Blowing Hot and Cold: Israel's Divided Reaction to the Arab Spring

Netanyahu's government has a negative, one-dimensional view of the Arab Spring. But Israelis need a deeper and more serious understanding of these critical regional changes, and to start getting to know the new key players: political Islamic leaders, and how a dialogue with them might emerge.

Lior Lehrs
Lior Lehrs
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Lior Lehrs
Lior Lehrs

After dramatic events began unfolding across the Arab world starting two years ago, most of the world began using the term "Arab Spring" to describe the popular uprisings and revolutions that swept the region. For Israelis, however, it was harder to accept this naming, largely because of its positive and optimistic connotations. Israelis, in many cases, seemed to refer to what was happening around them as the "Arab Winter" or the "Islamic Winter", as a way of challenging the original term and painting the events in a negative light. Yet delving more deeply into the Israeli discourse around the Arab Spring reveals a more complex picture, and different voices.

I believe that Israeli reactions to the Arab Spring can be categorized into three types.

The first type of reaction to the Arab Spring is visibly negative and pessimistic, as demonstrated, first and foremost, by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. (It should be noted, though, that other right-wing politicians, like Moshe (Bogie) Ya'alon and Danny Ayalon, as well as other players from the security establishment, have also adopted a negative perspective on the Arab Spring.)

In his 1993 book "A Place Among the Nations," Netanyahu argued that the main obstacle to peace in the Middle East is Israel's lack of democratic neighbors. He asserted further that any party that wished to promote "Western-style" peace in the region must first pressure the Arab regimes to move toward democracy.

Yet, as prime minister, Netanyahu's reaction to the Arab Spring was fundamentally different. Netanyahu's comments to the Israeli public painted a harsh and threatening picture of the very developments he had once longed for. "Despite all of our hopes, chances are that an Islamic wave will wash over the Arab countries, an anti-Western wave, an anti-liberal wave, an anti-Israeli wave and ultimately an anti-democratic wave," Netanyahu said in November 2011.

Interestingly, Netanyahu's remarks to the outside world took a different tone and presented a more optimistic approach. In February 2011, for example, he told diplomats: "Israel is a democracy that encourages the promotion of free and democratic values in the Middle East and the promotion of such values will benefit peace." Almost a year later, in January 2012, Netanyahu answered questions on Facebook from Web surfers across the Arab world and said, "Increasing the freedom within the countries will promote their prosperity, and the increased freedom of information can help the cause of peace."

The second approach accepted the negative framing of events, but tried to introduce a more complex picture and offer a different reading of consequences and conclusions. For example, Amos Yadlin, former head of Military Intelligence, declared that the wave of protests in the Arab world was "more of an opportunity than a risk." Former Mossad chief Meir Dagan argued that Israel's military challenge had disappeared for the three to five years following the Arab Spring. And Yitzhak Levanon, Israel's ambassador to Egypt until November 2011, presented a similar approach, arguing in an interview that "we must not look only at the empty half of the glass."

The third outlook challenged the negative take on the Arab Spring and proposed an alternative, optimistic one. Two figures who shared Netanyahu's "democratic peace" thesis from the 1990s, for example, maintained that position after the Arab Spring. The first was President Shimon Peres who wrote in an April 2011 in The Guardian: "We in Israel welcome the Arab Spring. Israel welcomes the wind of change, and sees a window of opportunity.” The second was Natan Sharansky, chairman of the Jewish Agency, who wrote in an article in the Washington Post in December 2011: "The West should bet on freedom in Egypt." As in Netanyahu's case, however, these positive voices were presented more often to the international media than to the Israeli press.

Public opinion polls in Israel also paint an intricate and dynamic picture. Figures from 2011 showed that half of Israelis viewed the Arab Spring events as positive for Israel and its neighbors, while almost half thought that Israel's status in the region had worsened following these changes. As the turmoil continued in the Arab world, more and more Israelis viewed them as a threat to the country's national security. Interestingly, after Mohamed Morsi’s victory in Egypt, the Israeli public’s fears abated in terms of the future of Israel-Egypt relations. After Operation Pillar of Defense, this sentiment increased, with two-thirds of Israelis saying they appreciated Morsi’s positive role in negotiating a ceasefire. Overall, though, polls showed that the Arab public in Israel had a more positive outlook than the Jewish public regarding the Arab Spring.

The Israeli public discourse regarding the Arab Spring must be deep and serious, and less one-dimensional and negative than that of the government. Israelis must distance themselves from generalized and simplistic conclusions that fail to recognize the differences between the various Arab countries and societies. They should also avoid the dichotomous view of "Islamists" versus "non-Islamists" and try to become more familiar with the wide array of groups and forces at play.

Let's not forget that the media tends to provide a distorted and partial picture of societies undergoing transition and regime change, because it tends to highlight extreme events and does not provide equal coverage of complex processes that occur over time. As political Islamic movements become key players on the new Arab stage, it would be wise to adopt a broader and more nuanced approach, which would also consider how to pursue official - or unofficial - dialogue with them.

Lior Lehrs is a doctoral student in international relations at the Hebrew University, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies and task-team member in the Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies.

This article is part of the “Opportunities in Change” project of the Mitvim Institute in cooperation with the Friedrich-Ebert Foundation. For the full paper please see here.

The new wave: Celebrating the Arab Spring in Egypt’s Tahrir Square.Credit: AP

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