One unexpected casualty of the uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere may be Israel’s image abroad. One of the key pillars of the Zionist ideology is that Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East.
Let’s break that statement down. Is Israel a democracy? Formally, yes — but the Palestinians who live in Israeli don’t have equal rights, and the Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, whose lives are dictated by the Occupation, have no rights at all. But even granting Israel’s formal democracy for those it calls citizens, what about the rest of the Middle East? This was always a hypocritical statement as well: for all their anti-Israeli, and sometimes outright anti-Semitic vitriol, the Arab dictatorships have done Israel a great service, keeping a lid on their own citizens’ empathy with Palestine. If these regimes were overthrown by popular pressure — and, better yet, if workers’ and community councils started running everyday affairs — this would pose a much greater threat to Israel, because workers’ governments would start reflecting popular pressure.
That would mean three things: first, an end to peaceful acceptance of Israel’s borders and a stunning shift in foreign policy. As the latest Wikileaks cables have revealed, those Arab dictatorships have marched lockstep with Israel in wanting to bomb Iran and ignite a regional war. Socialists want to see workers run society themselves; but even liberal democracies in the Middle East, ones that enforced capitalist property but granted the freedom to organize, speak and vote, would change the balance of power. The U.S. and Israel might not find the Arab people, nursing decades of resentment, so pliant.
Second, the popular uprisings could inspire the Palestinians. These revolutionary impulses couldn’t come at a better time. The transformation of Gaza into a starving, armed camp, continuing annexation of more of East Jerusalem and the West Bank, and now the revelation that Mahmoud Abbas and his negotiators have offered major concessions to Israel, have shown the Palestinians have been abandoned by the world at large and their own leaders. The latter, in particular, appear to have been desperate to abandon the right of return and much of East Jerusalem, in return for setting up a mangled statelet headquartered in Ramallah, while donor funds lined the pockets of a parasitic bourgeoisie. But the people of the Middle East have longer memories: democratic movements spreading throughout the region could give the Palestinians hope for a just peace and inspire them to similar collective action. Israel, in turn, might have to act with more restraint, if it felt its neighbours would do more than cluck disapprovingly.
Third, the Zionist cause receives moral and financial support from abroad. Palestinian activists have been successful in framing the issue of Palestine through human rights, indigenous people’s rights and colonialism — helped, it has to be said, by the ever more murderous Israeli occupation, which has turned its killing and maiming of from Palestinians to their international supporters as well. The Zionist lobby has been on the counter-attack for some time, touting the formal benefits of Israeli democracy. What would happen if plucky Israel, surrounded by dictatorial Arab regimes, was surrounded by democracies far more vital and grassroots than its own? The Zionists overseas would have to argue for a racist, exclusionary “democracy” on its own merits, not by comparing it to the corrupt regimes around it.
This might be too much hope to place on democratic movements that are in their infancy. But people’s movements can upset decades of carefully planned repression. In a time of darkness, the aspirations of the Arab masses in Tunisia, Egypt and elsewhere are a spark of light for the Palestinians.