Amal Jamal
The Jerusalem Post (Opinion)
December 19, 2011 - 1:00am

The Arab Spring has been a source of pride and happiness for many Arab citizens of Israel. Most of the Arab public in Israel has expressed unequivocal support for the courage shown by thousands of Arab civilians around the region in calling for the ouster of corrupt regimes, endangering themselves and their families.

The demonstrations on the streets of Tunisia and later Cairo, where the youth played a major role, captured the imaginations of young Arabs in Nazareth, Taybeh and other Arab towns in Israel. Together with much of the rest of the world, Palestinian Israelis were captivated by the drama of average people rising up against tyranny.

In addition, Palestinian Israelis identified with the protesters and were concerned for their welfare. They expressed support for the ousting of regimes that had turned Arab countries into corrupt family corporations, suppressing their peoples with the most authoritarian techniques known to man. This type of authoritarianism caused much unease among leading Arab intellectuals, many of whom traced its origins to the region’s colonial past and the current imperial policies of the United States.

Many people in our community were suprised by the sight of massive numbers of Arab citizens from different socio-economic classes protesting the authoritarianism and corruption of their leaders. The peaceful protests in Tunisia, Egypt, Yemen and – in the initial stages – Libya and Syria were very impressive to the average Palestinian Israeli. The cultured behavior of the masses in the face of the vicious responses by the regimes was perceived to be a genuine expression of Arab culture, a culture that had been completely distorted by authoritarian regimes.

The protesters’ maturity and their involvement in such matters as organizing traffic and cleaning the squares on which the protests took place was very empowering. It demonstrated that the will of the people cannot be easily hijacked and that even the most brutal dictator could be brought down without firing even one shot.

The fall of Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, and later Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, led many to believe a domino effect was going to engulf all Arab states, eventually leading to the establishment of Arab democracies that would express this authentic voice of Arab peoples.

ARAB CITIZENS of Israel view themselves as part of the Palestinian people. Despite differences with regard to political aspirations and the best strategies to achieve them, there is broad consensus regarding the role of Israeli policies in determining the future of the Palestinians, be they refugees, under occupation or inside Israel.

Based on this understanding, the regional role played by Arab states is seen as a crucial factor, albeit not the only one, in determining the position taken by the Arab community in Israel vis-à-vis specific Arab regimes.

Arab support from inside Israel for the Tunisian, Egyptian and Yemeni “revolutions” seems to be deeply related to the foreign policies of these regimes. The affinity these regimes had with American policy in the region and their inability to challenge American positions on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict were sufficient reason to view them in negative terms.

The importance of this factor is illustrated by the debate taking place among Arab citizens of Israel regarding the mass uprisings in Syria. It seems a majority believe that these demonstrations were instigated and are being supported by the Americans and the Europeans and, as a result, play into the hands of Israeli interests. The demonstrations in Syria, then, are not viewed as popular uprisings such as those that took place in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, but rather as part of a conspiracy aimed at weakening or removing the regime for daring to support Hamas and Hezbollah and challenging American hegemony in the region.

This view is understandable given the regional political situation and America’s obvious attempts to use the UN or the Arab League as a vehicle for their regional interests. But what does this mean with regard to the question of Arab support from inside Israel for the Syrian people’s struggle for democracy? The stand taken by leading political representatives and intellectuals toward the Syrian demonstrations gives the impression that practical calculations related to national political interests precede democratic and moral principles.

This impression could be wrong, but neither the Syrian protests nor the brutal authoritarianism of the regime seem to provide sufficient motivation in themselves for the leading representatives of the Arab community in Israel to take firm positions vis-à-vis the Syrian situation.

The massive support for and fascination with mass demonstrations calling for freedom, dignity and democracy seem to be deeply interrelated with realist interests. The complete silence with regard to the results of the democratic elections in Tunisia and Egypt, which led to the rise of political forces not necessarily committed to democracy, are another indication of the complicated position taken by the leaders and intellectuals in the Arab community in Israel.

This position is deeply related to the tragic experience of the Palestinians in general and Palestinian citizens of Israel in particular. American and European democracies have not reached out to affirm the basic unalienable rights of the Palestinian people. Israeli democracy has not really helped protect the basic civil rights of the Arab community in Israel, and in many cases has in fact supported occupation.

So, when democracy and national interests are perceived to be in opposite camps, it seems that the latter are favored. Arabs doubt Western democratization discourse and fear it to be a soft form of promoting imperial interests.

HOWEVER, THE picture is not so black and white. The fall of dictators, even those who are in “our” camp, is not inherently contradictory to our interests.

The unstated assumption, that the Syrian people are not aware of Western interests in the region, is pathetic. Despite the tragic Iraqi and hypocritical Libyan experiences, there is no absolute affinity between the Syrian protesters and Western interests in the region.

The Syrians demonstrating in the streets cannot be viewed as a bunch of traitors being kept from falling into the hands of the American secretary of state by Assad’s regime. Such a position is ridiculous, despite the fact that some of the activists could be exploiting the protests for such purposes. The position of the Syrian regime has been historically possible only because of the support of the Syrian people.

The position apparently being taken by many Arab leaders and intellectuals could be interpreted as identifying support for the national rights of the Palestinian people with Arab authoritarianism. On the moral level, such a position is oxymoron. Democratization, the involvement of Arab publics in their governments, is the favorable moral position. It is also a favorable practical position, if we genuinely support people’s right to self-determination and not merely to independence.

Taking this stance doesn’t mean totally buying into the democratic peace theory, but the identification with dictators and bloodthirsty regimes, even those who claim to support the rights of the Palestinian people, undermines the moral ground on which rests the principle of national rights.

The writer is a professor at Tel Aviv University and general director of the I’lam media and advocacy center in Nazareth.


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