The Arab Spring has been a source of pride and happiness for many Arab citizens
of Israel. Most of the Arab public in Israel has expressed unequivocal support
for the courage shown by thousands of Arab civilians around the region in
calling for the ouster of corrupt regimes, endangering themselves and their
The demonstrations on the streets of Tunisia and later Cairo,
where the youth played a major role, captured the imaginations of young Arabs in
Nazareth, Taybeh and other Arab towns in Israel. Together with much of the rest
of the world, Palestinian Israelis were captivated by the drama of average
people rising up against tyranny.
In addition, Palestinian Israelis
identified with the protesters and were concerned for their welfare. They
expressed support for the ousting of regimes that had turned Arab countries into
corrupt family corporations, suppressing their peoples with the most
authoritarian techniques known to man. This type of authoritarianism caused much
unease among leading Arab intellectuals, many of whom traced its origins to the
region’s colonial past and the current imperial policies of the United
Many people in our community were suprised by the sight of
massive numbers of Arab citizens from different socio-economic classes
protesting the authoritarianism and corruption of their leaders. The peaceful
protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and – in the initial stages – Libya and Syria
were very impressive to the average Palestinian Israeli. The cultured behavior
of the masses in the face of the vicious responses by the regimes was perceived
to be a genuine expression of Arab culture, a culture that had been completely
distorted by authoritarian regimes.
The protesters’ maturity and their
involvement in such matters as organizing traffic and cleaning the squares on
which the protests took place was very empowering. It demonstrated that the will
of the people cannot be easily hijacked and that even the most brutal dictator
could be brought down without firing even one shot.
The fall of Zine
el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and later Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, led many to
believe a domino effect was going to engulf all Arab states, eventually leading
to the establishment of Arab democracies that would express this authentic voice
of Arab peoples.
ARAB CITIZENS of Israel view themselves as part of the
Palestinian people. Despite differences with regard to political aspirations and
the best strategies to achieve them, there is broad consensus regarding the role
of Israeli policies in determining the future of the Palestinians, be they
refugees, under occupation or inside Israel.
Based on this understanding,
the regional role played by Arab states is seen as a crucial factor, albeit not
the only one, in determining the position taken by the Arab community in Israel
vis-à-vis specific Arab regimes.
Arab support from inside Israel for the
Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni “revolutions” seems to be deeply related to the
foreign policies of these regimes. The affinity these regimes had with American
policy in the region and their inability to challenge American positions on the
Israeli-Palestinian conflict were sufficient reason to view them in negative
The importance of this factor is illustrated by the debate taking
place among Arab citizens of Israel regarding the mass uprisings in Syria. It
seems a majority believe that these demonstrations were instigated and are being
supported by the Americans and the Europeans and, as a result, play into the
hands of Israeli interests. The demonstrations in Syria, then, are not viewed as
popular uprisings such as those that took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, but
rather as part of a conspiracy aimed at weakening or removing the regime for
daring to support Hamas and Hezbollah and challenging American hegemony in the
This view is understandable given the regional political
situation and America’s obvious attempts to use the UN or the Arab League as a
vehicle for their regional interests. But what does this mean with regard to the
question of Arab support from inside Israel for the Syrian people’s struggle for
democracy? The stand taken by leading political representatives and
intellectuals toward the Syrian demonstrations gives the impression that
practical calculations related to national political interests precede
democratic and moral principles.
This impression could be wrong, but
neither the Syrian protests nor the brutal authoritarianism of the regime seem
to provide sufficient motivation in themselves for the leading representatives
of the Arab community in Israel to take firm positions vis-à-vis the Syrian
The massive support for and fascination with mass
demonstrations calling for freedom, dignity and democracy seem to be deeply
interrelated with realist interests. The complete silence with regard to the
results of the democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the rise
of political forces not necessarily committed to democracy, are another
indication of the complicated position taken by the leaders and intellectuals in
the Arab community in Israel.
This position is deeply related to the
tragic experience of the Palestinians in general and Palestinian citizens of
Israel in particular. American and European democracies have not reached out to
affirm the basic unalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Israeli democracy
has not really helped protect the basic civil rights of the Arab community in
Israel, and in many cases has in fact supported occupation.
democracy and national interests are perceived to be in opposite camps, it seems
that the latter are favored. Arabs doubt Western democratization discourse and
fear it to be a soft form of promoting imperial interests.
picture is not so black and white. The fall of dictators, even those who are in
“our” camp, is not inherently contradictory to our interests.
unstated assumption, that the Syrian people are not aware of Western interests
in the region, is pathetic. Despite the tragic Iraqi and hypocritical Libyan
experiences, there is no absolute affinity between the Syrian protesters and
Western interests in the region.
The Syrians demonstrating in the streets
cannot be viewed as a bunch of traitors being kept from falling into the hands
of the American secretary of state by Assad’s regime. Such a position is
ridiculous, despite the fact that some of the activists could be exploiting the
protests for such purposes. The position of the Syrian regime has been
historically possible only because of the support of the Syrian
The position apparently being taken by many Arab leaders and
intellectuals could be interpreted as identifying support for the national
rights of the Palestinian people with Arab authoritarianism. On the moral level,
such a position is oxymoron. Democratization, the involvement of Arab publics in
their governments, is the favorable moral position. It is also a favorable
practical position, if we genuinely support people’s right to self-determination
and not merely to independence.
Taking this stance doesn’t mean totally
buying into the democratic peace theory, but the identification with dictators
and bloodthirsty regimes, even those who claim to support the rights of the
Palestinian people, undermines the moral ground on which rests the principle of
national rights.The writer is a professor at Tel Aviv University and
general director of the I’lam media and advocacy center in Nazareth.