Last week, I traveled to Tel Aviv for the Herzliya Conference to speak on a panel about the upheaval seizing the Arab world. The conference is a gathering of the top national security minds in Israel and a venue where officials engage in high-level discussions and often announce major policy decisions. As someone who has spent 12 years involved in the politics of the Arab-Israeli dispute, it was my goal to explain how this conflict affected what I call the Arab awakening and how Israel should react to recent events in the Middle East.
Merely addressing this crucially important topic, however, ignited anger and skepticism from all sides. A campaign launched by Palestinian activists and amplified by Syrian-leaning newspapers in Lebanon urged Arab participants to boycott the conference. I also received messages on Twitter demanding that I not attend, with some going so far as to say that I was condoning “Israeli apartheid.”
In the end, I was present for the final day of the conference, where I spoke in a morning session as part of a five-member panel. The panel’s title—”The Rise of Political Islam Across the Middle East: Arab Spring or Islamist Winter”—itself reflected a failure to grasp the grand scale and nature of change under way in the Arab world.
Arabs are not faced with a choice between democracy and an Islamist takeover. In fact, most Islamist parties in the region have records of being supremely democratic and suffered under autocratic regimes for demanding reforms when other parties did not. Contrasting the Arab Spring with an Islamist takeover is therefore a false dichotomy—the people of the region are craving representation, and Islamists have long supported participatory governance.
At the heart of the changes in the region is a democratic impulse common to us all. Both Islamists and secularists share the desire for democratic institutions and personal freedoms. Now that groups like the Muslim Brotherhood have been elected, I noted, Islamist-led democratic transitions in Egypt and Tunisia are a reality. If Islamists want to remain in power, they will, like any other party, have to deliver on popular demands and practice inclusion, tolerance, and respect for women and minorities.
I stressed that what we are seeing in the Middle East today is much more significant than the rise of Islamists. In effect, we’re witnessing what columnist Rami Khouri has called “the birth of Arab politics.” For the first time, people across the Middle East are organizing political parties, engaging in the decision-making process, and daring to participate in peaceful popular protests on a massive scale.
Such a development, in my view, must be celebrated and facilitated by Israel. I warned the Israeli audience that, if they disparage the new Arab politics, they will only undermine Israel’s narrative that it is “the only democracy in the Middle East.” Indeed, I went on to say, it is the responsibility of Western and Israeli policymakers to exorcise themselves of their “autocracy addiction” and instead work to build real stability in the Middle East. Israelis must embrace democratic change in the region. Anti-Israeli sentiments may become more prominent as popularly elected governments take power, but it is better to address these challenges head-on than to ignore them, I asserted.
Since the outbreak of the Arab Awakening, the prevailing impulse in Israel is to circle the wagons and turn away from the turmoil in the region. However, I argued, there is a need to look over the horizon. Rather than noting the efforts of transitioning countries to democratize or welcoming new leadership in the region, Israel, itself a democracy, is characterizing the spread of representative governance across the Middle East solely as a threat. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s description of the Arab Spring as an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli, undemocratic wave” reflects the prevailing security-first mindset.
Ultimately, no one has “lost the Arab Spring to the Islamists,” I argued. The democratic opening in the region represents a chance for all to gain, and Israel too has a role to play—by making a renewed effort to resolve the Palestinian issue. Arabs will not forget that their national narratives are intertwined with the Palestinian narrative, I explained. That is why lasting peace with them requires lasting peace with Palestinians.
The immediate reaction to my opening remarks was an attentive silence. Throughout my short trip, the overwhelming sense I received was that Israelis remain highly skeptical of changes in the region and are understandably fearful of what they will bring. This sentiment was echoed in the remarks at Herzliya by the director of military intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, and by Defense Secretary Ehud Barak, who spoke from the podium about turmoil in the region and the immediate threats it poses to Israel. “We are facing a Middle East which will be more hostile,” Kochavi noted.
Barak struck a more hopeful note, arguing that democracy in the Arab world will be a positive development in the long run—yet short-term fears seem to dominate the Israeli psyche. “The skies are clouding over what is known as the Arab Spring,” he said.
But I also heard from Israelis who realized that Israel cannot hide from the events shaking the region. Throughout the day, Israelis approached me to commend what I had said, with one going so far as to remark: “This is what Israelis need to hear.” These Israelis were, notably, the ones whose horizons went beyond the borders of Israel. They were trying to see changes in the region from the perspective of the Arab people aspiring for democracy, rather than only through the lens of Israel’s security concerns.
The day after speaking at Herzliya, I traveled to Ramallah for meetings with notable Palestinian leaders. There, the overwhelming sentiment was one of hopelessness. In fact, one highly connected Palestinian said this was the most difficult period for his people since 1948. He also expressed concern that Palestine’s young population—almost half of which is under age 20—had not experienced the heady, nationalist struggle of Yasir Arafat or the hope of the Oslo Accords. This hopelessness, especially among the young, could lead to increased radicalization and more protests.
The entire trip was an important wake-up call. It highlighted the degree to which each side is isolated from the other. Interestingly, some Palestinians and Israelis united over their criticism of me: Palestinians and Arabs lambasted me for attending the Israeli-run conference, and many Israelis remain skeptical of my message that the events of the Arab Spring are not necessarily threatening to Israel. But the divisions between the two sides are becoming more deeply entrenched, and these barriers to engagement will make a future peace agreement more elusive. The world is changing around us, and we must too.