Seize the Spring

Bibi sees the Arab Spring as a bad omen for regional peace, but is it our only opportunity?

Protesters burn Israel flag at embassy, Cairo_521 (photo credit: Reuters)
Protesters burn Israel flag at embassy, Cairo_521
(photo credit: Reuters)
With Palestinian pennants fluttering in the breeze and a large poster of the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat behind him, the mufti of Jerusalem, one of the supreme Palestinian religious authorities, seemed to call on the Muslim faithful to kill Jews. “The hour of resurrection will not come until you fight the Jews,” Sheikh Muhammad Hussein declared, quoting a saying attributed to the prophet Muhammad.
“The Jews will hide behind stones and trees. But the trees and the stones will call: Oh Muslim, oh servant of God, this is a Jew hiding behind me, so come and kill him.” The emcee who introduced the sheikh at the early January ceremony in East Jerusalem marking the 47th anniversary of the secular Fatah movement was equally uncompromising: “Our war with the descendants of apes and pigs is a religious war of faith,” he rasped.
In the immediate aftermath, the mufti summarily rejected accusations of incitement. The context of his remarks, he argued, was the end of days, and since that was in the far distant future, he had not been calling for any killing now.
For many Israelis, however, the more relevant context was the Arab spring. The popular uprisings across the Arab world have seen the empowerment of Islamist movements in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt and given wide currency to radical attitudes to Israel and Jews that many believe could ultimately make accommodation between Israel and the Arab world, or Israel and the Palestinians, impossible.
Indeed, if taken at face value, Islamist political and religious ideology ostensibly rules out any modus vivendi with Israel. It calls for a monolithic Muslim Caliphate governed by religious shari’a law, extending well beyond the Middle East and leaving no room for a Jewish state in its midst.
The specter of this kind of Islamist expansion has been traumatic for the Israeli government. As he made clear in a major Knesset address in November, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu believes the Arab spring has taken the Arabs “not forward, but backward,” and he sees Israel surrounded by a potentially hostile sea of “illiberal, anti- Western, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic” fundamentalism stretching from Egypt to Iran. His response has been a fundamental change in Israeli policy: suspending efforts to deepen engagement with the Arab world wherever possible and instead reinstituting a closed “Fortress Israel” model, shoring up defenses, preparing for the worst and hoping to ride out the gathering storm.
Potential opportunities
Some leading Israeli Middle East experts, however, insist that the Arab spring is far more diverse and complex than Netanyahu’s fundamentalist nightmare. Indeed, they accuse the government of scaremongering to win votes, and touting its bleak vision as an excuse to justify the do-nothing Palestinian policy it would have adopted anyway. They argue that it should, in fact, be taking a far more proactive line to defuse threats, to exploit new opportunities or, at the very least, to create conditions for progress, if and when conditions permit.
For several years now, Moshe Maoz has been monitoring attitudes throughout the Muslim world towards Jews and Israel. In a recently published book entitled “Muslim Attitudes towards Jews and Israel: The Ambivalences of Rejection, Antagonism, Tolerance and Cooperation,” the Hebrew University professor emeritus argues that there is a strong pragmatic strain of Islam just waiting for a chance to establish ties with Israel.
“One of our main findings was this: If we were to solve the Palestinian problem, the Muslims won’t suddenly love us, but the radicals would no longer have an excuse for hostility towards Israel, and more importantly, the many Muslim actors out there looking to normalize relations would have the justification they need,” he tells The Report. According to Maoz, once the Palestinian problem is solved Muslim countries like Indonesia, Pakistan and Turkey would strengthen ties with Israel, and a succession of Arab states would quickly follow. In other words, instead of deferring action on the Palestinian problem, the government should be doing all it can to solve it.
An expert on Syria, Maoz maintains that if President Bashar Assad falls, a Sunni government in Damascus could break with Shiite Iran and become part of a powerful Sunni alliance including Egypt, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States, guided and supported by the US. And that could open the way for Israel to build on the Arab Peace Initiative of 2002, which offered it normalization with the region as a whole in return for a peace deal with the Palestinians.
“Maybe it sounds naïve, but potentially we could still form an alliance of common interest with a relatively moderate Sunni Islam terrified by Iran,” Maoz contends.
The key, of course, is Egypt, the largest and most powerful Arab country, where the Muslim Brotherhood, the predominant Sunni Islamist organization, now holds sway. With a sweeping 45 percent of the vote in the recent parliamentary election, the Brotherhood’s Freedom and Justice Party will form the next government and have a significant input into Egyptian policy vis-à-vis Israel.
So far the signs are good. In an early December meeting in Cairo with American officials including John Kerry, Chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, leaders of the Islamist party announced categorically that they have no intention of reneging on the 33-year-old peace deal with Israel. The State Department has since received similar assurances. The Islamists have also urged the Americans to increase aid and investment in Egypt. With a newfound pragmatism now that they are the ones who have to feed 85 million Egyptians, the Muslim Brothers are ostensibly ready to work with the US and maintain a low-key modus vivendi with Israel.
Pragmatic Brothers
The ideology of Islamist movements in opposition is very different from that when they become the dominant force, says Yoram Meital, Chairman of the Chaim Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University. “The change in the Arab world cannot be understood simply through a catalogue of ideological documents; it must also be seen in the context of current political and economic exigencies,” he tells The Report.
Meital argues that not only are the Brothers proving more pragmatic than expected, they will not be the only ones making policy in Egypt. When the new leadership in Cairo crystallizes, there will be at least three other significant sources of power: the president, the army and the young people who started the rebellion in the first place – all of whom are likely press the Islamists closer to the West.
The US, says Meital, could help this process by providing much needed aid and by supporting revolutionary forces elsewhere, like in Syria. And he dismisses the widespread claim that the Arab Spring has degenerated into an Islamic winter as “a simplistic trope that ignores the complexity of the revolution now underway in Egypt.”
Most importantly, Meital thinks the new Egypt could actually help Israelis and Palestinians cut a deal. The close relationship between the Muslim Brothers and Hamas, which sees itself as the Brothers’ Palestinian arm, is key. Clearly it will limit Israel’s freedom of operation against Hamas in Gaza, because, with the Brothers in power, major military action could trigger escalation with Egypt.
But potentially even more dramatic is the other side of the coin: That the Brothers, reluctant to be sucked into confrontation by Hamas, are already reportedly pressing their Palestinian ally to exercise restraint and even allow accommodation with Israel. “If an Israeli government were to put for ward a concrete peace proposal, I think it would find support in places it doesn’t expect, like the new Egyptian government. I mean indirect, behind-the-scenes support, like urging Hamas not to torpedo an agreement based on two states along the 1967 borders,” Meital argues.
Already Hamas leader Khaled Mashaal is showing signs of new thinking influenced by the changes in Egypt and the rest of the Arab world. In a late December interview with the Associated Press’s Mohammed Daraghmeh in Cairo, he implied a readiness to replace terror with mass protests and to accept a Palestinian state in the 1967 borders. Popular protests, he said, “have the power of a tsunami.” And on the reconciliation with Fatah for which he has been working for months he declared: “We have political differences, but the common ground is the state on the 1967 borders. Why don’t we work in this common area?” he asked. “The nation is bigger than the party.”
Moreover, in closed party deliberations, Mashaal has reportedly been praising the pragmatism of the Brotherhood and urging Hamas to become more like its parent body, a strictly political and social movement, and to abandon violence.
Exploit the momentum
Tel Aviv University’s Shaul Mishal, author with Avraham Sela of “Palestinian Hamas: Vision, Violence and Coexistence,” sees Mashaal’s attempt to draw closer to Fatah as another example of a new two-pronged leadership model based on an unprecedented secular-Islamist partnership that has been spreading across the Middle East with the Arab spring.
“What before the Arab spring would have been inconceivable is now the reality: That the Egyptian army, which for decades bore down heavily on the Islamists, is now their ally. And the same kind of thing is happening in Jordan and with the Palestinians,” he tells The Report.
In Mishal’s view, this new regional partnership model, coupled with the fact that Hamas is reducing its emphasis on armed struggle and terror to a declarative minimum, opens up new possibilities for Israeli-Palestinian accommodation. But, he says, progress will not come if the Israelis and Palestinians are left to their own devices. The level of mutual mistrust is too high.
Instead of more barren Israeli-Palestinian dialogue, he suggests exploiting the momentum of the Arab spring to set up a new regional negotiating structure. “The only realistic chance of reopening a relevant and positive dialogue with the Palestinians is by adopting a kind of mini-Arab initiative, with Egypt, Jordan and maybe the Gulf States,” he says.
Not all Israeli analysts are as optimistic. On the contrary, many tend to see the rise of the Islamists much the way the government does: as making resolution of the Palestinian issue even more difficult.
Nevertheless, here too there are those who insist that Netanyahu should be far more proactive in his approach to the historic events. Their argument is that Israel should not allow the Arab spring to expose it to a wave of delegitimizing mass protests against the occupation or to prevent it from achieving its strategic goal of two states for two peoples. In other words, Israel should deflect Arab and other criticism of the occupation and further its strategic goals by initiating moves to facilitate the creation of a two-state reality on the ground. That means further withdrawal from territory in the West Bank and more sovereignty for the Palestinian Authority.
Some, like would-be opposition Kadima leader Shaul Mofaz, believe this should be done through an interim agreement with the Palestinians on a partial pullback from around 60 percent of the West Bank; others go further, arguing that it would have to be done unilaterally, because in present Arab Spring circumstances any formal agreement with the Palestinians is pie in the sky.
The Arab Spring, this small but growing band of unilateralists insists, has propelled Israel back into the pre-1967 era, when all it had was armistices with various Arab players, none of whom was ready to recognize it. The best it can hope for now, they say, are similar informal cease-fire arrangements that promote stability and create conditions for more formal future deals, if and when conditions allow.
On one thing the optimists and pessimists agree: In the face of the rise of radical Islam, the challenge Israel faces is to find ways to tap into signs of pragmatism to help defuse a national dispute over borders and rights – and to preempt a slide into the kind of apocalyptic religious war to the death the mufti of Jerusalem and those with him that cold January day seemed to be espousing.