With popular uprisings boiling over across the Muslim world, how does emerging democracy impact the Middle East’s political process? How does Israel fit into the picture?
Before turning to his interviewing duties, Thomas L. Friedman, foreign affairs columnist for The New York Times, kicked off Aspen Ideas Festival’s July 1st event “Israel, the ‘Arab Spring,’ and Us” with some tongue-in-cheek optimism, expressing his hope that the next time he and his fellow speakers were invited to the Aspen festival, their talk would be titled, “The Israel-Palestine Peace: Five Years Later.”
This optimism, however, quickly dwindled.
“We’re clearly heading for the latest train wreck” between Palestine and Israel, said Friedman. In September, Palestine will make its bid for a place in the UN as a legitimate nation, and Israel will try to derail it, he said. So, he asked, “What does that potential train wreck tell us about the whole state of Palestinian-Israeli relations?”
Leon Wieseltier, literary editor of The New Republic, thinks Palestine’s Salam Fayyad is taking a discouragingly hard line, and Israel’s Netanyahu is not being reasonable either. Fayyad, Wieseltier said, is already building a proto-state and its institutions. After it’s complete, the political declaration will come. Wieseltier had an interesting choice of word for this approach: Zionist.
According to Wieseltier, the so-called “Arab Spring” began with Fayyad’s vision of Palestinian sovereignty, but even as Fayyadism falls out of favor (Obama will almost certainly vote against admitting Palestine to the UN in September), revolution in the Arab world will accelerate.
Whereas Wieseltier sees Jewish history as marked by a basic distrust in what he calls “horizontal alliances” and a reliance on “vertical alliances” (looking to authorities like the US for protection), Thomas Friedman pointed out how Egyptians have recently made friends and influenced people more horizontally.
Friedman sees what Egyptians did at the Tahrir Square Revolution and beyond as the creation of a framework for further uprisings. In a decidedly “horizontal” manner, their strength didn’t come from a central leader or authority; it came from the people blogging, tweeting, and posting Facebook updates. Shutting down the Internet was President Hosni Mubarak’s biggest mistake, he observed, because it forced all those people out onto the street.
The Egyptian citizens killed in clashes with authorities are remembered as martyrs. Take this martyr story and spread it beyond Egypt, and every leader of an oppressive Middle Eastern regime is a “dead man walking,” Friedman says.
The Arab Spring means that Islam is now becoming an acceptable political force in the Middle East. We may see the emergence of legitimate Islamic parties, even moderates, Friedman and Wieseltier agreed. In order to deal with this new paradigm, Israelis will have to be prepared to make horizontal relationships with their neighbors. In short, Israel will now be put to the test.