In the midst of the U.S. debt crisis came an important, but under-reported, pair of developments in the Middle East, which saw two radically different popular protests in two neighboring but radically different countries.
In Syria, anti-regime demonstrators once again faced off against Assad's forces. There, the army's slaughter of the non-violent activists continues to push the body count north of fifty. Saturday in Israel, by contrast, 50,000 people marched unmolested in the streets of Tel Aviv bemoaning rising housing prices and costs of living. As of now, not a single person has been arrested, let alone killed, as a result of these demonstration. This most recent march caps a week of peaceful Israeli rallies, including a gay pride parade and religious counter-protest in the holy city of Jerusalem.
Trite and overstated as it may seem, these parallel events highlight an important truth: of all the states in the Middle East, only Israel affords its citizens the full rights of democracy, including free speech. While Arab dictators gun down their own in brutal suppression, Israelis protest fully confident in their safety and freedom.
Both the recent demonstrations in Tel Aviv and those of the ongoing Arab Spring share a common theme: In each case, rising costs of basic goods compelled frustrated, common young adults to the streets. However, the comparison ends there. Where Egypt and Tunisia's governments (just to take two examples) stood paralyzed, unable to stem the tide of rising popular discontent and its economic origins, Israeli's Prime Minister "Bibi" Netanyahu has proved remarkably swift in addressing the causes of the housing shortage and rising commodity prices in his country.
This past week, the Knesset, Israel's Parliament, passed legislation allowing for the building of thousands of new homes to increase supply and drive down prices. Netanyahu has meanwhile called for a ministerial roundtable to address the problem and craft creative solutions. While most observers agree that only true regulatory reform of the construction industry will fix the problem of high home prices, the Israeli government has shown itself to be responsive to the needs and concerns of its voters. Compare this to Assad's "response" to protesting Syrians: tanks and machine guns.
The Palestinian Authority plans to pursue a unilateral declaration of statehood at the United Nations this September. Along with the UN's Conference on Racism, which is a front for an anti-Israel lynch-mob, the PA's attempts at by-passing the peace process in the UN General Assembly will provide fodder for Arab nations deeming Israel the cause of all problems in the Middle East, if not all the troubles in the world. At that moment, we should remember this past week, when events once again revealed the real cause of the dysfunctional Middle East: Immoral, and inept Arab regimes who use Israel as an excuse to avoid talking about their broken societies.
Indeed, Israel is actually a model that Arab countries should be praising, not only as an example of a workable democracy, but also as a democracy that successfully incorporates religious elements into its civil society. When 4,000 Jerusalemites marched to show their "gay-pride" this past week, ultra-orthodox Haredi Jews peacefully counter-protested what they saw as bestial behavior. In Arab countries, a similar display by homosexuals and their supporters would have resulted in violence by Islamic fundamentalists.
Israeli society adheres to norms, currently lacking in the Arab world, whereby orthodox religious minorities cannot capture the democratic process and strip another population of their basic rights of expression. Middle Eastern states such as Egypt -- where the radical Muslim Brotherhood may capture a plurality of the voters in an election -- would do well to look to Israel and its strong democratic institutions in crafting their new societies.
Unfortunately, as long as they continue to demonize the Jewish state, this is unlikely to happen.