The new Mideast no longer revolves around Israel
Declaring a national state of emergency in the face of an external enemy has in the past served as an escape hatch, allowing domestic problems that cry out for a solution to be ignored; but that era is over.
In an interview on the occasion of his visit to the Jerusalem International Book Fair, Umberto Eco talked about the question of why the popularity of "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" did not wane after it was discovered to have been a forgery. He quoted one of the heads of the secret police in czarist Russia, who said that in order to quiet the masses, it is necessary to provide them with objects of hatred. Hatred, said Eco, is the force that propels the world. The discovery that the "Protocols" are a forgery pales beside the need for hatred; in fact, the text's popularity even increased.
A few days before the start of the demonstrations in Libya, Muammar Gadhafi called upon Palestinian refugees to board a ship and sail to Israel. He felt the earthquake in the Middle East was also headed his way, and tried at the last minute to divert the protests toward Israel, and to give the Libyan masses an object of hatred to quiet them. But instead of observing a tsunami striking the shores of Israel, Gadhafi has had to watch a tsunami inundating his country.
For decades Israel served as a tool for control and oppression in the hands of innumerable leaders in the Arab world. Fanning hatred and fear of Israel is a more effective means for uniting diverse and rival groups within a population and for imposing dictatorial regimes. One might almost say that if Israel didn't exist it would have been necessary to invent it.
Moreover, the unresolved Palestinian problem has served as an excuse for many countries in the region, Israel included, to avoid solving acute problems concerning poverty, the status of religion and individual freedoms. Declaring a national state of emergency in the face of an external enemy has served as an escape hatch, allowing domestic problems that cry out for a solution to be ignored. Hatred of a regime that ignores the people's troubles, or even contributes to them, has been replaced by hatred of the "other" - a much safer hatred - and the status quo has been preserved.
But that era is over. And this is one of the most important messages of the demonstrations and revolutions of the winter of 2011 in the Middle East: The protest and the hatred, everywhere from Tunisia to Iran, are no longer directed outward but rather inward, directly at the oppressive rulers. In recent days, after playing the Israeli card proved to be disappointing, Gadhafi has tried another - fear of Al-Qaida - but this too has not been a winning card.
Many Israelis have reacted with suspicion and doubt with respect to the current earthquake affecting the Arab and Muslim world, on the grounds that it is not ripe for democracy or that democracy will in fact increase hostility toward Israel. This is an arrogant and egocentric point of view, which assumes that the entire Middle East revolves around Israel - just as for thousands of years, the planet Earth was considered to be the center of the solar system. Indeed, in 1514 Copernicus showed that the sun does not revolve around the earth, but rather the opposite.
The events of this winter are presaging a Copernican revolution in the Middle East: It turns out that Israel is not at its center, and that the tremendous energies displayed by the masses involved have no connection to it at all. The WikiLeaks documents that were revealed recently also confirm this Copernican revolution.
The time has come to remove our geocentric and egocentric glasses. It is permissible to adopt a moral position when oppressive regimes collapse. It is permissible to admire masses that take to the streets in face of tanks, battleships and airplanes, even at the price of thousands being killed.
The new leaders in the Middle East, whoever they may be, will most probably remember the strength of the people's will and rage, and will not hasten to return to the old tactic of hatred and oppression. And contrary to the forecasts of the experts, in such a Middle East perhaps also an Israeli-Palestinian peace, based on two states for two peoples, will also have more of a chance.
Prof. Shalev is a mathematician and a writer.