Israel and the Arab Spring: Time for Straight Talk

4 Dec

by Elhanan Miller

Image courtesy of wikimedia.org

Millions of Egyptians went to the polls on Monday, most of them – for the first time in their lives. These parliamentary elections are crucial for the future of Egypt, which has been governed by a military council for the past nine months. The Muslim Brotherhood, outlawed during the days of Gamal Abdul Nasser in the fifties and ruthlessly repressed, is expected to win a landslide victory. If this happens, Egypt will be joining two other North African states, Tunisia and Morocco, where Islamic parties have garnered the majority of votes in recent elections.

The Middle East is changing before Israel’s astonished eyes, becoming more Islamic. Islam, which was trampled under the feet of secular, dictatorial republics, is raising its head both as an expression of the authentic aspirations of religious nations and as a mass protest against its long-lasting oppression. It began in Iraq following the toppling of Saddam Hussein in 2003; continued with the victory of Hamas in the 2006 elections and its subsequent takeover of the Gaza Strip; and is currently playing out in Egypt and North Africa. A similar scenario is likely to transpire in Yemen and Syria.

Israel has enjoyed commercial and security cooperation with Egypt and prolonged calm on its border with Syria. But it has also been used as a lightning rod by autocratic regimes in the region to deflect the anger of the masses at their corrupt comportment. Bookstalls in Mubarak’s “friendly” Cairo offered Arabic translations of Mein Kampf and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It is hard to imagine how the peace with Egypt could get any colder, but Israel is, justly, apprehensive about the future.

For Israel, the revolutions sweeping the Middle East bear opportunities alongside the well-known risks. A new generation has emerged in the Arab world unwilling to buy government-orchestrated conspiracy theories and lies. Following the arrest of Israeli-American student Ilan Grapel in Egypt, many young Egyptians mocked their government’s claim that he was dangerous spy.

Muslim Brotherhood officials announced soon after the fall of Mubarak that they would honor the peace agreement with Israel. It is hard to imagine them doing anything else: the financial and political support of the United States – attained only after the Camp David peace accords between Begin and Sadat – is vital for Egypt today more than ever before.

There is no point in reminiscing about the past. Prime Minister Netanyahu, who mentioned his close ties with Mubarak in a recent CNN interview, asked Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas atop the UN podium to engage the Israeli government dughri (a colloquial Arabic word meaning directly). For Israel, the political transformation of the Arab world bears the promise of direct and honest engagement not only with the Palestinians but with many Arab nations, through more representative regimes.

Honesty in political discourse could be a welcome outcome of the “Arab Spring.” Such honesty would, for example, require the Palestinians to admit that the 1948 refugee’s “right of return” to Israel is unfeasible within the framework of a two-state solution. Such honesty would require Israel to admit that continued building in the settlements contradicts the very notion of a two-state solution. The time for straight talk has arrived.

Elhanan Miller is an independent Israeli journalist covering the Arab World.

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