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talking politics

Is Israel ready for the New Middle East?

It so happens that the week of the Jasmine Revolution in Tunisia was also a week of internal Israeli shenanigans. Defense Minister Ehud Barak resigned from the Labor Party and established a faction called "Independence," into which he drew four other Laborites. The move, coordinated with PM Binyamin ("Bibi") Netanyahu, enabled Barak to avoid being overthrown in upcoming Labor elections. It also enabled the Netanyahu government to stay afloat, supported now by Independence. The Labor ministers had long been threatening a pullout over the lack of progress toward peace. They made good on the threat, but with little result. Thanks to Independence, the government now seemed unshakeable.

The Barak-Netanyahu ploy came after heavy Democratic losses in the US Congressional elections, which impel US President Barack Obama to concentrate on domestic issues. Where the Palestinians were concerned, Bibi and Ehud could heave a sigh of relief. The pressure was off. They could go on doing nothing.

And then, the unexpected. On January 25, 2011, the Middle East turned upside down. Hosni Mubarak, who had maintained cozy relations with America and removed the strategic threat from Israel, was deposed in a popular uprising. An Iron Dome which, for 30 years, had let Israel get away with abusing Palestinians, had suddenly disappeared! Bibi was left stranded with the Occupation and his right-wing government, having no Mubarak to cover for him, nor Ben Ali of Tunisia, nor any of the friendly Arab dictators who still hung on, each fearing for his throne.

The first step toward the present revolution in Egypt was taken about ten years ago. I mentioned in my last article that the workers' strikes of 2008 in el-Mahalla el-Kubra were the spark. On a broader view, however, we can identify the Palestinian Intifada of October 2000 as the beginning of the end for Mubarak.

This Intifada broke out after the failure of the talks between then PM Ehud Barak and Yasser Arafat. The protest, at first, was not chiefly directed against Israel, but rather against the Palestinian Authority (PA). The Oslo Accords, signed by the PLO and Israel in 1993, had brought neither peace, prosperity nor democracy. Instead they had established a corrupt, dictatorial regime like those that are crumbling today, creating poverty and unemployment while lining the pockets of cronies.

But it was not just the Palestinians, nor just the Arabs in Israel, who took to the streets in October 2000. It was the whole Arab world, united in solidarity against Israel. And here is a crucial point: October 2000 was the first time ever that young Egyptians poured into Tahrir Square, breaking the psychological barrier that until then had kept them from demonstrating. The Egyptian regime stood helplessly by in the face of the rage against Israel. By implication, the demonstration of October 2000 was also directed against Mubarak, who had collaborated with Israel. Three years later the Square filled again, this time in protest against America's invasion of Iraq.

The US administration, especially Obama, understood the way the wind was blowing. It understood the crisis resulting from eight years of George W. Bush, who had incited against Islam. That was why Obama decided to give his first foreign speech at Cairo University, over the head of Mubarak, in an attempt to conciliate the Arab world. During the year that followed, Obama signaled to Israel, begged it, and pressured it, all in the hope of getting real change in its relations with the Palestinians and thus rescuing his Middle Eastern allies. To no avail.

Obama's Cairo speech was presented in Israel as anti-Semitic. Bibi Netanyahu and Ehud Barak stuck to the position that there was no one to talk to and nothing to talk about. The well-being of their coalition, as it turned out, was more important to them than the well-being of their allies. They had no concern about what might happen to the friendly Arab dictators, who had stood up under the pressures of 30 years. After all, two wars in Lebanon, two Intifadas, two Israeli attacks against Arab nuclear installations, and numerous mysterious assassinations had done nothing to threaten the dictators' grip on power.

Yet times change. A new generation arose, urban and educated, connected to the world through the Internet and exposed to uncensored satellite broadcasts. This generation fashioned the tools for revolution. Not Israel and the Occupation, but democracy and social justice—these are the topics that stand in the focal center today. Israel is hated by the Arab world, not just because it oppresses the Palestinian people, but also because of its collaboration with Arab regimes that ignore the plight of their citizens.

So indeed, times have changed. In 1956, it will be remembered, Israel attempted, in coordination with France and Britain, to overthrow Egypt's Gamal Abdel Nasser by conquering Sinai—but at Washington's insistence, it withdrew. In 1982, Israeli PM Menahem Begin invaded Lebanon to impose Bashir Gemayel as its president, but Gemayel was assassinated after a month, and the consequences of that invasion pursue us to the present day. Israel has since become more aware of the limits of power. America's misadventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have once again shown the folly of trying to impose regime change from outside. The walls are closing in on Netanyahu, and the narrowing corridor leads to one conclusion: the days of Occupation are numbered.

This week we received a first hint of this, when Bibi sent the army to destroy the illegal outpost of Havat Gilad. Has he realized at last that he will have to confront the settlers, and that they, in turn, will have to swallow the fact that their presence in the West Bank is temporary? To his astonished Likud colleagues Bibi explained that conditions have changed, the international community is losing its patience, and he "is not prepared to bash his head against the wall."

Indeed, who, if not Bibi, understands the pain in the collision between a stubborn head and a wall? If he doesn't hurry up and do something, he'll lose Mahmoud Abbas too, and the day will not be far off when the Palestinians renew their struggle for freedom and social justice, making Israel look like South Africa in the twilight of apartheid.

The new Egypt, post January 25, is trying to rid itself of the old regime. Israel is rightly seen as part of that regime. The processes of democratization and modernization cannot be halted by Arrow Missiles or fighter jets. The weapon does not exist that can stop the joining of the Arab peoples with the other peoples of the world. Years of isolation and introversion stripped the Arab world of basic human rights, leaving it without jobs, prospects or dignity. Those years are coming to an end.

Israel has long tried to maintain the old order by appeal to its own security, presenting itself as defender of democracy and civilization. The pretense has failed. Reality has shown otherwise. Democracy is the oxygen of the Arab masses. For its sake they go to the streets and risk their lives. Today, as a result, the question has been reversed: Is Israel prepared to give up the shameful, anachronistic Occupation? Is Israel ready for democracy? "end"

to the Italian translation of the article

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