Israel: Learn the Power of Words, Not Just Might, in the New Middle East

Losing the complicity of regional dictators means that Israel needs to deploy diplomacy, and not brute force, with its neighbors in the Middle East. It's a radical shift, but depending only on military might won't keep Israel afloat much longer.

Rachel Shabi
Rachel Shabi
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Rachel Shabi
Rachel Shabi

It’s pretty hard to combine schadenfreude with escalating panic, but when it comes to regional pronouncements, Israeli commentators have a special talent. Witness this incongruous cocktail in the analysis of Egypt’s new leadership – the gist of so much of which is: The Muslim Brotherhood in power is horrifying for Israel, but at the same time terrible news for Egyptians, who really shouldn’t be experimenting with the democracy to which they, being Arabs, clearly aren’t suited.

“Hello Egyptians I really don’t know what makes you so happy,” noted one Israeli commentator on Ynet, in late June, about the crowds in Tahrir Square celebrating President Mohammad Morsi’s win. The piece went on to pronounce Egyptians nuts to think an Islamist might rehabilitate the economy, or banish corruption, or, indeed, do anything remotely constructive in the post-revolutionary country. (Opinion polls have a history of being unreliable, but the results of a poll by the Egyptian Centre for Opinion Research which was published this week shows that in fact, 77 percent of Egyptians approve of the new president’s performance so far.)

Meanwhile, just last month, Dan Margalit, in the U.S.-billionaire-financed, pro-right freesheet Israel Hayom, berated the Americans for simply not understanding that “their lovely constitution and democracy are not applicable in other parts of the world”. The U.S. is persisting in this misconception in its current approach in the Middle East, despite its failure to consider the consequences of forcing Israel to accept the democratic Palestinian elections of 2006, says Margalit. This insistence on democracy, he surmised, means “tougher tests” for Israel in terms of its cold peace treaty with Egypt.

What stands out in so many of these assessments is that, while the region is changing so profoundly, Israel’s view of it remains rigidly fixed. While post-revolutionary Arab countries embark on the inevitably long battle to fully eject old, repressive, Western-backed regimes and ensure democratic freedoms prevail, Israel seems to have little interest in the constant trials, the small gains, or the larger goals of neighboring peoples. The preference is for a blanket dismissal, in the style of Home Front Minister Avi Dichter, speaking at the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism's World Summit at the beginning of this week, who warned that the Muslim Brotherhood had co-opted the Arab Spring in a bid to create “one Islamic Caliphate” across the Middle East.

It’s really hard to see how this assessment is helpful. But it is understandable that Israel’s rightists are worried, because the changed region is likely to mean that Israel must change its approach, too. As pliant and compliant dictators – Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Hosni Mubarak in Egypt – have fallen, so, too, must Israel’s operational assumption that it can maintain its sense of security with military occupation, ‘pre-emptive’ attacks, devastating assaults (such as Lebanon 2006, or Gaza 2008) and ‘targeted’ assassinations. A Mubarak might have turned a blind eye to all this, but a democratically-elected Morsi?

In this new, reconfiguring Middle East, there can be no more assumptions that Israeli actions won’t trigger regional escalations. Losing the complicity of regional dictators means that Israel is going to have to think about deploying not brute force but mutually beneficial diplomacy – a radical shift.

No less significant is that the regional population, in nascent Arab democracies, can now channel support for the Palestinian cause through leaderships that amplify the sentiment, rather than just pay lip-service to it. To have any chance of long term survival in the region – as a healthy state rather than a military that signs up its resources and its people, for ever – Israel is going to have to deal with the fact that the Palestinian issue is key.

The Arab region is not going to suddenly start caring less about Palestinians, or Jerusalem. And now that regimes that once stoppered support for the Palestinian cause have been removed, it is a safe assumption that pressure is going to grow over this issue. Egypt has no interest in tearing up its peace treaty with Israel – as President Morsi has repeatedly stated – but the country might well want to renegotiate terms of relations, for instance over the besieged Gaza Strip, for starters.

Of course, changing Israel's position on this requires an implausibly major shift at a time when Israel has one of its most intransigent and reactionary governments in its history in power. But for how long can the logic of greater military might keep Israel afloat? After all, the aspiration is not to be a walled-up, gunned-up, supposed ‘villa in the jungle’ – but just another stable nation in the neighbourhood.

Rachel Shabi is an award-winning journalist and the author of Not the Enemy, Israel’s Jews from Arab Lands (2009). Follow her on Twitter @rachshabi

Anti-Israel protests in Cairo.Credit: Agencies



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