As the ‘Arab Spring’ rolls into an uncertain summer, the recent turmoil already has exposed some regional home truths. The popular unrest that has shaken dictator- ships throughout the Middle East has put to rest the fallacy that Israel is the root cause of Arab anger and the source of the region’s problems. Although there remains little love lost between the Arab world and Israel, it is a hunger for democracy that is fueling the Arab street.
But not only is Israel not the problem in the Middle East, it is, if anything, the solution. If the appetite for freedom in the Arab world is to be satisfied and the dream of regional peace ultimately realized, Israel would be better viewed as a model to be emulated, not vilified. Israel is far from perfect, but throughout the 63 years of its existence, it has stood as lonely proof that the liberty, freedoms and openness demanded by waves of Arab demonstrators can become a reality in the Middle East.
Yet for those who have taken to the streets of Cairo, Benghazi, Tunis and elsewhere, Israel has forever been the scapegoat of their suffering. With Israel regarded as the enemy of everything Arab, its values of democracy, opportunity and equality between men and women have been rejected as “enemy” traits. After decades of condemnation, it may therefore be a bitter pill to swallow (as all effective medicine is) but Israel provides a proximate example of what Arab citizens could attain.
Israel stands out in the Middle East not only as the only non-Arab or non-Muslim state, but as the only country to boast a robust, vibrant and enduring parliamentary democracy. Sometimes, sitting in parliament, I wonder if any other chamber in the world is able to peacefully contain such a mind-boggling spectrum of opinions and backgrounds. Israel’s free press frequently gives voice to even the most dissenting of opinions, including those calling for the state’s dissolution. Meanwhile the country’s justice system is, as it should be, a hyperactive obstacle to the abuse of power, placing necessary and constant checks on the government and army.
Israel’s achievements stand out in particular when one considers its constant struggle to survive and thrive in a hostile environment and its need to balance the values of modernity with respect for thousands of years of Jewish tradition. Israeli society generally has resisted the temptation to wallow in a self-image of victimhood and responded to catastrophes with renewal. Despite the constant threat of war and scarce natural resources, Israel’s nascent democracy grew up and matured quickly, building a home for millions of Jewish refugees pushed out of their homes in Europe and the Middle East.
At its birth, Israel infused the modern idea of political democracy with a traditional Jewish concept of equality, which rejects the need for an intermediary between man and God. The Arab world is similarly rooted in a religious tradition, Islamic, that advocates individual responsibility, respect and learning and, in the absence of an agreed religious authority, is forced to accept dissent. It too can fuse democracy with its ancient values.
Israel is the Middle East’s only democracy, but our vision is to be but one democracy among many. A democratic Arab world would represent unprecedented hope for regional peace – not just a narrow and limited agreement between Israel and the Palestinians, but an all-encompassing accord that would change the face of the Middle East. If anything, the Palestinians, as they move ever closer to gaining their own state, are likely to create one of the Arab world’s first democracies. Indeed, were Israel surrounded by like-minded enlightened societies, the very real Israeli security concerns of today would fade into distant memory. A region devoid of conflict would allow for unparalleled economic and technological cooperation, ultimately fulfilling the material aspirations of the region’s youth.
Israel is not and never has been a real (rather than imagined) obstacle to progress in the Arab world. It is an inspiring model for democratic development amid difficulties and challenges. And now that the Arab world is becoming a source of inspiration to the world at large, Israel stands ready to be an enthusiastic potential partner in forging a region of peace and prosperity.
Einat Wilf, a member of the Knesset within the Independence Party and sits on the Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee.