Thursday, February 10, 2011

Egypt makes Israel nervous for all the wrong reasons

According to a State Department cable written in August 2008 and posted on the website of The Daily Telegraph this week, Israeli officials favoured General Omar Suleiman to succeed Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. "There is no question that Israel is most comfortable with the prospect of" Mr Suleiman taking power, an American diplomat in Tel Aviv reported to his superiors.

That's no surprise. The Israelis have been very nervous about developments in Egypt, fearing that a new government may terminate the peace treaty with Israel. But Israel would not welcome another more likely, if less catastrophic, scenario either: if Egypt were to become more open, as a former American official, Aaron David Miller wrote in The Washington Post last Friday, "diverse voices reflecting Islamist currents and secular nationalists will be louder. And by definition, these voices will be more critical of America and Israel".

Israel is right to be worried, but for all the wrong reasons. In a very profound sense, the country has been living an illusion in the Middle East. It has long assumed that peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, like those steps leading toward normalisation with other Arab countries, constitute a safeguard against having to address the complexities of an often dubious Arab environment. Here is Israel insisting that it means to be a part of the region by hook or by crook, yet is oblivious to strong popular undercurrents of dissatisfaction with the authoritarian regimes with which it had concluded its bargains.

Successive Israeli leaders wrongly assumed that being of the region was a condition that could be satisfied by dealing solely with Arab political and economic elites, while abandoning Israel's responsibility to reinforce the desirability of peace within Arab societies. Israel has pursued policies with respect to the Palestinians that have convinced a majority of Arabs, rightly or wrongly, that peace is a sham. And Israeli dependency on friendly autocrats only brings home the paradox that peace is a benefit that must somehow be imposed.

Another difficulty in Israel's position has to do with the longstanding belief, inside Israeli society and in the West, that the country is "the only democracy" in the Middle East. That's questionable, but Israel is certainly a democracy for its Jewish citizens. However, the quiet antagonism of the Netanyahu government toward events in Egypt (and any other Israeli government would have reacted in the same way), suggests that the Israelis' belief in the uniqueness of their democracy in the region is self-fulfilling. In other words, Israel is the sole democracy and will ensure that it remains the sole democracy by heading off efforts in Arab societies to achieve the same level of popular self-determination.

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