Sitting with Israeli policy makers during the protests in Tunisia and then Egypt, I could feel the anxiety and alarm as senior officials from across the political spectrum attempted to decipher the implications for the Jewish state. Cries of panic have increased as the upheaval spread throughout the Arab world. My frank, if trite, comment that Israelis and American Jews should be applauding the Arab streets’ attempt to throw the bums out during one meeting in Jerusalem was immediately discounted as ignoring the unproven hypothetical that without “strong” leadership, Arab countries will democratically elect Islamic radicals committed to pushing Israel into the sea.
Yes, the long road to democracy in the Arab world, like in the West, will be messy with many chances for landmines, static defenses and roadblocks. It will take years, if not decades, to develop and institutionalize real reforms, during which time newly vocal stakeholders from across the political spectrum, including liberal and conservative political Islamists, will vie for the prevailing position. And, yes, the average Arab in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, Yemen and elsewhere believes in a more hard-line position than that of his dictatorial rulers. This will, no doubt, mean that regional governments will take a more strident position in bilateral talks with the United States and in multinational forums such as the Arab League and the United Nations. However, there are many net positives for Israel (and the United States) that outweigh the negatives.
First, by and large, Arabs want what everyone else wants, a chance to better their lives and those of their children. The lack of opportunity and no political channel to relieve the pressure over the past two decades fed into political and religious extremism. Enhanced democracy brings enhanced prosperity, economic opportunity and civil society activity, which in turn degrade the allure of the extremism. The angst, insecurity and hopelessness that come with living in corrupt authoritarian societies can be channeled away from violence and prejudice in a world that offers economic and political opportunity as well as a more active and open civil society in which differing or minority opinion can be debated rather than violently suppressed. The teachings of tikkun olam should, at the very least, allow for an appreciation that Arabs are, at long last, attempting to repair their own world.
Second, we need to recognize that the protests are not transitory. Structural changes in the region are happening. This is a watershed in the region that will usher in drastic change, for better or worse. Better to acknowledge this reality in order to better prepare for the new Arab world than keep our heads in the sand. Israel should recognize that the revolutionaries’ platform focuses on the need for institutional reform and respect for rights in their own countries. The issues of the Middle East peace process and Israel’s existence are not currently on the list of grievances.
Third, the institutional changes can limit rather than encourage relations with the real boogeyman of the Middle East, the radical Iranian regime. The majority of Arabs fear the Iranian mullahs above all else. The Shia communities in the gulf countries and Lebanon may hold some religious affinity for Iran, but their primary issue is state-sponsored discrimination by Sunni-led governments. More fair treatment of the historically poorer Shia minorities will not eliminate the possibility of siding with Iran in future conflicts but will alleviate to a significant degree their disagreements with their own Arab-led governments. Importantly, the hope for change that is currently moving into Syria will give voice to the majority of Syrians that resent the Assad regime’s pandering to Tehran. Most Syrians suffer from the massive intrusion into their country by Iran. A more legitimate regime in Damascus will no doubt be less accommodating to Iran and, thus, significantly weaken the Iranian-Syrian-Hezbollah axis.
Finally, more egalitarian and tolerant governments will be forced to de-escalate hate speech aimed at Israel. They will be forced to be responsive to their own constituents rather than attempt to scapegoat their own corrupt self-serving behavior by blaming Israel.
James Prince is president of the Democracy Council and a leading expert in democracy and civil society in the Arab world.