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Ilan Pappe in Haifa: The Arab Spring Puts Israel Against the Historical Trend

Historian Ilan Pappe is in Palestine, in homeland visit. On Thursday, 3.1.2013, he was a guest of “Herak Haifa” (حراك حيفا – Haifa Action) for a lecture on “The Arab Spring storm – how does it affect the opportunities for solving the Palestinian problem?”

“Haifa AlGhad” Club in Wadi Nisnas was crowded with activists who came to hear the lecture. Ilan Pappe sat on the couch in an environment where he is not “controversial historian” but a wanted partner. You might say he was “playing on home ground”. Everyone wanted to hear his insights as historian about the exciting events storming our region.

Pappe explained that in historical perspective the last two years are just a moment in time. Historians “guess what happened in the past” and certainly have no tools to predict the future. So what we can do is look at processes that have already begun and try to understand the nature of the new era we are entering.

He stressed that the Arab Spring is not a series of separate events in each country, but a comprehensive process of change that only started and can lead to profound changes in other countries in the region. Beyond that, the Arab Spring is part of a process of change in the global political map, as the “Western” hegemony of Europe and the United States is in crisis. This crisis includes an internal crisis that began with the financial crisis in 2008, during which it became clear to everybody that the heads of the capitalist system were cheating the public, causing deep damage to the economy and society as a whole, and no one is held accountable. Internationally China, India and other countries emerge as a central economic force, which can also affect the geopolitical balance of power. In this situation appears the Arab Spring, based on the direct action of the masses, with “Tahrir Square” a live symbol, as an example that a wide public would like to follow in Europe and all over the world.

Most of the lecture handled the consequences of the Arab Spring on the international scene and the position of Israel. It was evident that Ilan Pappe lives between different worlds, familiar with the ruling elites in Europe as well as left-wing circles. He talks intimately about the emotional aspects that accompany the Crisis of Zionism in the Jewish community and brings new winds from Egypt, where he recently attended a conference to discuss the Arab Spring with old friends from the left and new friends from the Islamic movements. Hovering between these worlds he outlines to the audience the contemporary political scene, seen from above but never remotely, with “Close-Up” on details from every arena and arena.

Changes in the world order

Pappe has characterized the Western hegemony as a world order “in which 10% use 40% of the world’s resources”. Today it is increasingly difficult to maintain this order. There is a danger of excessive use of force in an attempt to stop the erosion of the hegemony of the West, as was the case, for example, in the war in Iraq.

However, the main currently visible trend is the deep internal political crisis in Europe and the United States which accompanies the economic crisis and the erosion of global hegemony. Lack of confidence in the existing political system leads to the formation of a new kind of popular movements. There is a general desire for democratization, to protect the rights of those who were trampled all the time by the system. This is the “Zeitgeist” and it affects every arena and arena.

The new democratic spirit is also affected by technological changes and new tools that enable a wide public to take an active role in the dissemination of information and discussion about it. Today no regime can effectively block discussion. Young people take an important active role in these changes. The younger generation in China is not much different culturally from their brothers in the West. The democratic trends are not restricted only the West, but they can be seen everywhere, including Burma and North Korea.

The Arab Spring, as a democratization movement led by young people and mobilizing the power of a broad popular movement, constitutes an advanced part of this “Zeitgeist” of democratization and a role model for others.

Israel stands out in the world as a negative example of a state and a society which develop in a clear anti-democratic direction.

Undermining Israel’s status

For a long time Israel succeeded to maneuver itself to hold a major role in the global and regional agenda. After the Second World War the West wanted to restore West Germany to “the family of nations” as a cornerstone to its geopolitical alignment. Ben Gurion knew how to make the most financially and maximize Israel’s influence by providing forgiveness to “The Other Germany” in the name of the ultimate victims.

Later Israel was incorporated as a Western fortified outpost in the Cold War. At the end of the Cold War and the declaration of the “end of history”, Israel marketed itself as a modern open society which developed from a third world country to be part of the first. When the Western agenda abandoned “the end of history” and moved to “the war on terror” and the fight against Islam, it enabled Israel’s standing to reach its peak when it presented itself to the West as the most experienced expert on these subjects.

Now the Arab Spring presents a new model of democracy in the Middle East and Israel is exposed more and more as undemocratic. For the first time we see that Israel doesn’t know what to say and can’t adapt to the new era. Israel even fails to play the role of “experts of Arab affairs” for the West – a role based on the Orientalist approach – at this time. New realities in the Arab countries are imposing themselves on the political arena and Western elites get accustomed to working with the new authorities in Arab countries where Israel has no role.

Israel is trying to promote its own picture of the world. They claim that “the Arab spring turned to Islamic winter”. But even according to Israel’s favored scenario, if the West will accept their perspective, adopt a hostile approach toward the new Arab authorities and oppose democratic change in the region – Israel may find itself as a burden on the West and not as an asset that strengthens its control. In Egypt, for example, there is a deep disagreement between the Muslim Brotherhood and the secular opposition, but opposition to Israel and support of the Palestinians are a unifying cause.

Clearly, in a Middle East moving toward democracy, as part of a world where many are fighting for more democracy, when the Palestinian flag is used by everybody as a symbol of the struggle for freedom, Israel finds itself against the stream of history.

These changes will not translate immediately into an end to support for Israel. In the Military sphere and the sphere of interests Israel still has a lot of support – here values​don’t play any role. There are also the Jewish lobby and buying the support of local politicians with money – for example by donations to parties. However, power and corruption alone can’t maintain a political project over time. Support for Israel in the past was based on moral arguments and values, on supportive public opinion – for us it may all seem faked but it was a strong factor. Today all that is changing.

In the past, young Zionist Jews could be leading progressive students’ movements around the world. In today’s campuses they are busy defending Israel as an apartheid regime. For them it is a frustrating and grinding role.

In Israel today there is a majority which openly says “We want a racist Jewish state.” For those who want to continue to live by their lies and claim to be liberal and to protect Israel from a position of justice – the lie is getting harder and ever more tiring.

No wonder Israel today defines its “de legitimization” as a strategic threat. Previously it treated the issue through “Hasbara” (propaganda), diplomacy and foreign relations. Today it is handled also by its security apparatus.

The emerging powers, such as India and China, even if basically their policies will not be more moral, are not committed to Israel as much as the West. They don’t feel guilt for the Holocaust and Christian messianism is not a political factor there. Even in this respect Israel is losing the central standing it enjoyed so far.

The undermining of Israel’s geopolitical position makes the coming years very dangerous – there is a real danger that the government will take aggressive measures in a desperate attempt to stop the deterioration of power to which they are used. A possible attack on Iran is only one scenario that illustrates this danger. We might also witness an intensification of internal repression – the anti-democratic laws that were adopted by the Knesset illustrate this trend.

On the other hand, the deepening crisis can convert positions that were regarded marginal to feasible solutions people are ready to hear. To realize this potential, the people that carry these positions should undergo mental change, after they got used for a long time to be a radical minority whose voice is silenced. We should find the proper means to bring those solutions to the general public as a real alternative.

The solution of the one democratic state in Palestine becomes a hot topic for discussion in academic circles and in the media around the world. Pappe described how he, as one of the best known presenters of this alternative, can’t find time any more for all the requested lectures. But what should supporters of this solution do in order to present it as a real alternative to the public? Overcoming the difficulties of cooperation and building a shared vision between the Arab – Palestinian and Jewish components of this movement are an important part of the answer…

The Arab Spring

The lecture focused, as mentioned, on the analysis of the effects of the Arab Spring on the crisis of Zionism. Not much was said about the “gorilla in the middle of the room” – the Arab Spring itself. However, the general approach presented by Pappe regarding the essence of the Arab Spring was clear. This is a democratic process, in which many and diverse political actors take part, and at its center there is a mass movement which generates the change.

He spoke of the need and possibility for cooperation between the secular left – to which he, and most of the audience who came to hear him, belong – and the Islamic movements which are working for democracy. He mentioned as an example the fruitful cooperation that exists in England between the left, which is very secular and liberal regarding social issues, and the Islamic movements.

Answers to questions

In response to questions from the audience, Pappe clarified a number of additional issues:

  • No. Palestinians could not prevent what was done to them by Zionism. The problem for Zionism was the very existence of the Palestinian Arab inhabitants in the country in which it decided to establish its state, not any specific political position of these residents.
  • Concerning the integration of the Arab Palestinians who are citizens of Israel in the state – over time this integration becomes less possible due to Israel’s racism and therefore attempts to integrate become less attractive. Pappe asked why Arab parties still participate in the Knesset elections despite the lack of any real ability to influence through the Knesset and despite the benefits that Israel derives from this participation.
  • Many different political actors take part in the Arab Spring and there is no realistic possibility of one party taking control. Specifically, there is no danger of Islamic extremists taking control of Syria as its government tries to claim in order to gain legitimacy for it continuing control.
  • In the past the main slogan of the left was “secular democratic state”. Today the main slogan is “one democratic state”. Yes, this is a concession of the secular left. This concession reflects the need, in the conditions of the Arab Spring, to cooperate with Islamic movements in the struggle for democracy. The left should examine critically its own history and the history of the region, remember what was done in the name of the left and on behalf of secularism, and understand the need for flexibility and the central role of democracy in the region’s political agenda in this period.

You may read this report also in Arabic and Hebrew.