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Can the Arab Spring really be an Israeli conspiracy?

January 14, 2021 at 12:41 pm

Tunisians for anniversary of the ousting of President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali in Tunis, Tunisia on 14 January 2020 [Yassine Gaidi/Anadolu Agency]

Ever since the launch of the Tunisian revolution ten years ago, some have accused the Arab popular revolutions of being an “Israeli or American conspiracy”. The intention has been to condemn the uprisings and accuse those who took part and paid a high price for doing so of working consciously or unconsciously as part of this conspiracy. It is ironic that opposing parties make the same accusation, given that they hate each other. One is a supporter of the traditional regimes in the region, the so-called “Axis of Moderation” (Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the Arab Gulf States, apart from Qatar), and the other is the “Axis of Resistance” (a political alliance between Iran, the Assad regime in Syria and Lebanon’s Hezbollah).

There is a historical context for the development of the positions of the two axes that must be taken into account, as the former was suspicious of the revolutions and rejected them because of its members’ own alliances with the regimes under threat. There was widespread concern that allies would be lost and the revolutions would spread to all of the “moderate” countries. These were defined as those linked to the US, so when the uprising reached Egypt pressure was put on the Obama administration to support President Hosni Mubarak and not condemn him to the same fate as Tunisia’s ousted President Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.

Hypocritically, when the regime-friendly media in the “moderation” states were promoting the idea of an “Israeli conspiracy” to tear Arab countries apart through the revolutions, their diplomatic teams were coordinating with Israel’s diplomats to exert pressure in Washington and other Western capitals to provide support for the Mubarak regime. Israel did not hide its diplomatic support for Mubarak, and the position of the “moderate” Arab capitals was also clear in terms of rejecting the popular revolutions and describing them as sabotage.

How, then, can we believe the “Axis of Moderation” claim that the revolutions were an “Israeli conspiracy” given the clear position of the occupation state’s leaders? Are we meant to accept that Israel was sending its diplomats to support Mubarak in order for the conspiracy to succeed?

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The “Axis of Resistance” and its supporters, meanwhile, declared their clear support at the beginning of the Arab Spring and considered it to be a revolution against regimes known for normalisation with the occupation and “subservience to the imperialist project”. From within this axis, Iran announced the same position, with Supreme Guide Ali Khamenei viewing the uprisings as an extension of the 1979 Islamic Revolution in his country.

When the Arab Spring arrived in Syria, the positions of this axis began to change, and the opposition to Bashar Al-Assad was viewed as an “Israeli, American and cosmic” conspiracy against the “resistance”. Everyone who supported the uprising in Syria was accused of participating in this conspiracy. However, did Israel actually support the popular revolution against Assad? An analysis of official statements made by Israeli politicians and military officials, as well as the research and studies produced by Israeli think tanks at the beginning of the Syrian revolution, confirms that Tel Aviv was not happy with it.

I do not base this on the explanations by some pro-revolution parties, which believe that the Assad regime’s “hostility” to the occupation state is just an act. Such explanations are no better than the “Israeli conspiracy” theories. Look at what the Israelis actually said.

The occupation state’s leaders were not keen to support the Syrian revolution because they adopted a policy of “better the devil we know than the devil we don’t know”. Bashar Al-Assad’s regime is a continuation of his late father’s regime and it is predictable when it comes to its “dispute” with Israel; the latter has become accustomed to this and knows how to deal with it. Tel Aviv cannot predict what the policies of a post-Assad government might be.

Furthermore, Tel Aviv is aware of the support of all Arab people for the Palestinian cause and their rejection of the Israeli occupation and the Zionist project itself. Hence, it fears genuinely democratic elections in Syria and elsewhere in case they produce a popular government that has a clear mandate to support the Palestinians. This fear is compounded by the success of Islamist parties in Egyptian and Palestinian elections.

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Finally, Israel does not want to see a successful democracy in the Arab world, because this would undermine its narrative that it alone “is the only democracy in the Middle East.” The occupation state uses this narrative to gain support in the West, in terms of public opinion, academia and the media, as well as at government level.

That is why Israel fears the Syrian revolution; it does not support it, and nor does it advocate in the West on behalf of the Syrian opposition. Instead, it prefers to see the situation in Syria move towards a dismantling of the state and the weakening of Israel’s enemies, both the regime and its allies on one hand, and the opposition and popular forces on the other. Unfortunately, this is what has happened due to the Assad regime’s violent security response to the initially peaceful 2011 protests calling for political reforms and the regional interference such a response ultimately enabled.

Moving to the present day, what is Israel’s stance on the Arab Spring countries? It supports the Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi regime, which represents the defeat of the revolution in Egypt, and it supports Field Marshal Khalifa Haftar, the proxy of the counterrevolution in Libya. Israel is afraid of stability in Yemen and a successful democratic transformation in Tunisia. The occupation state is thus clearly backing the counterrevolutionary camp — the “Axis of Moderation” — and is hostile to the Arab revolutions for reasons related entirely to its own interests.

The net result ten years down the line favours Israel. However, the conflict in the Arab world between ordinary people seeking freedom and dignity, and the ruling minorities whose legitimacy comes from Washington and Tel Aviv, is ongoing.

What the Israeli occupation fears the most is the victory of the people in this conflict, because all of the Arab peoples supported Palestine before the revolutions and will continue to do so afterwards. They will not be able to translate their support for the Palestinians, though, unless they first resolve their struggle against tyranny in their own lands.

This article first appeared in Arabic in Arabi21 on 13 January 2021. It has been translated and edited for MEMO.

The views expressed in this article belong to the author and do not necessarily reflect the editorial policy of Middle East Monitor.