Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Bibi Is On The Wrong Side Of History

In Israel, the Arab Spring has generated an understandable level of fear. For a country whose security is premised largely on regional stability, protests across the region have created new challenges for Israel, which is right in the middle of the raging storm. Israelis feel, quite reasonably, as if a tsunami of chaos is right on their borders.

The Israeli government has also internalized these fears. However, rather than looking for solutions to the problem, leaders in the country are using populist rhetoric to generate partisan support. Today, Prime Minister Netanyahu claimed the Arab world was moving backward, not forward, and claimed that those who pushed Egyptian President Mubarak to resign from power were "naive."

Such claims serve only to bolster the fears of Israelis rather than to orient the country towards a secure future. They also indicate that Israel's leadership is thinking in the short-term about a long-term problem. That the Arab Spring has proven a sea change is incontrovertible. Given its far-reaching impacts, looking to the long term is a vital first step in crafting a strategy to maintain, or even improve, Israel's regional security posture.

In this light, PM Netanyahu's open cynicism towards the Arab Spring harm's Israel's security posture for three reasons.

First, it promotes a mindset which looks for problems rather than solutions. Contrary to PM Netanyahu's claims, the Arab Spring offers unprecedented opportunities for Israel to begin a process of deeper engagement with the Arab public. The effect of this deeper engagement would be to humanize Israel and create understanding, if not empathy, for those who inhabit the country. While the benefits will not accrue overnight, the low cost of methods such as social media outreach means that the investment risk is marginal as well. Furthermore, given Israel's close alignment with the United States and hegemonic status in the region, Arabs are unlikely to view a Youtube video as a sign of weakness.

Secondly, the Arab Spring is incredibly popular. Citizens and governments in every corner of the globe have been moved by the sight of protesters in downtown Tunis, Tahrir Square, and Pearl Roundabout. Standing against the Arab Spring is not a popular position in the international community in which Israel's isolation has become critical. At a time when settlements, Israel's presence in the West Bank, and stalling on the Peace Process have made Israel unpopular, standing for the basic principles of the Arab Spring is an easy win for a country desperately in need of some diplomatic capital.

Finally, by spurning the Arab Spring, PM Netanyahu is making a statement about Israel's values more broadly. His administration draws international concern when it limits freedom to petition the Supreme Court, limits free speech, and targets left-wing NGOs. Domestically, there are political benefits to be gained for taking such positions, but internationally, such measures incur political costs. By standing against the Arab Spring, PM Netanyahu is extending this "freedom when convenient" mentality to one of the purest expressions of democratic will our generation will ever experience. He alienates the international community by spurning those who fight for the values enshrined in Israel's own Declaration of Independence which calls for an Israel based on the values of "freedom, justice, and peace."

All the Hasbara in the world cannot compensate for an Israel which showcases its commitment to liberal democratic values by supporting the protesters in the Arab Spring. These men and women literally are risking their lives for the chance to live with the same freedoms upon which Israel was founded. Supporting them and their endeavor may incur short-term costs, but surely there is no cause more pro-Israel than the creation of a just and equitable society for those who seek to overcome a history of oppression.

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