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How Israel's Fear of Arab Democracy Leaves the Jewish State More Isolated

Middle East expert Reem Abou-El-Fadl explains how Arab solidarity with the Palestinians is being reflected at the official level in the aftermath of the Arab Spring.

Egyptians demonstrate outside the Israeli embassy .
Photo Credit: Gigi Ibrahim/Flickr


As the struggle for democracy and dignity in the Arab world rages on in countries like Tunisia and Egypt, the Israeli establishment’s response has been to disparage the revolts and hunker down.

Israel’s right-wing leader, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, laid out this response in a speech to the Israeli Knesset last year. The Arab revolts have turned into an “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic wave,” Netanyahu said. “Israel is facing a period of instability and uncertainty in the region.”

The implication was that this is no time for a peace agreement with the Palestinians or Israel’s Arab neighbors.

Netanyahu’s right about the Israeli regional position. Outrage in the Middle East at Israeli violations of Palestinian human rights –which had bubbled below the surface in Western-backed dictatorships--has been unleashed. There’s a long history of popular solidarity with the Palestinians suffering under Israeli rule in the Arab world, and the popular uprisings have begun to transfer that solidarity onto the official level, as Dr. Reem Abou-El-Fadl explained in an interview with AlterNet.

An expert on Egypt and Turkey who witnessed the protests in Egypt last year, Abou-El-Fadl is a fellow at Oxford University. She recently authored a piece in the Journal of Palestine Studies arguing that anti-Zionism and Palestine solidarity was an important but overlooked element of the Egyptian uprising that brought down Hosni Mubarak.

I caught up with Abou-El-Fadl over Skype for an in-depth look at Israel’s regional position in the Arab world.

Alex Kane: First, summarize the regional position Israel has been in since the founding of the state in 1948. How would you describe Israeli relations with its neighbors?

Reem Abou-El-Fadl: Israel has always been deeply unpopular in the Arab world. It was born through ethnic cleansing and expulsion in 1948, and it was seen after that as an extension of Western colonialism. So Israel’s relations with its neighbors generally were hostile. Palestinians and other Arabs on the popular level saw that the first Zionist settlers were supported by the British, who were ruling Palestine under the Mandate system at the time, who were also exerting colonial control over other Arab lands. And in fact, it was popular pressure that forced the client governments in Egypt, Syria, Iraq and Jordan to send troops in May 1948 to try to overcome the nascent Israeli forces, and we know that they failed.

After that, I’d say there are a couple of different phases. In the 1950s and '60s, you had decolonization in states like Egypt. The Arab world saw a division between two main camps: you had the pan-Arabist, anti-colonial camp, in which Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt played a main role, and he championed Palestinian rights, and the other camp was the conservative monarchies. They were allied with the British and later the US, and their regional role was to undermine the Nasserist camp, and therefore indirectly ease the pressure on Israel.

And then in 1967 there was an important watershed. Israeli expansionism and war defeated Egypt and Syria and gained more Arab territory--the West Bank, Gaza, South Lebanon, the Golan area, Sinai in Egypt. And the pan-Arabist camp was very much weakened. So the tide then switched to still-hostile relations with Israel, but mediated through pan-Arab support for direct Palestinian resistance.

And then you have President Anwar El Sadat in Egypt opening the door to normalization and peace with Israel. He signs the peace treaty in 1979, which paves the way for the Oslo Accords and the Israeli-Jordanian peace in the 1990s. So that brings us into the phase where you have a cold peace between Egypt and Israel and a failing peace process with the Palestinians, while the conservative states remained where they were, empowered by their US alliance. Generally, the Arab populations never accepted Israel, but its military might and international support helped it engineer a weak set of neighbors.

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