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Editorials 07 February, 2011

Why is Israel Worried about the Tunisian Revolution?

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Mahmoud Muhareb

Mahmoud Muhareb is professor of Political Science, and has published several books, as well as other research, on Zionism, Israel, the Palestinian Question and the Arab- Israeli Conflict. Since 2001, he has been teaching political science and Israeli studies at the Institute for Area Studies at Al-Quds University, where he also served as director from 2003-2006. Prior to this, from 1990-2000, he taught political science and cultural studies at Bethlehem University, and between the years 1989-1992 he was the editor of Qadaya Research Magazine in Occupied East Jerusalem. From 1987-1990, he was director of the Research Centre in The Arab Studies Society in Occupied East Jerusalem. He received his B.A. in Political Science from the Hebrew University in Jerusalem; in 1986, he received his PhD in Political Science from the Department of Politics at Reading University, England.

Following the 1993 Oslo agreements, Tunisian-Israeli relations improved under the auspices of the agreement, and with the encouragement of the United States. In April 1996, Israel opened an interest office in Tunis, and, in May of that year, Tunis reciprocally opened an interest office in Tel Aviv. After the breakout of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, Tunisia shut down its office in Tel Aviv. However, despite this, unofficial relations between the two sides continued in various sectors, including tourism and trade; Israeli tourists to Tunisia in the past few years have exceeded ten thousand visitors annually.

Israel actively developed its economic ties with Tunisia over the past few years in the sectors of tourism, trade, and investment. There are no public figures available regarding the size of the economic relations between Israel and Tunis since such transactions have generally remained below the radar. However, on rare occasions, some information has emerged. On October 19, 2008, for example, Israeli financial daily Globes published an article titled, "Tunisia: An Opportunity Under Your Nose", in which the author mentioned that Israeli businessmen and investors were showing an increased interest in Tunisia, and that they were aiming - in light of the development and growth of the Tunisian economy - to strengthen trade ties and increase investments in the country. The article mentioned that the Tunisian government had offered an Israeli company a contract to build a $200 million cement factory, and that negotiations had reached an advanced level between the two parties; in fact, talks were so advanced that the Israeli company's CEO had visited Tunis in 2008, and had surveyed the 700-dunum plot of land to the south of Tunis where the projected factory was to be built.[1]

Culturally, Israel also sought to normalise cultural relations with Tunisia. In this context, Haaretz mentioned that Israelis had contacted Tunisian publishing houses, and proposed that Israeli novels be published in Arabic translations. The newspaper did not reveal the name of the Tunisian publishing houses, but cited the director of the Center for Translating Hebrew Literature, who said that there was much pressure against normalising relations between Israel and the Arab states.[2]


ISRAELI CONCERNS OVER THE TUNISIAN REVOLUTION

In January, despite the multitude of internal events in Israel that occupied the attention of the Israeli media and public opinion, such as the rape charges issued against former Israeli president Moshe Katsav, the division of the Labour party, and the growing problems of the designated army chief-of-staff, which may prevent him from assuming his post in mid-February, Israeli media extensively covered the events in Tunisia. In the media, concern grew as the situation developed from protests into a popular revolution that brought down the Tunisian regime led by Ben Ali. This concern was reflected in political and security decision-making circles, and in the media organizations that deal with Arab affairs in newspapers and research centers. Since the start of the protests in Tunisia, the Israeli security-political leadership has held several consultation meetings, and has followed the development of demonstrations and the revolution through reports issued by the security apparatus, phone calls to Tunisian-Jewish leaders, and through "Israeli figures present in Tunisia".[3]

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu mentioned the Tunisian revolt upon its success, and the Tunisian President's "escape," at the beginning of the Israeli Cabinet meeting on January 16, 2011. It is important to note that Netanyahu's comment was that the Tunisian revolution would upset "regional security" (i.e., the type of security that maintains repressive, corrupt regimes in Arab nations that comply with the Israeli-US agenda in the region). Netanyahu stated that the lesson to be learned from the Tunisian revolution was to emphasize the security aspect of any peace settlement. He added, "the region that we live in is unstable, and we can see this in several parts of the region that we live in".[4] After the success of the revolt, Israeli officials expressed concerns that Tunisia would cut off its unofficial ties with Israel.[5] In this context, Silvan Shalom, Israeli Vice Prime Minister, expressed fears saying, "there is a genuine concern that after the success of its coup, Tunisia will align itself with extremist forces in the Arab world".[6]

Many experts in Arab affairs in Israeli think-tanks and media organisations published articles about the Tunisian events, examining the reasons for the revolt, the development of events, and the factors that led to its success, as well as Israeli fears that this success at bringing down a repressive, corrupt regime would become a model for other such attempts in the Arab world. In a paper titled, "The Repercussions of the Tunisian Regime's Collapse on the Arab World", Shlomo Brom, senior research fellow at the Institute for National Security Studies at Tel Aviv University discussed the reasons behind the Tunisian revolt and the development of its events; then, he turned to the revolt's repercussions on other Arab states. He mentioned that popular demonstrations and signs of protest had been increasing in the recent past across Arab states. He added, "It appears that most Arab states have extensive tools to control widespread ‘vandalism', and will succeed in controlling events in the near future". 

As for the long-term effect of the Tunisian revolt on Arab states, Shlomo Brom said that this would depend on the results achieved by the Tunisian revolt. If elections are held, and a solid democratic system is established in Tunisia, then other Arab societies would aim to replicate the Tunisian model. In this context (i.e., the possibility of the Tunisian model spreading to the Arab states), Brom warns that "Israel must be worried about developments in its neighbouring states, such as Jordan and Egypt." The Egyptian regime has been in a state of turmoil for a while now due to President Husni Mubarak's age and uncertainty over his successor's identity. Jordan is in economic crisis, and large portions of the population are dissatisfied with the regime. Sholmo Brom concludes his article by saying, "It appears that these two regimes are stable in the short term, but there is a reason to worry about their long-term stability".[7] 

In the daily newspaper Israel Hayom, researcher Eyal Zisser, head of the Moshe Dayan Center at Tel Aviv University, discusses the ramifications of the Tunisian revolution on Arab states in an article titled, "A Dangerous Vacuum around Israel". Zisser affirms that the Tunisian revolution has given a strong impetus to protest movements in Arab states, but he also expresses his confidence in the Arab regimes' ability to suppress this. At the same time, he expresses a deep concern over what he describes as the dangerous vacuum resulting from the Arab regimes' isolationism, which has led to the entrance of Iran and Turkey into the region, and their increasing roles, and concludes by expressing fears that Israel may suffer from the consequences of this.[8]


What is Israel afraid of?

Israel's worries about the Tunisian revolution may be summarized in the following points:

1. Tunis will cut off all (unofficial) ties with Israel.

2. The popular civilian revolt in Tunis will become an attractive model for other Arab peoples who are suffering from oppression, dictatorship, and corrupt regimes, and that these peoples will overthrow their regimes, as the Tunisian people did.

3. The Tunisian revolution will lead to the establishment of a stable, solid democracy in Tunisia that will offer a successful model for other Arab nations, who will attempt to establish similar democracies.

4. Israel considers that the continuing presence of current Arab regimes, and their stability, is the best option for it. Israel's worst-case scenario is the creation of democratic Arab states. From Israel's point of view, democratic Arab states would diminish, or even eliminate, the gap between the people and their elected leadership in terms of Arab states' relations with Israel. And since Israel knows full well that the Arab peoples do not support it, or its hostile policies towards the Palestinian and Arab people, it considers that Arab democracies would express their people's true feelings towards Israel. Consequently, this would lead to a strategic, or policy, change towards Israel in the Arab world, and would transform Arab policies towards Israel from submissive and servile to more hostile and confrontational.

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  • [1] Michal Margalit. (19 October 2008 ). "Tunis: An Opportunity Under your Nose". Globes. http://www.globes.co.il/news/article.aspx?did=1000390132.
  • [2] "For the First Time, Tunisia Expresses an Interest in Translating Hebrew Literature into Arabic". (27 December 2010). Haaretz. http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1206130.html
  • [3] "Israeli Fears of an Extremist Regime in Tunisia". (15 January 2011). nana. http://news.nana10.co.il/article/?ArticleiD=773193
  • [4] Barak Ravid and Zvi Bar'el. (16 January 2011). "Prime Minister Netanyahu: The Coup in Tunisia is an Example of the Region's Instability". Haaretz. http://www.haaretz.co.il/hasite/spages/1209862.html
  • [5] "Netanyahu: Tunisia is Proof that Security Must be Maintained". (16 January 2011).  Israel Armed Forces Radio Website. http://glz.co.il/newsArticle.aspx?newsid=75755
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Shlomo Brom. (18 January 2011). "The Effect of the Tunisian Regime's Collapse on the Arab world". NISS website. http://www.inss.org.il/upload/(file)1295359036.pdf
  • [8] Eyal Zisser. (23 January 2011). "A Dangerous Vacuum around Israel". Israel Hayom. http://www.israelhayom.co.il/site/newsletter_opinion.php%3fid%3D5434