora in Britain, said he had met twice with Gadhafi, who said he was willing to give a proper burial to Jews buried in common graves and to come to a settlement over Jewish money left in the country. Gadhafi also approved a meeting between Jews and Muslims in Tripoli, Luzon told the newspaper.

There were about 25,000 Jews in Libya in the 1930s. Today there are no Jews left in Libya, the last moving to Italy in 2003.

Luzon told the Post that he is in touch with people in Benghazi, Libya’s second-largest city and the scene of deadly violence during four days of protests, and that the situation was worse than it appeared in the press and on television. News reports Monday night said that city residents with the help of a defecting army unit had taken over the city.

Unconfirmed rumors Monday night said that Gadhafi had fled to Venezuela, which Libyan officials denied.

Gadhafi’s son Saif al-Islam went on state television late Sunday saying that his father remained in power and that the government would fight until “the last man, the last woman, and the last bullet” to stay in power.

Gadhafi last week called on Palestinians to mass on Israel’s borders until their demands are met. “Fleets of boats should take Palestinians … and wait by the Palestinian shores until the problem is resolved. This is a time of popular revolutions,” Gaddafi said in a speech Feb 14 on state television.