In “Democracy” Leonard Cohen sings tongue-in-cheek of the specter of democracy “coming to the USA.” It seems that a number of politicians in Israel take a somewhat more alarmist view of democracy coming to the Arab world. Some of their fears are obviously not unfounded. Every Arab dictator toppled or threatened so far has engaged in the dark magic of invoking a Zionist conspiracy in an effort to save his own skin. The chaotic fermentation of the politics of people power opens the way not only for democrats but also for groups governed by other ideologies, often virulently hostile to Israel. Finally, the relaxation of the grip of the mukhabarat state will enable terrorist groups to move around and plan their outrages more freely.
Still, intuitively at least, more democracy in the Middle East should not be all that bad for Israel, till now the only parliamentary democracy in the region. Democracies, we believe, largely do not go to war with each other, having to respect in some degree the wishes of ordinary people who abhor the idea of war as they are invariably its first victims. Democracies are more mindful of other people’s rights, including the right to exist in peace and security. And democracies allow people to make up their own minds about issues rather than parading them under official banners and slogans.
The first Israeli experience with a more democratic Egypt has been mixed so far. On the one hand, both the military administration and the leading candidates in the forthcoming presidential elections made it clear that they will uphold the existing peace agreement between the two countries. On the other hand, Egypt made it clear that it will be less willing to coordinate its policies vis-à-vis third parties, such as Hamas, with Israel. The announcement of the opening of the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza rang alarm bells in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv.
For all the Israeli concerns, things may work out better than they fear. The border opening will hopefully let off steam from the Gaza Strip, which has been sealed off until now, albeit not quite hermetically. It will give the people of Gaza a contact with the outside world along with the opportunity to compare propaganda with reality. In terms of security, it will not represent an enormous change since all kinds of military equipment have been getting in through the tunnels anyway. The issue has never been the border itself but the ability of the militants to move their goods through the sands of Sinai. The opening of the border will do away with the unworkable pretense of an international control of the crossing and shift the responsibility for policing it to Egypt and Hamas, the legal and de facto administrators of the adjoining territories, respectively. Correspondingly, Israel’s responsibility for the well-being of the people in Gaza irrespective of the hostile posture of their Hamas rulers will be diminished. With the border open for travel and trade, there will cease to be any need for “humanitarian” convoys to sail to Gaza or for the Israelis to stop them.
That Israel will be affected—positively, adversely, or in both ways—by the events of the Arab Spring, is a no-brainer. Whether Israel itself is in any way an intrinsic part of the wave, is quite another question. Efforts to subsume the most recent developments in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict under the heading of Arab Spring have led to some outlandish claims. One of them has been to present the Nakba Day marches on Israeli borders in mid-May, during which several protesters were killed, and the Naksa Day clashes with the Israeli military over the weekend as spontaneous expressions of the longing for freedom and democracy by the descendants of Palestinian refugees and by Syrians displaced from the Golans in the war of 1967. Anyone who has ever seen the Israeli-Syrian border, the scene of both the earlier and the most recent protests, could be forgiven for approaching such claims with a dose of cynicism. Would the same Syrian army that uses tanks against pro-democracy demonstrators in Syrian cities really help protesters pass unharmed through minefields on the Syrian side of the border and let them storm one of the best fortified land frontiers in the world just for the sake of airing their grievances? Please. And those who make such claims are hardly unblemished themselves. “The Arab spring has given us hope that the future will be different,” Nabil Shaath, a senior Palestinian official, told the Financial Times recently. The question is whether Mr. Shaath, a close crony to the late Yasir Arafat and a name at the center of countless rumors of shady dealings inside the Palestinian Authority, has all that much to hope for if democracy really comes to the Middle East.