Can Tahrir Square Come to Tel Aviv?
The other component to Israel’s response strategy, one that is fully in sync with Europe and Washington, is actively promoting a set of neoliberal economic policies for the region. This may be more significant for Israel’s positioning and future plans than is often appreciated. It is also ironic, given the social convulsions being felt inside Israel. Despite all the evidence to the contrary, Israel and the West have depicted Egypt’s attempted revolution as the result of an excess of bureaucracy and insufficient market reforms, rather than rejection of the economic liberalization that has stoked inequality and indebtedness, strengthened Egypt’s economic elites and encouraged a kleptocracy. Continued privatization, deregulation and opening to foreign investment would benefit Egypt’s narrow business and military elites, alongside foreign investors, and bind those ruling interests ever more tightly to the Western states and perhaps also to financiers from the Gulf Cooperation Council. Policies that would undermine the possibility of economic democracy would, in turn, suffocate political democracy and would probably be Israel’s best bet for a return to something like Mubarakism without Mubarak.
Overall, a more democratic Arab world will have the effect of narrowing Israel’s room to maneuver for as long as it remains in the business of denying Palestinian freedom. The problem for Israel was astutely defined by President Obama in May: “A just and lasting peace can no longer be forged with one or two Arab leaders. Going forward, millions of Arab citizens have to see that peace is possible for that peace to be sustained.” This will require a fundamentally different approach to the Palestinians. Even if a formula is found to resume negotiations and avoid a September showdown at the UN, turning back the clock will prove ephemeral. The window of Palestinian sustainability for old-school peace-processing will be smaller with every iteration. An image that appeared so natural last September—of an American president flanked by Israeli, Palestinian, Egyptian and Jordanian leaders, again suspending disbelief and lending credence to thoroughly discredited peace talks—will not be repeated.
In this new regional environment, five challenges stand out for Israel. First, conditions for Arab cooperation with Israel, including cooperation by Palestinians, have deteriorated significantly. This will apply even to issues where there is a degree of overlapping interest, such as Iran.
Second, it will be more difficult for Israel’s friends to provide cover for continued Israeli occupation and violations of international law with regard to Palestinians. If freedom and democracy for Arabs is the new mantra, then its inapplicability to Palestinians will be harder to justify. This is relevant for the United States, and probably more so in the short term for European governments, which are more likely to be faced with consumer and other protest actions from their own publics. Jewish communities around the world—already somewhat internally divided over Israel—will face ever more stressful and divisive dilemmas.
Third, Israel will have to recalibrate its military posture in the face of potential new security challenges arising from enhanced instability and uncertainty on what were previously predictable and stable borders (notably with Egypt, as witnessed in the mid-August incident near Eilat and the ensuing tensions between the countries). This comes at a time of increased budgetary pressure on defense expenditures in response to the summer’s social protests and growing inequalities inside Israel.
Fourth, Israel faces the prospect of an invigorated Palestinian turn in priorities and tactics, including nonviolent popular resistance and civil disobedience. Mobilization of this nature has been occurring in West Bank villages for some time and briefly took on a regional component in May, with marches on Israel’s borders to mark Nakba Day. A concerted push in this direction is a distinct possibility, and very much in line with the popular mobilizations of the Arab Awakening. A sustained, nonviolent Palestinian movement probably has the greatest potential as a game changer—it keeps Israel’s military planners up at night.
Finally, the region is likely to witness greater integration of Islamist movements into mainstream politics at a time when Israeli politics and discourse are taking on a more discernibly religious, fundamentalist and even messianic tone.
Israel will need to adjust to these developments, but its changing politics and demographics would appear to leave it ill equipped to do so. While the remaining realists in Israel’s establishment seem to understand that there is a pressing need to reformulate relations with the region and urgently address Palestinian realities in response to the Arab Awakening, they carry less weight in policy-making circles and less traction with the public. Yet even the prescriptions of the traditional moderate Zionist camp may be insufficient in the face of these new challenges.
This is where Israel’s summer protest movement may offer a glimpse of new hope. This would entail successfully drawing the connections in people’s minds between the costs of occupation, settlements and “no peace” and the inadequate provision of social goods. It would also include recognition that the system of social injustice now being opposed by Israeli Jews is rooted in and fed by the prevailing logic of ethnic discrimination against Palestinians in Israel and the occupied territories. That kind of social reset—a twin assault on neoliberal economics and neoliberal Zionism—does not come easily.
The social protests may be a teachable moment, surfacing some of these issues, raising doubts, hinting at new coalitions and seeding a new politics. Perhaps the best indication of the movement’s radical potential is seen in the anxious response from the settlers, described by Israel’s leading commentator, Nahum Barnea, as “overt hostility, almost panic.” Predictably, they have called for massive settlement construction to solve the housing crisis, and they’re backed by most ministers in the government.
The most likely, if exasperating, course for the protest movement is being charted by self-appointed spokespeople of “sensible Zionism” who have launched scathing attacks on the leftist wing of the movement, called to replace its leadership and advocated what amounts to a fortification of Jewish solidarity. That would boil down to a redistributive tweaking of the pie to accommodate and depoliticize middle Israel, ensuring that army reservists remain motivated, their nests refeathered and loyalties girded for future wars. Such a business-as-usual outcome would represent a wasted opportunity, the magnitude of which is dramatically compounded by the challenges induced by the Arab Awakening.
Israel’s last major strategic reorientation was its peace treaty with Egypt. That required a full withdrawal to the 1967 lines, the removal and dismantling of all settlements in the Sinai, an agreement on international arbitration over the small disputed territory of Taba, and security arrangements that included monitoring and deployment by international, rather than Israeli, forces. Ironically, it is change in Egypt that dictates the need to undertake another major strategic reorientation. Worryingly for Israel, the combination of pugnacious nationalists and biblically inspired ideologues currently steering the ship of state seems woefully inadequate for the task at hand.