Interview with Prof. Moshe Ma’oz: Israel and the Arab Spring

28 September 2012
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BILGESAM’s Middle East Specialist Tuğçe Ersoy Öztürk has conducted an interview with Prof. Moshe Ma’oz on Israel’s perceptions of the developments taking place in the Arab Spring process. Prof. Moshe Ma’oz is renowned for his expertise in Arab and Middle East affairs and his studies on the region’s political, economic and ideological trends.

Question: What is Israel’s perception of the Arab Spring?

Initially there were reactions by politicians, and scholars in Israel that the countries are going to be militantly radical according to the Iranian model. And there were other people like me who said “no, let’s wait and see that it is not an Islamic winter.”  What you see is something particularly remarkable; it is still early to say but what you see is Islamic democracy in the Middle East: in Tunisia with en-Nahda movement, al-Ghannushi and in Libya which people thought that Libya is going to be very militant, no it is a liberal Islamic country. Even in the Tunisian elections, I have seen that Muslims--consciously or unconsciously--are going to adopt or to adjust to the Turkish model, which is an Islamic country, or I would say a regime which is moderate, liberal. All have different shapes but, you can count on these kinds of regimes all over the world. They are in Tunisia, Malaysia and in other countries, too. So, the result, I think, is very important and of course the officials are also very cautious. On the other hand, the new regimes and all republics are more and more interested in the Palestinian issue. Unfortunately many Israelis and especially the government do not understand that the Palestinian issue is the nectar of solidarity to main Muslim publics and regimes in the Middle East, including Turkey.

Question: Do you think whether the Arab Spring offers a useful model for attaining the regional peace through political transformation?

There is all over the Arab world a political transformation from authoritarian, military regimes to the emergence of new regimes which support democracy. Now, the people are represented. However, in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt and in other countries we did not have very much what we have dreamt. You know Yemen was in sort of a fight between tribes. Syria is a very interesting case, and we are going to see what sort of transformation it is going to be, from a dictatorship, an Alawite dictatorship, into maybe a more political system whether it is going to be militant or moderate we do not know. But it is fascinating to watch. In other countries, in monarchies we did not have any change because of the Islamic attachment, Islamic link to Prophet Muhammad, for instance in Morocco and in Jordan, the Hashemites and in Saudi Arabia. They are going to stay with their political system. They are not going to change soon.

Question: Jordan's King Abdullah said that "The Arab uprisings have obviously increased Israel’s isolation". What can you say on the Israeli situation concerning the revolutions and transformations in the region?

The main issue, as I keep saying and I insist, is the Palestinian issue, Israel should understand this. And I really want to get to the Arab Saudi Initiative of 2000 which was supported by all Muslim nations. We are willing to recognize it to guarantee the security, normal relations; by this way a Palestinian state would be nice to you. Israeli government has to support it. Now, with the Arab Spring, I think, concerns of the regimes and the populations regarding the Palestinian issue become more and more important since Israel does not settle the Palestinian issue, on the contrary Israel puts off the Palestinian issue. Israel does not renew the negotiations with the Palestinians; Israel did more settlements and Israel takes more land. Israel is isolated not only in the Middle East, but also in Europe, and I think Obama is also exercising pressure on Israel because he is very much concerned with Israel. This question is so important because Israel is getting more and more isolated because of its policy against the Palestinians. And also there is a kind of anti-democratic, very euphemistic policy inside Israeli government. The image of democracy, a liberal democracy in the world is a fraud.

Question: How did Israel greet the election results in Egypt? Was the election of Muslim Brothers a surprise for Israeli politicians? Do you think that Muslim Brothers would “Islamize” the politics and create hostility towards Israel?  

It was not a surprise. It is not the images that many Israelis think that all the Muslim Brothers are militant, anti-Semitic. No, even the Egyptian government know the Muslim Brothers, they have, how can I say, very extreme ideology; but in practice they behave differently. I mean, ever since, there are signs that they are going to work on Islamic democracy. Also they need the policy to balance between these powers: China, Russia, and United States; in the Middle East too, Turkey, Israel and Iran; they are balancing these. They just appointed the new Egyptian ambassador to Israel, they keep peace with Israel. This image that most of them are going to wage a war against Israel is totally not true. If you are in the regime, in power, you have to pay consideration into all kinds of constrains. And the constraints are that there are 85 million Egyptians. And the governments of Muslim Brothers have to feed them. They need the help from United States.  They need to keep peace with Israel. I hope very much that this regime would be more democratic, in the sense of not the Western view of democracy, not American democracy, but Islamic democracy which provides representation, equality, and a good treatment of minorities and women.

Question: Lately, Egypt’s SCAF leaders Hussein Tantawi and Sami Anan were persecuted by Morsi. How was this move received in the Israeli political arena? What are the consequences from the Israeli viewpoint?

The Israeli government did not like the result of the elections. Muslim Brothers took 45 % percent and then the Salafis 28% percent with al-Nour Party and they said “OK, at least we have another center of power than the military.” Then Morsi dismissed Tantawi, Israelis were worried that the new regime is going to be very anti-Israel. But again this atmosphere of fear of Islam… I do not buy it. Because even the new regime, with General Al-Sisi as the new chief of Staff and Minister of Defense, was in touch with the Defense Minister of Israel; they discussed the issue of Sinai. Look, it is an issue of interest. Ideologies OK, but interests are different. So, the Israelis are going to adjust the new situation. Egypt is not a Mubarak any longer. There is Morsi, we can live with that. Again and again, I have to say there is not one Israeli view; an idiom explains this very well:  “two Jews and four views.” I am talking about the major trends.

Question: What will be, in your view, the attitude of the new government in Egypt toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Will the new government in Egypt support the Palestinian resistance front, I mean Hamas?

Egypt sees the Palestinian issue as the most important one. This is the conflict of also the population, it begins with the population. If the Egyptians can contribute, this makes sense between Hamas and the PLO (Palestinian Liberation Organization), because they have good contacts with both. And they have an interest on Hamas; Egypt and also Turkey, I believe, can together bring the Palestinians from both sides, I mean from West Bank and Gaza, to work together for a Palestinian state in Israel. So, Israel is very cautious that Egypt and Turkey will do something in this way.

Question: What is the Israeli position concerning Syria? What do the Israeli officials think about Assad’s fall?  It’s good for Israel if Assad falls or the opposite?

Initially many Israelis, including government officials, still think that it is better to work with the devil that we know, meaning Bashar because “he is pragmatic; he is also corrupt, we can bribe him and also we are worried about the chemical weapons, at the end we have to be in touch with him.” But more and more Israelis, and also the government officials, think he cannot last because of his brutality and they support the rebels, most of the rebels. The idea is that strategically Israel’s friend may win if the regime of Bashar goes. The new regime--we do not know what kind of regime would become--but we already know it is going to be Sunni Muslim. They are going to disconnect the relations with Iran and Hezbollah, and this is going to be a strategic advantage for Israel. Also from the humanitarian point of view, Israel should support, and I would say, Israel should announce its support for Muslim moderates. Israel should signal to the Sunni Muslim world that we support the Sunni Muslim world against the common threat of Shia Islam in Iran.  But, for the time being, Israel helps, you know, refugees in Jordan.

Question: What’s your analysis of the interference of foreign powers in Syria? Do you believe that a possible intervention would solve the problems in Syria?

Libya had an intervention, and Syria did not have one. This is why the regime is still holding on in Syria. It can continue but I do not know for how long.  But here I believe that as a leader, Turkey can make difference with the backing of NATO and United States, not for invading the country but to establish no flight zone, security zone in northern Syria. Whereby you have the rebels, the Muslim Brothers and maybe the refugees and, gradually but slowly more, and more of the Syrian territory to Aleppo, this can make a change. I cannot see that American or NATO planes going and bombing Syria; they do not want to do it. Turkey can do it, again I cannot speak for Turkey, and Turkey has its own agenda. But I think that Turkish Prime Minister is really upset about what is going on there and I think it is tough for Turkey to do something about it. Not Iraq because in Iraq you have some sympathy to Bashar by Iraqi (Shiite) Prime Minister Nouri al- Maliki, Lebanon is too weak. Only Turkey, with 900 km border and a very strong army, can do something to change. I do not think it is going to work, but this is a possibility.  

Question: So far today, Tunisia is believed to be the only successful country following the revolution. Do you believe that Tunisia is really successful? Egypt is not yet a stable country, Syria is in a civil war. What’s your idea about the status quo in Tunisia? Has the country realized its objectives?

We can see that the results are moderate liberal Islamic regime and it is very good symbol. But of course each country has its own reasons for it. One reason for this is that women in Tunisia were very strong and educated and they have influence on the politics. This is the reason why the regime is so liberal. And I think that it could be a model for other countries. Of course, we cannot dismiss the Salafis, they are very militant but they are small. And the government can bring it which as I say according to the Turkish model. Turkish model is smooth. Everybody consciously or unconsciously is trying to imitate this model: this is Muslim country, a Muslim regime but a moderate and liberal regime that cares for its people and represents them.

Question: Can we say that the United States has been a loser in the Arab Spring since it lost two of its key allies: Ben Ali in Tunisia, Mubarak in Egypt. According to you, what is waiting for the U.S. in the future?

The United States has established good relations with Tunisia and with Morsi in Egypt. As I told you earlier, Egypt is trying to balance between them and others; but Egypt is dependent on United States very much and they take care of it. Egyptians get 2 billion dollars a year from United States. And the military in Egypt is armed with American weapons. I think that America was involved in the deposing of kicking out Mubarak. They supported this act. According to some reports, they also talked to Tantawi in order for him not to cause trouble to Morsi, to adjust. Some say that they were behind the coup inside, you know, they were afraid of Tantawi, so they supported it. I think the Americans are adjusting to it and they need to adjust to it because they suffered major setback especially in Iraq, you know this invasion in 2003 which is still very painful and in Afghanistan. And there is also the Arab-Israeli issue, and they should do their best to correct it.

Question: Some analysts suggest that Israel is the winner of the Arab Spring. Do you agree with this idea? What has Israel won or what has she lost?

The Arab world is in chaos. One is fighting another one. Egypt is a central country of the Arab world. Do we have any change in security, safety and stability? Do we have a change though? Tunisia and Libya are more stable. Jordan remains stable; Saudi Arabia remains stable, only Syria has problems. Lebanon, Hezbollah intercepted by the Arab Spring. So, I think this image that Israel is winning or losing is wrong. Israel is also hammering on the same issue. If Israel has the sense to continue to renew the peace process with the Palestinians, it would be very helpful because the Arab world is expecting more than before. Because before, the regimes were stopping the tendency of the masses vis-à-vis the Palestinian issue. But now, they joined the masses, the publics in this respect.

Question: What are the impacts of Arab Spring on Palestinians? Do you think that a mass movement could occur in the occupied territories?

Palestinians are not very much affected. For them, the main issue is the Israeli occupation and also the division between Hamas and PLO so the Arab Spring, I think, did not make a very big difference. With whom are the Palestinians going to fight? The Arab Spring is picking the nations forward against the regime. Here? No. I mean the regimes, PLO in the West Bank and Hamas in the Gaza Strip; they were already elected by their people. Mainly, if the issue is at all to work against the Israeli occupation, we do not see very much of this.  So, I will say that they probably expect that the Arab countries, when they become more stabilized, would be more involved in the Arab - Israeli relations and so with United States. Arab Spring put, left let the Palestinians isolated, aside, it did not affect them very much.  

Question: The Peace Process is now dead. What has to be done to revive a real process which would end with concrete gains?

In Egypt, they should exercise pressure on both sides, especially on Israel. But Israel is the strong party and the government is stubborn. The government of Israel blames the Palestinians for not promoting the peace process. It is not true. Palestinians want, Israelis do not want peace. Israel, as I said, put more settlements and more restrictions. So, I think only the U.S., if Obama is re-elected of course, and European Union, the new government in Egypt, and Turkey (although we have problems with Turkey) all of them should convince and induce Israel to do it.  The main issue is that it is the interest of Israel to settle the Palestinian issue. Because otherwise Israel is going to stand by an apartheid-type of a regime. Then, Israel is going to be isolated in all over the world.

Question: Some believe that the Middle East revolutions will bolster Iran’s regional dominance and lead to the weakening of Israel’s position in the region. What do you think?     

What Iran is doing, Israelis don’t understand it. They are trying to develop a nuclear facility to counter balance the Israeli nuke and to have balance of power in the Middle East. This is what is going to happen. Actually, nobody can stop Iran from having a nuclear capability. Then you have the balance of power between the two. Israel is not the only one, because Turkey is an important power, Egypt is going to be an important power. So it is not only Israel, but Israel would, maybe, be more inclined to settle the Palestinian issue. This is not that I support the Iranian regime, but they say that Israel has monopoly of power; that they can do whatever they want; that they do not want to settle the Palestinian issue. But once Israel has another country to balance its power, maybe we will change also with the Palestinian issue.

Question: Do you believe that after the Arab Spring ends, democracy would reign in the region? Would there be peace and stability in the region? What do you think the future of the Middle East would be?

We hope very much, but there are so many dangers in the region. As I said there is a danger of the Iranian Shia threat not only to Israel; but to Saudi Arabia, Jordan, the Gulf, maybe even Turkey will not be very comfortable.  So, I do not see a peace going on, but maybe a balance, a new balance of power. And I would say that the best case scenario would be that Israel should join a coalition of the Sunni countries, composed of Arabs and non-Arabs like Turkey, a cultural and strategic alliance to contain Iran. And also I believe again, and I’m sorry that I keep saying it again and again, once we settle the Palestinian issue, even Iran would not have the pretext and motive to be hostile towards Israel. And they (the leaders) say time and again “if Palestinians and Israel settle, who are we to intervene? We are not going to solve the problem; we are going to be in the issue.” I don’t see any peace here but I think maybe some sort of balance of power. And this depends very much on the various players; of course United States would be an important actor, because it is the American interest to bring stability to Middle East.  


Moshe Ma’oz

Moshe Ma’oz, professor emeritus of Hebrew University's Department of Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies at the Faculty of Humanities, is renowned for his expertise in Arab and Middle East affairs.  He is a Hebrew University alumnus and a previous director of the university’s Harry S. Truman Research Institute for the Advancement of Peace.
Professor Ma'oz is presently a senior researcher at the Institute and a faculty member in its Middle East Unit working with Arab and Israeli researchers, examining the region’s political, economic and ideological trends. He has been a visiting professor, scholar and fellow at many leading universities and institutions around the world. He has served Israel’s Knesset as an advisor on Arab Affairs, and was a member of official advisory committees that counseled Prime Ministers’ Shimon Peres and Yitzhak Rabin. His scholarly works focus on Middle Eastern politics, with several published in Arabic as well as Hebrew and English.

Tuğçe Ersoy Öztürk

Tuğçe Ersoy Öztürk is graduated from Galatasaray University, Faculty of Communication. She pursued her studies in France at Université Lyon II, Political Studies Institute, Center for Research on Mediterranean and Near East. She obtained her Master’s degree from Middle East Technical University, in the field of International Relations, Middle East Studies Program. In 2010-2012, she worked as research fellow on Middle Eastern issues and as program coordinator at the Turkish Asian Center for Strategic Studies (TASAM). Currently, she is pursuing her PhD studies at Marmara University, Middle East Institute. She is employed as a research fellow for the Middle East Research division at Wise Men Center for Strategic Studies (BILGESAM).

Her research focuses on the actual Middle Eastern politics, the Israeli-Palestinian Issue, (the conflict, peace process and its resolution), Jewish and Palestinian identities and Israeli foreign policy.

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