When Dreams “Come True”
No. 2 2011 April/June
Alek D. Epstein

Alek Epstein is a lecturer at the Open University of Israel, the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and the Institute of Asian and African Studies at the Moscow State University, an expert at the Moscow Institute of the Middle East. He has a Doctorate in History.

Israel in a Different New Middle East

Shimon Peres in the 1990s and George W. Bush in the 2000s were drawing rose-colored pictures of a future “New Middle East.” The then foreign minister of Israel and now its president put the emphasis on mutually beneficial economic cooperation. A whole chapter in his book The New Middle East was titled “From an Economy Working for War to an Economy of Peace.” George W. Bush believed that the processes of democratization will be the cementing factor for the New Middle East. Perhaps the most favorite book of Bush and his national security adviser and later Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the writing of Israeli politician Natan Sharansky The Case for Democracy, supplied with an optimism-radiating subtitle “The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny and Terror.”

George W. Bush’s own speech on ways to settle the Palestinian problem made on June 24, 2002 was proclaimed in that book a sample of “clarity of moral criteria” and of a “new bold political course.”

“If liberty can blossom in the rocky soil of the West Bank and Gaza, it will inspire millions of men and women around the globe who are equally weary of poverty and oppression, equally entitled to the benefits of democratic government,” enthusiastic Sharansky quoted infinitely pretentious words of the then U.S. president.

Shimon Peres wrote that the greatest mistake of the Arabs in the 20th century – a mistake that still remains uncorrected – was their commitment to totalitarian military or presidential regimes. He tried to convince his readership that only genuine democratization, and nothing else, will bring true benefits to the Arab world and the Palestinian people. In 1993 the incumbent president of Israel believed that the most effective weapon of the Palestinian organizations against Hamas was democratic elections which would lead to the creation of a government structure of a legally elected majority that would put up a barrier to the armed and fanatical minority.

Today this sounds like a mockery, since it was Hamas that emerged a confident winner in the multi-party democratic elections in the Palestinian Autonomy, held in January 2006. And now there is a good chance for verifying the postulate regarding the desirability of the fall of “totalitarian military or presidential regimes.” For the first time in the history of the region several authoritarian rules collapsed as a result of peaceful protests involving great masses of the population. However, it has turned out that the New Middle East does not look the way it was customarily painted. The Israelis, whether they like what is happening or not, should understand what the New Middle East that has emerged around them is really like.

The Israeli media have been saying that “the Israeli political and military leadership… sluggishly reacted to the political tsunami. Israeli leaders have not bothered to offer us a serious analysis of what is happening.” A leading political commentator, Yaron Dekel, has highlighted several important issues: How is Israel preparing for the existence of a new Middle Eastern reality? Do its leaders take any action in connection with what is happening in the Arab countries? Is there a risk of severance of diplomatic relations with Egypt and Jordan, with which Israel has signed peace treaties? Is it worth trying, despite the ongoing events, to reach a peace settlement with the Palestinians and Syria? However, the “silence of our leaders arouses the suspicion they simply do not know what to do,” says Dekel. “They have not the slightest idea of how Israel should prepare for the new reality.”



A mere six months ago nobody foresaw the fall of Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia or Hosni Mubarak in Egypt; there was no discussion, even in theory, of the possibility of mass demonstrations across the Arab world. And those who did predict a surge in tensions in the Middle East almost unanimously attributed it to a probable worsening of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The developments in the region are radically altering the customary system of concepts: matters that have for decades remained in the focus of almost all authors writing on Middle East affairs no longer look the most important. Over a very long period of time three fundamentally different concepts – the Middle East conflict, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the Arab-Israeli conflict – were equated and often seen as interchangeable synonyms.

Obviously, the Arab-Israeli conflict is not confined to its Palestinian dimension. It also includes the issue of relations with Syria and Lebanon – countries with which there are no peace treaties, as well as many other Arab countries – from Algeria to Saudi Arabia – which still have not recognized the right of the Jewish state to exist in any kind of boundaries. It is also clear that the most complicated relations today are Israel’s relations with Iran – a country that is Muslim but not Arab. If we keep using the phrase “Middle East conflict” only with reference to the problems of Israel’s relations with someone else, we’ll have no adequate terms to describe what is currently happening in the Middle East and North Africa. This has no bearing at all on Israel (as well as the Palestinians and even Iran). As senior lecturer at the Oriental Studies Department of the MGIMO University, Marina Sapronova, said quite correctly, “The explosion in the Middle East and the Arab world was predicted long ago, but the source of danger was seen in the stalemate of Middle East settlement, the split of Palestine and the rise of Islamic movements. The classic popular rebellion, especially that in the most developed and westernized Arab country, came as a surprise.”

The wave of unrest whose causes and mechanism, let us be frank, remain not quite clear, has swept across most of North Africa and the Middle East. There has never been anything like that before, and it requires fundamental rethinking of the reality. For many years the central and indisputable axiom was that the settlement of the Middle East problems requires, above all, the resolution of the Palestinian issue. Indeed, even Arab countries which have neither territorial nor water, nor any other claims to Israel (such as Algeria or Saudi Arabia) have been reluctant to agree to reconciliation out of solidarity with the Palestinians. Yet the hard fact is the current crisis is in no way related to these issues. Since 1973, when the oil crisis, an extremely grave one for the developed Western countries, was triggered by the Arab-Israeli war, the situation has changed radically.

Now it is pretty clear that the Middle East problems are not confined to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and its resolution will not bring calm to the region. Haaretz said in an editorial not without a pinch of irony: “Who is now interested in the peace process, the dismantling of settlements, marking the borders between Israel and Palestine, or the settlement of security issues [between them]? The Palestinian Authority, too, has found itself in a new situation. Suddenly for the Palestinians their conflict with Israel has been pushed to the sidelines of public attention.”

Challenges in the world are many, and the Palestinian-Israeli one is not a key factor of international tensions. Moreover, there is no unrest in the Palestinian territories, they are a surprisingly quiet place today. To reduce tensions in the Greater Middle East the world diplomacy should deal with other issues.

At the same time, one cannot but pay attention to the “string of recognitions” of non-existent Palestinian statehood, which was started on December 3, 2010 by then Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva, and continued over the next two months by six other South American countries, which brought the number of states that have recognized the independence of Palestine to over 110. All these events have not changed the real situation, not one iota: on the one hand, all borders of the territory of the Palestinian National Autonomy (PNA) are controlled by Israel, and on the other, the PNA does not control the Gaza Strip. In the West Bank, the Palestinians have one government headed by Salam Fayed, in which there are no representatives of Hamas. In Gaza, there is another one, under by Ismail Haniya (who is actually accountable to Khaled Meshaal in Damascus), in which there is nobody else apart from Hamas activists, and there is no interaction among them.

The four-year term of Mahmoud Abbas as head of the Palestinian National Authority expired back in January 2009, and the five-year term of the PNA Legislative Council ended in January 2011 (with no new elections called). We have before us a split failed state, which has no legitimate bodies of authority and control. The situation has returned to pre-Oslo times, when the real leaders of the Palestinians were outside of Palestine. This is another Somalia, a state that collapsed de facto long ago, but in Palestine all borders are controlled by an external force – Israel. The recognition of the state sovereignty of Palestine in these conditions demonstrates how far from reality the political and legal rhetoric in the Middle East is.


Each of the two world wars was followed by attempts to create international structures that were intended to shift from the “law of the fist” to the “law of peace.” The League of Nations, the UN and its General Assembly and Security Council, the International Court of Justice – all these and many other institutions were created to solve interstate disputes not by force, but by achieving a collective agreement.

Let us be frank: in the Middle East these structures have never worked perfectly. There are many examples of this. Here are the two most graphic ones. The decision of the UN General Assembly of November 29, 1947 to divide the former territory under British mandate to create the Palestinian and Jewish states, and to declare Jerusalem an international city was carried out only in part. There was created only the state of Israel. And the other example – despite the ICJ advisory opinion, adopted in July 2004 by fourteen votes to one, Israel has continued the construction of the security wall.

The current crisis has shown once again the limited scope of international legal mechanisms. As Marina Sapronova has rightly pointed out, the League of Arab States is almost dormant, and this once again proves its weakness and demonstrates the strength of disintegration processes in the Arab world, which prompt the ruling elite in each country to take care exclusively of its own interests. The UN Security Council on February 22 began discussing the situation in Libya, but heavy civilian casualties in attacks against demonstrations in Egypt, Syria, Yemen and other countries in the region received no attention. Quite indicative in this respect is the amazing indifference of all countries, except Iran, to the fate of participants in protests by Shiites (representing three quarters of the population but denied access to power) in Bahrain, and the dispatch there of the combined forces of the Cooperation Council of Arab States of the Gulf (CCASG). Those events were not discussed at either the General Assembly or the Security Council.

Quite different was the attitude to the situation in Libya, where the troops loyal to Muammar Gaddafi, and the opposition entered a civil war. Although Gaddafi did not gain any support in the Security Council, the largest country in Europe – Germany – and all BRIC countries – Brazil, Russia, India and China – abstained. This turned the operation against Libya into almost a personal project of President Nicolas Sarkozy, of France, supported by the new British government and which the Barack Obama administration joined in with some reservations and “in a distance mode”. The readiness to support the operation to establish a no-fly zone was announced by Norway, Denmark, Canada, Poland, Qatar, the UAE and later Sweden – this is not enough, of course, for a showcase of unity.

The split of the international community is obvious, as obvious is the fact that in today’s situation inside and around Libya “the law of the fist” has triumphed. The international legal system of maintaining security has suffered a complete failure: Libya, on initiative from the president of France, is being bombed by NATO, troops of Saudi Arabia and other member-countries of the CCASG have been moved into Bahrain, the local military command has seized power in Egypt… For Israel, which has no peace treaties with an overwhelming majority of countries in the region all this is bad news. Israel remembers well the events of May 1967, when Gamal Abdel Nasser closed the Straits of Tiran to Israeli shipping, thus blocking the port of Eilat on the Red Sea, and no international organization then rose in defense of the interests of the Jewish state – which ultimately led to the Six-Day War that redrew the contours of the Middle Eastern political map. As it has turned out, the world has changed less than many would have hoped then.



The Middle East has been transformed into a new geopolitical state: no external power can really influence what is happening in the region.

The events in the Arab countries caught the United States, the European Union and Russia off guard. In Egypt and Tunisia, secular regimes loyal to the West have left the political scene, and it is unclear what forces will come to replace them. The ability of the U.S. leadership to influence the ongoing processes is minimal. The U.S. Administration initially supported Hosni Mubarak, but then, having realized that the pendulum had swung in the opposite direction, left him in the lurch. On February 11, Barack Obama said that “the Egyptian government must show a credible way, specific and unambiguous to a genuine democracy.” The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces of Egypt, which rose to power in the country after the resignation of Mubarak, in fact ignored this wish. In late March, six weeks after the president stepped down, it was announced that parliamentary elections would be held in September 2011, and a presidential election has not been called at all. It is assumed that it would be held in the summer of 2012, i.e. in more than a year!

The U.S. appeals fell on indifferent ears not only in Egypt with a population of 80 million, but also in Bahrain, whose population is a tiny one-hundredth of Egypt’s, and whose territory hosts a base of the U.S. Navy’s Fifth Fleet, which allows to control oil export from the Persian Gulf. On March 15, King Hamad bin Isa al-Khalifa, of Bahrain, announced a state of emergency for three months. Action taken by the forces loyal to the king, which cracked down on a campground of the opposition with support from the armies of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, drew sharp criticism from Washington, whose representatives urged a political dialogue with the opposition. However, the monarchies of the region have ignored the wish of the White House. Obama in a telephone conversation with the King of Bahrain expressed “grave concern” over the methods used to suppress protests and demanded the authorities “show the maximum restraint.” Sharp criticism of the authorities in Manama came from the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navanethem Pillay. It all reached nowhere.

In addition, the limits of American power involvement were identified. As he appeared on television on March 28 to explain to fellow Americans the government’s position regarding the military operation in Libya, Obama publicly promised that the U.S. planes would not stay there for long. An operation on the ground, as the White House keeps saying, is out of the question. To put it in a nutshell: the Middle East campaigns of the United States did not go beyond Afghanistan and Iraq. The period when the U.S. tried to play the role of “the global policeman” has drawn to a close. Twenty years ago the era of confrontation between two superpowers, the United States and the Soviet Union, gave way to an era of virtually unipolar world, but now we are witnesses to its ending, too. Countries and peoples of the Middle East, including Israel, where a great deal is pegged to partnership with the United States, will have to adapt themselves to life in a nonpolar world.

Today no one knows what future regimes in the Middle East will be like. Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, 75, who has led Egypt since the ousting of Hosni Mubarak, can hardly be regarded as a long-term president. The key figures representing Cairo in the dialogue between the political elites of Egypt and Israel for many years were Osama el-Baz, Mubarak’s closest adviser, and the head of the General Intelligence Service in 1993-2011, Omar Suleiman. At the end of January the latter was appointed vice-president, but on February 11, the day of Mubarak’s resignation which Suleiman declared himself, he lost that post and has not been seen in public since. All these men are very old: Osama al-Baz is 80 and Omar Suleiman, 75. Suleiman’s age-mate Amr Moussa, another long-term member of the Mubarak team, has for the past ten years been Secretary-General of the Arab League, and before that he had for ten years led the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. Prime Minister Ahmed Shafik, an Air Force marshal, 70, in fact, the last appointee of Mubarak (endorsed for the highest post in the government on January 29, 2011), was dismissed on March 3. His successor is 59-year-old engineer Essam Abdel-Aziz Sharaf, who had only once worked in the government as Minister of Transport for one and a half years. Since December 2005 he has held no positions in the country’s leadership. Nobody in the West (and in Israel) has any well-established contacts with him, and it is unclear for how long he will last in office, what his powers will be, and whether he has presidential ambitions and prospects.

At this point it is impossible to predict who will come to power in Tunisia. Acting President Fuad Mebaza and Prime Minister Beji Caid el-Sebsi are unlikely to contest this post by virtue of age (the former is 78 and the latter, 85). As former Russian ambassador in Tunisia Alexei Podtserob has said, the leader of the Congress for the Republic Moncef Marzouki, who has returned from exile, does not enjoy wide popularity in the country. The legal opposition groups – the Party of Popular Unity, the Progressive Democratic Party, Al-Tadzhdid and the Democratic Forum for Labor and Freedom – have no mass support. And in Egypt and Tunisia a significant increase in the representation of Islamists in the higher bodies of power is very likely.


The idea of global democracy as a way of solving the existing problems, including those in the Middle East, has failed. Apparently, such ardent supporters of this idea as Condoleezza Rice and Natan Sharansky fatally confused the concepts of ‘political culture’ and ‘form of government,’ and the latter in their scheme of things ousted the former. The democratic regimes in countries where they exist in earnest are a result of independent socio-political development of those countries and peoples. Perhaps only in Japan was a “working” liberal democracy introduced from outside.

Political culture is far more important than a form of government. The culture of tolerance and respect for the rights of minorities – ethnic, religious, sexual and other – is much more important than a democratic form of government and the related procedures, such as free multiparty elections. However, such a liberal political culture is absent from the Arab-Muslim world – and the introduction of a new, formally democratic form of government will not lead to the triumph of liberal values and the rejection of violence as a means of resolving internal and external conflicts.

The freest elections in the Middle East – in Turkey, Iran, Lebanon and the Palestinian Autonomy – brought to power much more fundamentalist forces than those which had been at the helm of government before. Even in Israel the positions of traditionalists and religious fundamentalists grow stronger from election to election, although on the whole the country remains the only example of liberal democracy in the region.

In this regard, it is important to soberly assess prospects for multiparty democratic elections in Egypt. These elections, even if they do not lead to the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood, will give it a firmer foothold. The Muslim Brotherhood, founded in 1928, has been under a ban in Egypt since 1954. This complicated its activity, but at the same time lent it an aura of martyrdom, by tradition very positively perceived by the public at large. Essentially, during the demonstrations in January-February 2011 the Muslim Brothers for the first time in many years really came out of hiding and openly engaged in mass public rallies. Incidentally, the current head of Egypt, Defense Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi, speaking in Al-Tahrir Square, publicly stated that the Muslim Brotherhood is worthy of at least one seat on a future government. In the committee called Coalition for Change and numbering fifty members the Muslim Brotherhood is represented by four delegates. On February 15 the leaders of the movement announced plans for establishing a political party.

Immediately after the announcement of these intentions 67-year-old head of the Muslim Brotherhood Mohammed Badi, who had been imprisoned for nine years for political activity, gave an interview in which he urged Arab and Islamic countries to cooperate “for the implementation of projects against colonialism, Westernization, and Zionist hegemony.” He said: “We are appealing to the nation with a request to unite in the face of the Zionist entity [Badi and many others in the Arab-Muslim world refer to Israel in this way – Author.] and the Western project.” On February 11, 2011, Sami Abu-Zuhri congratulated the Muslim Brotherhood on behalf of Hamas upon victory over the Mubarak regime and expressed the hope that the new Egyptian authorities would help lift the Israeli siege from Gaza.

Intensification of contacts between the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas in the immediate vicinity of the borders with Israel can bring about (and probably has already brought about) joint plans for action against the Jewish state, which may trigger a local or large-scale armed confrontation. It is quite obvious that in case the Islamists come to power in Egypt, there will emerge a likely threat to Israel. As Grigory Kosach has rightly pointed out, for Egyptian society peace with Israel “has always remained ‘cold’ and the preservation of that peace was always determined by the authoritarian nature of the Egyptian authorities (and the authorities in any other country in the Arab world), which almost completely ignored the public mood in conducting its foreign policy.”

In the Middle East, we see a vicious circle, where Islamists are bound to grow stronger in any case – if not in the short, then in the medium and long term for certain. On the one hand, Marina Sapronova was right when she argued that in the Middle East “Islamization… is tantamount to democratization.” On the other hand, resistance to democratization is also unable to modify the common vector. As Ruprecht Polenz, a Middle East expert and head of the Bundestag committee on foreign policy, has pointed out, “the longer an authoritarian government is in power, the greater the likelihood the Islamist movements will grow stronger.” Authoritarian governments do not permit the freedom of speech and of the press, but they cannot ban religion, so public debate, impossible in the media, moves under the arches of the mosques, where Islam acquires a high degree of politicization. There is no one in the Middle East for liberal countries to support: both military juntas and Islamists do not agree with Western political culture, and the Western path of development gradually turns irrelevant in the Arab-Muslim world.

In the past, whenever someone said that the military are a barrier to Islamists, Algeria and Turkey were always quoted as examples. Clearly, however, one cannot discuss how “democratic” a regime that relies exclusively on the military really is; a “garrison state” is not a synonym, but an antonym of democracy. In any case, for the Western world and for Israel both scenarios – a prolonged reign of a military junta in Egypt and a sharp growth of Islamists – spell a significant deterioration of the situation.

The director of the Institute of Oriental Studies under the Russian Academy of Sciences, Vitaly Naumkin, must be right as he says that even if we assume that the Muslim Brothers become an influential legal force, they will not press for denunciation of the peace treaty with Israel, but will accept this agreement as a political reality. The example of Turkey, where Islamists came to power but avoided breaking diplomatic relations with Israel, supports this conclusion. However, the government of Recep Tayyip Erdogan sent a flotilla of solidarity to Gaza, which resulted in tragic events and the death of nine people and which put the Israeli-Turkish relations on the verge of disruption. If a new Egyptian leadership chooses to follow a similar course, then there will surely be a very different Middle East, and Israel will not have a single strategic ally in the region.

Israel has been eyeing with particular attention what has been happening in neighboring Jordan, where the danger of Islamists coming to power has long been considered high (in the 1970s-1980s Israel also considered as very likely the fall of the Hashemite dynasty, but under pressure from the PLO). It is critical for Israel to retain Jordan as an independent state, not regarding its territory as a springboard for an attack on the Jewish neighbor. For many decades, the preservation of Jordan’s status quo has been considered crucial for Israel.

As political columnist Shalom Yerushalmi, writing for the Israeli newspaper Ma’ariv, said back in mid-February, “Benjamin Netanyahu is watching what is happening in Egypt, and he sees before him two scenarios: Turkey-1 and Turkey-2. The first scenario is Turkey of Ataturk and the followers of the secular revolution he had started, which turned the country into a modernized and relatively liberal society, where Islam ceased to play the central role. The second option is Turkey of Erdogan and the ruling Islamic party. Turkey-1 has always maintained strong ties with Israel. Turkey-2 entered into conflict relations with Israel, but has not completely broken connections with Jerusalem.” Yerushalmi believes that such a model would suit Israel, but there is a risk that events in Egypt may follow the Iranian scenario. “What in Tehran in 1979 began as a revolution of intellectuals, youth and the middle class, who opposed Shah Reza Pahlavi, quickly degenerated into a radical Islamic regime that terrifies the entire Middle East. Of late, Netanyahu has often mentioned the name of Shahpour Bakhtiar, the first Iranian prime minister during the period of anti-Shah riots, who ruled in Tehran until Ayatollah Khomeini and his cohorts finally took power in their own hands. Such a scenario, many in Israel fear, may have a replay in Egypt, if the Muslim Brotherhood participates in bodies of power or simply seizes power by force.”

Political columnist Ari Shavit, a great authority in the Israeli intellectual community, fears that under the cover of democratization slogans many Arab countries of the Gulf will come under the control of Iran. “Under the slogan of liberation from oppression by dictators radical Islam will take control of many of the Arab countries. Peace between Israel and the Palestinians and between Israel and Syria would be impossible. Peace agreements with Jordan and Egypt will gradually come to naught. Islamist, neo-Naserite and neo-Ottoman forces will be shaping the image of the Middle East. The Arab revolution of 2011 may have the same plight as the revolution of 1789 in Europe: it will be usurped by some Arab Napoleon, who will use the revolutionary aspirations and turn the revolution into a series of sanguinary wars,” Shavit speculates.

Democratization inevitably leads to Islamization and the arising dilemma looks insoluble to the author, and not only him. On the one hand, Shavit writes that “the Americans are right as they take the side of the masses demanding rights and freedoms, this is the correct approach from the historical point of view.” However, he is quick to remark that “the Americans are wrong as they contribute to the collapse of the regimes that have been their allies in the Middle East, and with their own hands they pave the way for the victory of the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran.” How and why the right goes wrong Ari Shavit does not explain, and this fully reflects the confusion of minds that reigns in Israel and in the Western world about the ongoing events in the Greater Middle East. Years-old dreams of democratization in the Arab world, by virtue of their assumed inaccessibility, made one hope for eternal moral superiority and the opportunity to condescendingly look down at the world below. However, sometimes dreams come true – but, as it has turned out, no one is ready for this.