Tel Aviv – Pictures of unarmed demonstrators clashing with police and security forces have become the defining images of the Arab Spring. The wave of mass protests and demonstrations has led to the collapse of despotic regimes including those led by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafi, Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak and Tunisia’s Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali.
In all three cases, the overthrow of these leaders did not come at the hand of the military – the traditional guardian of revolution and political change in the Middle East – but through civil society. In fact, with the orchestration of the Arab Spring, civil society is proving to be a major player in domestic and regional politics.
Although its influence on politics and policy should not be overestimated, civil society’s growing role in shaping policy in the Middle East is creating new potential for cooperation among civil society networks between states, and perhaps between Israel and its Arab neighbours.
Undoubtedly, the Arab Spring has presented challenges for Israel. Yet the opportunities for greater understanding and cooperation also exist in the form of people-to-people relations, whereby civil society organisations could take the lead in forging links between citizens of Arab states and citizens of Israel.
It is no coincidence that social justice protests spread across the entire Middle East, with Israel also staging its own protests, culminating in the largest demonstration in the state’s history. And while the socio-political and economic conditions in the Arab states and Israel could not be any more different, they share a common feature: Arabs.
Many Arab Israelis joined the protests across Israel to back the Arab struggle for equality. The events of the Arab Spring and the Israeli social justice movement have now positioned Arab Israelis as a group with the most potential to bridge the gaps between Israel and its Arab neighbours provided, of course, that their role is cultivated.
The Arab Israeli community is arguably the most vulnerable sector in Israeli society, with Israeli Jewish organisations (in addition to foreign organisations) working to improve its socio-economic wellbeing. A more determined effort on behalf of Israel to improve this particular community’s conditions would have a positive effect not just on Jewish Israeli and Arab Israeli relations, but also on some of Israel’s Arab neighbours, such as Egypt.
The potential for Egyptian civil society networks to be more open and willing to partner with Israeli networks on, for example, economic issues would increase. In other words, Arab Israelis could be a conduit for greater civil society cooperation between Arab states and Israel.
An area with potential to develop as a source of stronger regional cooperation between Israel and Arab states is natural disaster recovery and relief. For example, the recent earthquake in Erci, Turkey provided an opportunity for a thaw in Turkish-Israeli relations, with Israeli specialists providing badly needed assistance to Turkish earthquake victims. And while it is unfortunate that it takes something like a major disaster to spur on cooperation, tragedy has been known to sow seeds of cooperative behaviour.
Here, too, Arab Israelis could play a leading role whereby they would receive emergency training and assist in rescue operations. Training and subsequent employment would lead to better socio-economic conditions and contribute to the greater good of Israeli society in particular, and Arab society in general.
Of course cooperation between civil society organizations in the Arab states and Israel will be significantly affected by the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Chances for success are directly linked to Israel’s actions vis-à-vis the Palestinians east of the Green Line; yet, the more Israel is viewed by the regional community to be genuinely committed to ending the Occupation, concluding final status negotiations with the Palestinians and bringing its Arab sector into the fold, the greater the chance for genuine regional cooperation.
While it may be too early to say that civil society can cure the ills of Middle Eastern societies, its ever-increasing role may be the starting point for new and perhaps surprising cross-border alliances.
( Natalia Simanovsky has worked as a research officer at multiple think tanks in North America and the Middle East. This article was written for the Common Ground News Service).