Egyptians pray in front of army tanks in Tahrir Square (Scott Nelson/NYT)
Deputy Israeli prime minister Silvan Shalom made a telling comment in an Israel Radio interview that was captured in Al Ahram (Google cached version) during the Tunisian revolution:
“I fear that we now stand before a new and very critical phase in the Arab world. If the current Tunisian regime collapses, it will not affect Israel’s present national security in a significant way,” he said. “But we can, however, assume that these developments would set a precedent that could be repeated in other countries, possibly affecting directly the stability of our system.”
Shalom added that if regimes neighbouring the Israeli state were replaced by democratic systems, Israeli national security might significantly be threatened. The new systems would defend or adopt agendas that are inherently opposed to Israeli national security, he said.
The deputy indicated that Israel and most of the Arab regimes have a common interest in fighting what he referred to as “Islamic fundamentalism” and its “radical” organisations which threaten Israel.
This threat, he added, is the reason behind much of the direct and indirect intelligence and security coördination between Israel and the Arab regimes.
Shalom emphasised that a democratic Arab world would end this present allegiance, because a democratic system would be governed by a public generally opposed to Israel.
You can gussy this view up in many ways that explain Israel’s concerns, but when it comes down to it Israel fears the Arab street and Arab democracy. Yes, it’s true that Arab democracies would hold harsher views concerning Israel than the current autocrat rulers. Though this isn’t necessarily so in the case of a Muslim democracy like Turkey which, until its citizens were murdered en masse in the Flotilla, actually had constructive relations with Israel.
All that aside, the issue goes beyond what Shalom said, as I wrote last night. Arab democracy threatens Israel especially because it is outside Israel’s control. It cannot be bought and dominated militarily or diplomatically. A democracy represents the interests of the majority and not those of the élite. Israel needs lackeys and strong men. It needs the go-to guy it can do deals with. Having to negotiate its way through the cross-currents and multiple sets of interests at work in the typical democracy has to be bewildering, even frightening to Israel’s leaders. If Mubarak goes then there are big changes in store…for Egypt and Israel.
The Nation is reporting that Mubarak’s son, long considered the heir to the Egyptian throne, er presidency, has fled the country for London, along with the ruler’s daughters and even his wife. Given the dynasticism of Arab regimes and family closeness and solidarity in Arab culture, an eldest son’s desertion of his father has to be big blow to Hosni Mubarak. This too is a development every Egyptian will take note of. This could be the beginning of the end for Mubarak. But the question is who and what will take his place. Will it be a loyalist like Suleiman who will be a slightly different face pinned on the same body? Or will Suleiman be content to be a caretaker for new, truly free elections and a new government?
What role will the Muslim Brotherhood play? Is there a possible path that integrates an Islamist vision with a democratic one? In a country that has suffered decades, if not longer, of unalloyed despotism?
Finally, Israel will have to get used to living in a region that is even less hospitable to its policies than it was before. It will have to negotiate a dense thicket of national interests none of which will be obsequious toward it. Welcome to a brave new world, Mr. Netanyahu. Good luck.
One thing especially frightening to Israel is the potential Islamist nature of the incoming governments. For Israel, Islamism is a synonym for terror. Most reasonable observers know this isn’t true. Another thing Israel fears is that it may become as much an obstacle to regional development as the octogenarian strongmen whose rule is being toppled in Tunisia and Egypt. Israel has identified itself so closely with the oligarchs that the new rulers, whoever they may be, may (probably will) see Israel as an extension of them. That’s why I’ve argued that a course correction in Israeli policy has been long overdue.
It’s worth quoting Gideon Levy, as usual eloquent on the subject of Middle Eastern tyranny:
The people of Egypt had their say, and had the nerve not to fall in line with Israeli wishes. A moment before Mubarak’s fate is sealed, the time has come for drawing the Israeli conclusions.
Not a plague of darkness in Egypt but the light of the Nile: the end of a regime propped up by bayonets is foretold. It can go on for years, and the downfall sometimes comes at the least expected time, but in the end it will happen. Not only Damascus and Amman, Tripoli and Rabat, Tehran and Pyongyang: Ramallah and Gaza are also destined to be shaken.
The hypocritical and sanctimonious division of countries by the U.S. and the West between the “axis of evil” on the one hand, and the “moderates” on the other, has collapsed. If there is an axis of evil, then it includes all the non-democratic regimes, including the “moderates” and the “stable” and the “pro-Western.” Today Egypt, tomorrow Palestine. Yesterday Tunis, tomorrow Gaza.
Not only is the Fatah regime in Ramallah and the Hamas regime in Gaza destined to fall, but perhaps also, one day, the Israeli occupation, which certainly meets all the criteria of criminal tyranny and an evil regime. It too relies only on guns. It too is hated by all levels of the ruled people, even if they stand helpless, unorganized and unequipped, facing a big army. The first conclusion: Better to end it well, with agreements based on justice and not on power, a moment before the masses have their say and succeed in banishing the darkness.
A second, no less important conclusion: Alliances with unpopular regimes can be torn up overnight. As long as the masses in Egypt and in the entire Arab world continue seeing the images of tyranny and violence from the occupied territories, Israel will not be able to be accepted, even it is acceptable to a few regimes.
The Egyptian regime became an ally of the Israeli occupation. The joint siege of Gaza is irrefutable proof of that. The Egyptian people didn’t like it. They never liked the peace agreement with Israel, in which Israel committed itself to “respect the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” but never kept its word. Instead, the people of Egypt got the scenes of Operation Cast Lead.
It is not enough to have a handful of embassies in order to be accepted in the region. There also have to be embassies of goodwill, a just image and a state that is not an occupier. Israel has to make its way into the hearts of the Arab peoples, who will never agree to the continued repression of their brothers, even if their intelligence ministers will continue to cooperate with Israel.
A real alliance with Egypt and its sister-states can only be based on the end of the occupation, as desired by the Egyptian people, and not on a common enemy, as an interest of its regime.
A comparison between the impact of Islamism and Jewish extremism is also warranted. Israel itself has done the same as what these new potentially Islamist-oriented regimes may. It has focussed on the sectarian Jewish nature of its state to the exclusion of its non-Jewish citizens. It has fueled the cries of racism from its Palestinian citizens and Jewish peace activists alike. For many Muslims, unfortunately, Judaism has become synonymous with terror, as they see Israelis like Meir Dagan kill Muslims while invoking the name of the “Jewish people.” Can Israel truly blame the Muslims of the Middle East for doing what the “Jewish State” itself has done? What we truly need in the Middle East is democracy that focuses on the political interests of each nation to the exclusion of religious sectarianism. Mixing religion and politics is deeply toxic whether it happens in Israel or Iran.
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