What Netanyahu failed to learn from the Arab Spring

Prof. Elie Podeh September 2020
Op-eds / Israel and the Middle East
In March 2011, soon after the “Arab Spring” protests broke out, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said, “The ground is shaking everywhere, from the West Indies to the Straits of Gibraltar… and the only stable country is democratic Israel.”
Almost a decade on, Israel does not appear very stable, nor especially democratic. According to all indications, barring a real change in the government’s performance, Israel is on the verge of regime change. Although not everyone has realized yet that Israel is an integral part of Middle East, the recipe for regime change in Israel is no different than the recipe followed by other countries in the region.
The history of the Arab Spring revolutions suggests that the recipe for regime change includes four essential ingredients:
1. Deep corruption on the part of the rulers and, if possible, of their families, associates and best of all, also of the economic elite, the tycoons.
2. An economic crisis that not only widens the gap between rich and poor but also impoverishes the middle class that constitutes the regime’s main pillar of support.
3. Loss of public trust in the regime, and as a result, loss of its legitimacy and especially of the person at its helm.
4. Media support, especially social media, for a regime change.
The cooking instructions are simple: First, ascertain prolonged, deep frying of the economic crisis, preferably over several months, and then put the “dish” in the oven at a temperature of 30 degrees. If the temperature is too high, a police water cannon might help, but only in the short term.
Second, stir into the mixture a loss of public trust in the regime’s ability to overcome the crisis. If any crumbs of trust are left among certain groups, place these groups under tight lockdown so that they, too, lose what is left of their trust in the regime, and especially in its leader.
The final step is to add the regime corruption to the mix and sprinkle on top generous handfuls of tweets, Facebook posts and stories on Instagram and TikTok, and other social media.
If the recipe sounds somewhat spicy, treat it with a grain of salt, but basically, this is a winning recipe that has proven itself with Hosni Mubarak in Egypt, Muammar Qaddafi in Libya, Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali in Tunisia, Abdullah Saleh in Yemen – and almost with Bashar Assad in Syria, who was saved at the last minute by the Middle East’s new master chef: Russia.
Some may find this amusing, others may see it as entertaining or sad, but the stew cooking in the Israeli political kitchen follows the exact same recipe with all four ingredients.
The corruption in Israel’s “royal house” has risen to incredible proportions.
Although the indictment is now before the court, and every accused is innocent until proven guilty, the extent of the suspicions seems to indicate a pattern of arrogance and egotism on the part of the “royal family,” even if it is hard to prove in court. By the way, the “royal” conduct of “presidential” leaders in the Arab world (including the involvement of their wives and children in politics) was a key element in their downfall.
The failed response by Benjamin Netanyahu and his bloated government to the pandemic-induced crisis has led to an economic collapse, the end of which is nowhere in sight. Even the “backup players,” Benny Gantz and Gabi Ashkenazi, and the entire Blue and White team, which held out the greatest promise of regime change, failed to improve the government’s performance.
As a result, public trust in the political system and in Netanyahu, which were already showing cracks, have been irreparably damaged. Not surprisingly, all these developments are reflected in social media discourse, which has sent masses into the streets, just as was the case in the Arab world upheavals.
Presumably, had the pandemic not left many older Israelis who fear the crowds at home, we would have witnessed the equivalent of the Friday “protests of a million” in Arab town squares.
The existence of these ingredients does not herald a regime overthrow yet. That will depend on a number of hard-to-predict factors, such as the public response, government counter-measures or curbs, the extent of the pandemic’s spread of infections but especially of its economic repercussions, developments in the Netanyahu trial, and more. However, the growing demonstrations by different groups around the country suggest that not only is COVID-19 spreading, so are the protests.
Addressing the Knesset in November 2011 in response to a demand by 40 lawmakers to convene a debate on the government’s diplomatic and economic failures, Netanyahu said he had chosen to “determine our policy according to reality and not to wishful thinking. I ask you today, who was it that did not read reality right? Who did not understand history?”
His rhetorical question was intended to demonstrate that he understood better than others the histories of the Arab states undergoing revolutions. One can argue whether Netanyahu did, indeed, understand the direction of the Arab revolutions better than others, but it is evident that he has not learned the required lessons to forestall such an occurrence in Israel.
The article was originally published on The Jerusalem Post, August 6th 2020.
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