Report no. 3; Brussels, Belgium; March 2012

Impressions from the Region is a series of publications by Mitvim - The Israeli Institute for Regional Foreign Policies, which present the Israeli public and decision makers with perceptions and questions by Arabs and Muslims, as these are reflected in international policy conferences where representatives from Israel and the region take part. At times when channels for communication between Israel and its neighbors are limited, we find it crucial to distribute this information as a tool for promoting an Israeli foreign policy that encourages peace and regional belonging.

In March 2012, Mr. Kamal Hassan, a policy fellow at Mitvim, participated in a conference held in Brussels on the topic: "The Arab Spring a Year After: Challenges, Prospects and Strategies for Change" (organized by the European Policy Centre, in cooperation with other partners). Among the conference's participants, were a significant number of delegates from European Union and Arab countries, among them the foreign ministers of Belgium and Denmark, parliament members, representatives of embassies, CEOs and researchers from think tanks, journalists, academics, representatives of NGOs, political and social activists, and political party members. The conference served as an opportunity for Mitvim to take part in a broad regional dialogue regarding the Arab Spring and its European context. Below are records of the discussions with the Arab and European peers.

A. Israel and the Arab Spring

Israel's foreign policy is perceived to be aimed at preserving the current situation in the Arab countries in order to protect mutual American-Israeli regional interests. Israel is portrayed as coordinating tactics with the United States with the goal of supporting totalitarian regimes in the Arab world. Israel is also regarded as being disinterested in the establishment of any other democratic country in the region.

It is claimed that over-democratization in the Middle East, as a result of the Arab Spring, will lead to growing pressure on Israel to make a progress in solving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Harsh criticism was voiced about Israel's policy in the Occupied Territories, particularly about the difficulties of Palestinians in their daily life and violations of international law. The settlements and the occupation were presented as factors that challenge regional peace. A demand was released requesting that Europe adopt a more resolute position against Israel.

The Egyptian participants expressed distrust in Egypt's relationship with Israel. This is especially due to Israel's support for Mubarak during the wave of demonstrations, and due to continuing Israeli support for officials who represent the old regime. In their claim, this Israeli policy expresses Israeli reluctance to accept democratization in Egypt and it has created a crisis of confidence among the Egyptian people, reducing the readiness for any kind of ties with Israel more than ever.

If Israel expresses a position that supports the processes of change in the Middle East and promotes the peace process with the Palestinians, then new possibilities of partnerships with Arab countries will be discovered. Until then, members of Israel's civil society that already express such positions will only be able to communicate with their peers in the Arab world through unofficial, track two or track three channels.

The participation of Kamal Hassan, an Arab representative of an Israeli think tank, initiated profound interest among the participants, especially these coming from the Arab countries that were curious to learn about the Palestinian citizens of Israel and the State's treatment of them, as well as other internal Israeli political and social issues.

B. The European Perception Regarding the Arab Spring

The European representatives emphasized their support of the Arab Spring and promised to back any steps that bring about the advancing of democratization in the Middle East. The Europeans perceive the Arab Spring as an opportunity for Europe and Arab states to build a new relationship, based on a democratic discourse and on shared values such as human rights, freedom, and social justice.

There is a general European understanding that the Arab Spring has changed the rules of the game and there is a need to pay attention to the new discourse developing in the Arab world. There is an interest to conduct meetings with experts in the field and hold round table discussions with Arab peers, in order to better understand the regional developments, coordinate actions, and to mutually promote processes of democratization.

European organizations are trying to establish ties with media and civil society organizations in the Arab world in an attempt to identify new social and political players that fill the political vacuum created in some Arab countries. In their attempts, they have run into several difficulties due to the variety of non-governmental bodies that do not have a clear identity or agenda as a result of the concentration of power among Arab media that is affiliated with the old regimes.

C. The Internal Arab Discourse

The internal Arab discourse at the convention was characterized by a variety of opinions and perceptions concerning regional processes and in regard to the differences between Arab countries in the Arab Spring. It was emphasized that in order to understand the processes in the region, one should avoid generalization of the Arab Spring as a homogeneous process and instead, devote efforts to understanding the case of each and ever country. Furthermore, it is important to trace the connection between the societal need for justice and freedom and the need of political and social actors to ascertain control over resources.

The Arab participants have emphasized that Europe, and not the United States, can serve as a model of democratization for the Arab world. Therefore, they expressed an interest in direct European involvement in democratization of the Arab world – European expert supervision and information management during the transition period, even if it lasts for a long time.

The Arab participants presented the civil society as a channel for the promotion of democratization and for challenging dominant Islamic groups. Participants reflected the need to establish think tanks as a tool for shaping and promoting new ideas and perceptions. Nevertheless, it is evident that there is a lack of knowledge and necessary financial resources for doing so. There is an expectation that Europe will assist in this process.

The Egyptian representatives highlighted major challenges that stand before Egypt today - the relationship between the army and the Islamists, anarchistic groups who are trying to shake up the current situation, as well as problems of poverty, unemployment, and ignorance among a significant proportion of Egyptian people.


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