Israel’s Fears About the Egyptian Uprising
Israelis fear more Arab democracy means more hatred in their country. Peter Beinart on why Jerusalem needs to change—or face a Palestinian version of Tahrir Square.
We’re almost two weeks into the revolution in Egypt and the American media keeps asking the question that my extended family asks during all world events: Is it good for Israel? Ask a Jewish question, get a Jewish answer, by which I mean, another question: What’s good for Israel?
Obviously, a theocracy that abrogated Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state would be bad for Israel, period. But that is unlikely. The Muslim Brotherhood is not al Qaeda: It abandoned violence decades ago, and declared that it would pursue its Islamist vision through the democratic process, which has earned it scorn among Bin Laden types. Nor is the Brotherhood akin to the regime in Iran: When Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei tried to appropriate the Egyptian protests last week, the Brotherhood shot him down, declaring that it “regards the revolution as the Egyptian People’s Revolution not an Islamic Revolution” and insisting that "The Egyptian people's revolution includes Muslims, Christians and [is] from all sects and political" tendencies. In the words of George Washington University’s Nathan Brown, an expert on Brotherhood movements across the Middle East, “These parties definitely reject the Iranian model…Their slogan is, ‘We seek participation, not domination.’ The idea of creating an Islamic state does not seem to be anywhere near their agenda.”
Could this all be an elaborate ruse? Might the Brotherhood act differently if it gained absolute power? Sure, but it’s hard to foresee a scenario in which that happens. For one thing, the best estimates, according to the Council on Foreign Relations’ Stephen Cook, are that the Brotherhood would win perhaps 20 percent of the vote in a free election, which means it would have to govern in coalition. What’s more, the Egyptian officer corps, which avowedly opposes an Islamic state, will likely wield power behind the scenes in any future government. And while the Brotherhood takes an ambiguous position on Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel--it opposes it but says it will abide by the will of the Egyptian people—the Egyptian army has little interest in returning to war footing with a vastly stronger Israel. Already, Mohammed ElBaradei, the closest thing the Egyptian protest movement has to a leader, has called the peace treaty with Israel “rock solid.”
But Egypt doesn’t have to abrogate the peace treaty to cause the Israeli government problems. Ever since 2006, when Hamas won the freest election in Palestinian history, Egypt, Israel and the United States have colluded to enforce a blockade meant to undermine the group’s control of the Gaza Strip. A more accountable Egyptian government might no longer do that, partly because Hamas is an offshoot of the Brotherhood, but mostly because a policy of impoverishing the people of Gaza has little appeal among Egyptian voters. It’s easy to imagine a newly democratic government of Egypt adopting a policy akin to the one adopted by the newly democratic government of Turkey. The Turkish government hasn’t severed ties with Israel, but it does harshly criticize Israel’s policies, especially in Gaza, partly because Turkey’s ruling party has Islamist tendencies, but mostly because that is what the Turkish people want.
More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence.
Which bring us back to the question: Is this bad for Israel? Benjamin Netanyahu and AIPAC certainly think so, since they believe that what’s best for Israel is for its government to be free to pursue its current policies with as little external criticism as possible. I disagree. For several years now, Israel has pursued a policy designed, according to Israeli officials, to “keep the Gazan economy on the brink of collapse.” (The quote comes courtesy of the recent Wikileaks document dump). The impact on the Gazan people has been horrendous, but Hamas is doing fine, for the same basic reason that Fidel Castro has done fine for the last 60 years: The blockade allows Hamas to completely control Gaza’s economy and blame its own repression and mismanagement on the American-Zionist bogeyman. Meanwhile, Mahmoud Abbas and Salam Fayyad govern in the West Bank without the democratic legitimacy they would likely need to sell a peace treaty to the Palestinian people.
All of which is to say: a shift in U.S. and Israeli policy towards Hamas is long overdue. The organization has been basically observing a de-facto cease-fire for two years now, and in the last year its two top leaders, Khaled Meshal and Ismail Haniya, have both said Hamas would accept a two-state deal if the Palestinian people endorse it in a referendum. That doesn’t mean Hamas isn’t vile in many ways, but it does mean that Israel and America are better off allowing the Palestinians to create a democratically legitimate, national unity government that includes Hamas than continuing their current, immoral, failed policy. If a more democratic Egyptian government makes that policy harder to sustain, it may be doing Israel a favor.
The Middle East’s tectonic plates are shifting. For a long time, countries like Turkey and Egypt were ruled by men more interested in pleasing the United States than their own people, and as a result, they shielded Israel from their people’s anger. Now more of that anger will find its way into the corridors of power. The Israeli and American Jewish right will see this as further evidence that all the world hates Jews, and that Israel has no choice but to turn further in on itself. But that would be a terrible mistake. More than ever in the months and years to come, Israelis and American Jews must distinguish hatred of Israel’s policies from hatred of Israel’s very existence. The Turkish government, after all, has maintained diplomatic ties with Israel even as it excoriates Israel’s policies in Gaza. ElBaradei this week reaffirmed Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel even as he negotiates the formation of a government that could well challenge Israel’s policy in Gaza.
Instead of trying to prop up a dying autocratic order, what Israel desperately needs is to begin competing for Middle Eastern public opinion, something American power and Arab tyranny have kept it from having to do. And really competing means reassessing policies like the Gaza blockade, which create deep—and understandable—rage in Cairo and Istanbul without making Israel safer. It is ironic that Israel, the Middle East’s most vibrant democracy, seems so uncomfortable in a democratizing Middle East. But at root, that discomfort stems from Israel’s own profoundly anti-democratic policies in the West Bank and Gaza. In an increasingly democratic, increasingly post-American Middle East, the costs of those policies will only continue to rise. Israel must somehow find the will to change them, while it can still do so on its own terms, not only because of what is happening in Tahrir Square, but because the next Tahrir Square could be in Ramallah or East Jerusalem. After all, as Haaretz’s Akiva Eldar recently noted, Palestinian kids use Facebook too.
Peter Beinart, senior political writer for The Daily Beast, is associate professor of journalism and political science at City University of New York and a senior fellow at the New America Foundation. His new book, The Icarus Syndrome: A History of American Hubris, is now available from HarperCollins. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.