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R. Cohen: The Arab Spring: Myth or Reality?

 Presentation at a conference on “Religion and Peace in the Middle East: the Significance of Interfaith Cooperation”
Jerusalem, Israel - August 26-28, 2012
Published in UPF's interfaith journal Dialogue & Alliance, Vol. 26, No. 2, Fall 2012
Theme: Religion and Peace in the Middle East

The Arab Spring revolutions have nothing to do with the Israeli-Palestinian-Arab conflict. These revolutions have stemmed from real economical, sociological, and civilian restrictions of the populations in Arab countries.

Nevertheless, it may be important to emphasize that for the first time since the State of Israel was established, regimes in Arab countries, as corrupt and arrogant as they may be, are unable to silence the protests against them by using the argument that their nations are now at war or in conflict with Israel. This point highlights how much the situation in these countries has reached such an extreme and a very high level of folk hatred.

Another point to emphasize is that regardless of countries being at peace with Israel (e.g., Egypt) or in conflict with Israel (e.g., Syria), also countries close to or distant from Israel (such as Libya and Yemen), they have been unable to avoid the revolutionary spirit and courage of the people to stand up against their rulers. Apparently such a move is both very pro-democratic and pro-liberal, and therefore should have led to moderation and peace as the preferable choice of the rebelling people.

Moreover, the central demand of the rebels for freedom, on the one hand, and their demand for a reasonable minimum standard of living, on the other, requires an automatic choice of peace as the preferred solution. But in reality it really has not been so!

As so often has happened in the Middle East, people are motivated by the will to improve their situation and the desire to make a positive step for peace, but eventually have ended up choosing a leadership which strives exactly in the opposite direction.

The clearest example of this is that 70 to 75 percent of the Palestinian people support the two-states solution, living in peace side by side, but at the elections chose Hamas, who strongly opposes the two-states solution. The exact same situation also happened in Israel. The large majority of Israelis support the two-states solution, yet the government they chose at the elections is the one that strongly opposes this solution.

The majority of the Arab people in states where the Arab Spring revolutions have occurred in the past two years are composed of several streams, even contradictory ones. There are democratic streams and liberals who want human and basic civil rights, also there are ethnic and religion streams made of different components, but the bulk of the organized power which has carried the revolution into the streets is that of the Muslim Brotherhood who are being leveraged by the very radical Islamic Jihad. In some parts of the revolutions there is involvement by groups such as Al-Qaida and other extreme movements such as the Iranian Revolutionary Guards or Hezbollah from Lebanon. They have encouraged innocent revolutionaries with the purpose of taking over their revolutions.

How are things standing now? In spite of my natural support for revolutionaries who seek freedom and justice, these revolutions will not lead to political moderation and compromise. Without political compromise there will be no peace!

We must not forget that on Israel’s side things do not look any better. Here also the large majority of over 70 percent of the people support the two-states solution and yet they elected and will probably continue to elect governments who oppose this solution and construct settlements that hinder peace.

Moreover, the feelings that the Arab revolutions have evoked in the Israeli public are of reservation and mistrust regarding those who take control through such revolutions. This is caused by news media photos of President Mubarak being humiliated and tortured or photos of Gaddafi’s corpse, which have stimulated a highly emotional resistance for those used to the standards of justice and the rule of law, as in Israel.

In conclusion, and I am sorry for my non-optimistic message, but recent developments in the Middle East have not heralded a spring of peace for the near future in this region. Perhaps by future developments in Arab countries there can be a rise to power of real liberal political forces, compromise seekers, real peace seekers, and only if a political upheaval could occur in Israel bringing to power a government with the will and ability to end the policy of occupation and settlements, only then is there a real chance of advancing the peace process.

Anyone who knows me well knows that I am usually too optimistic, an incorrigible believer in good. I really hope that I’m not more pessimistic than the reality! So forgive me if I gave you a bad mood, because it really is not my way.

Ran Cohen was a member of the Israeli Parliament for 25 years (1984 – 2009) Currently he is the President of the Chamber of Trade and Commerce Israel-Asia, and a senior lecturer of public policy at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, at the Ben Gurion University in the Negev, and at the Tel Aviv University.