I have a young Egyptian friend, Ahmed Meligy, who also happens to be a Jerusalem
At the moment that this article is being written, he is
taking part in pro-democratic demonstrations in Cairo, as he did continually
during the Tahrir revolution. The courage and outspokenness of Meligy and his
peers is the hope for the Middle East to steer toward greater democratization
The Arab Spring, like many similar processes throughout
history, has turned into a roller coaster.
Despots and dictators deposed,
liberals demand democracy, Islamists of different shades struggle for
Islamization of the state, the Muslim Brotherhood takes over with relative
pragmatism and in return is checked by demonstrations by the young middle class,
as in Egypt, or trade unions, as in Tunisia.
As more than 60 percent of
the population in the Arab World is under 30, the young, especially urban
students, hold the key for a gradual democratization and liberalization of Arab
societies. One should not underestimate the organized political clout of Islam
and the role of Islamic tradition among the young.
Yet as Egypt’s
President Mohamed Morsi is witnessing, rulers in most of the Arab world will not
have a free hand in curtailing freedoms through Islamic law.
the rule of a ruthless brutal dictatorship is coming to an end, as Bashar Assad
wavers between desperation and escape. Most probably a shaky Sunni coalition
will take over, challenged by Islamist and extremist forces. An element that
seems to have been weakened in the new power equation in the Arab world is the
army, as the young demonstrators and rebels don’t fear the generals, as in
Tahrir, or even armed attacks on civilians, as in Syria.
foreseeable future, this process will not lead to Jeffersonian democracies or
even Arab democracies in the region, but it is empowering progressive young
forces who look for respect for human rights, basic freedoms, economic
development and peaceful coexistence. The young progressives can and will play a
role in the creation of a new Middle Eastern mosaic.
In the Palestinian
society, there is clearly a difference between the West Bank and Gaza. In
Ramallah, Nablus, Jenin, Abu Dis, etc. there are large and good universities.
Universities before there was a state was also the Israeli experience and make
for a good, well-educated, intelligent and mostly progressive young generation.
Despite the frustration with the occupation and economic distress, the young of
Palestine have proven moderate and are expressing their desire not only for
statehood, but also for greater democratization, human rights as well as
economic equity and transparency.
They would prefer a younger leadership,
after the “elders of the Tunis PLO,” a patriotic one that respects their
national and socioeconomic aspirations and values.
As to Israel, the age
of the founding fathers’ leadership ended with the assassination of Yitzhak
Rabin in 1995 and the end of the Peres government in 1996; a leadership that
reflected mostly the values of our Declaration of Independence and our
willingness to give up territory for peace: Begin- Rabin-Peres. In came an
archaic middle-aged generation of Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, both
ex-commandos, who thought and think more about how to outmaneuver their
political foes, Israel’s neighbors and friends in the world, than to make the
difficult decisions necessary for the good of the country.
leadership, as exemplified by the outgoing Netanyahu-Barak government, has an
It does not understand the dramatically changing world, with
globalization and the information revolution; a world in which warfare has
become, to a large degree, outdated and superfluous, as they experienced
recently in Gaza; a world which depends on collective diplomacy and good
relations, as the United States, under Barack Obama, is successfully attempting
in its foreign and security policy.
In this world, Israel has become a
ghetto, isolated and criticized, because of policies that represent old values
of colonial power relations. Only nine countries supported our government’s
position on the Palestinian UN bid two weeks ago, and no country in the world
supports our irresponsible and morally despicable settlement policy. Israel and
modern Zionism was to be a way out of the Jewish ghetto, into a strong,
independent state, part of the family of nations. The current leadership has
resurrected the walls around us.
We are in need of an Israeli Spring. It
is hard to see how this winter, with the elections, will turn into one. While
there are some positive signs of younger people entering the Knesset, the
leadership of the country will most probably remain archaic. The fact that the
Center-Left is led by three relatively young women – Shelly Yacimovich, Tzipi
Livni and Zehava Gal-On – is a first for us. Moreover, the candidate lists of
most parties have seen the entry of younger people, mostly notably in the Labor
Party, with the courageous young leaders of the Rothschild protest movement
running for the Knesset.
On January 22, when Israelis vote, the old
mindset will most probably have the upper hand; one that prefers territory over
scientific development, settlements over education, nationalism over
And yet we should hope that younger people, with a more
modern mindset, will be involved in the national decision-making process, and
that our vibrant civil society will be heeded.
This is important if we
want to avoid completely losing our place among the nations at a time when the
world, across all continents, is more interconnected as a result of the
information and technology revolution.
People today, the world over, and
especially the younger generations, are more knowledgeable, better educated,
more cosmopolitan, respect more freedoms and feel more empowered vis-à-vis
In a world where hundreds of millions gather their
information from the Internet, communicate on Facebook and express themselves on
YouTube, the citizen matters more and the government matters less. Democracy is
spreading more than ever before in history, trade and tourism are on the rise
globally, civil society is becoming a potent player and borders are becoming
In such a world, the Middle East, including Israel, faces
a major challenge: Do we belong or do we remain on the sidelines of a dramatic
historical process, encircled by walls of nationalism and religious
While each country in the region entered this predicament on its
own, the way out will have to be together in a conflict as fierce as that of the
Middle East, with strong nationalistic and religious characteristics, which have
created walls that can only be broken together. For the Middle East and Israel
to break free from these walls of nationalism and isolation into a world of
interconnectivity and globalization, we must see powerful social and political
change in the following domains:
• First and foremost, we in the region and in
Israel have to act according to the values that are prevalent in the world,
which means “yes” to democracy, “yes” to the respect of human rights, “yes” to
equality between people, nations, and genders, and “no” to colonialism, “no” to
occupation, “no” to national rejection, “no” to terrorism, “no” to violence and
to racism. “Yes” to peace.
• We have, therefore, to engage in an active
and viable peace process between Israel and Palestine, leading to a two-state
solution, with security and economic prosperity, paving the way to regional
peace, development and cooperation.
• A strategic, value-based alliance
with the leader of the free world, the United States, ensuring Israeli security,
Palestinian statehood and regional cooperation.
• An economic alliance
with the European Union, ensuring democratic institution-building in Palestine,
scientific and technological cooperation with Israel, and regional development
including regional institution-building, learning from the European model of
• As governments in the region are far from ready
to engage regionally and internationally in such processes, agreements and
cooperation, it is time to strengthen, both from within and from without, the
progressive civil society forces in the Arab world and in Israel.
that to happen, the young progressive forces in the Arab world and in Israel
should cooperate in attracting the regional public opinion and leadership to
their agenda and values. A civil society union is in our days of great
significance on the necessary route to democratization and peace.
not utopian, but is indeed happening on regional social media, as exemplified by
the Ya La-Young Leaders movement on Facebook, with a quarter of a million
members from all over the region (Israel, Palestine, Egypt, Jordan, Iraq,
Morocco, Tunisia, Algeria, Lebanon, Kuwait, etc.) who are uniting at their
regional online Facebook-based peace conference on December 18, 2012, along
common values of democracy, human rights, social justice and peace.
high time to let the young of this region, and of our country, lead the way out
of the Middle Eastern ghetto.
The writer is president of the Peres Center
for Peace and served as Israel’s chief negotiator for the Oslo Accords.