Democratic Egypt Tests a Divided Israel                             

Most of us are watching the historic events in Egypt with awe, hoping its citizens will nonviolently replace a repressive and dictatorial regime with a democracy. But those of us with ties to Israel tend to see a more complicated picture, with Israel tracking the unfolding events and viewing a potentially democratic Egypt simultaneously as a victory for freedom and a political liability.

For more than 40 years, one of the most salient reasons given for the unfailing US support of Israel was that it was “the only democracy in the Middle East.” One can, of course, argue with the absolutist tenor of this claim, but it remains true nonetheless. Things have changed since the fall of the Soviet Union, with fledgling forms of democratic rule slowly taking root in the Middle East, and as it becomes more apparent that American-style liberal democracy is not what really exists in the State of Israel (which is an ethnic democracy), Israel does have open elections, a free press and an independent judiciary. When the smoke clears, Israel is still the only democracy in the Middle East, and the Arab street knows it. We may not be able to say that too much longer, however, and the Jewish Israeli street knows that. The question many are asking then is whether it’s “good” or “bad” for the Jews.

Israeli View of Democracy, from Left, Right and Further Right

Obama’s “Cairo Speech” disturbed many in Israel and its supporters for numerous reasons. Chief among them was that his call for a democratic shift in the Middle East represented a position Israel had to support even as it knew, for at least two reasons, that it would not necessarily be “good for the Jews.” First, if another true democracy did emerge in the Arab Middle East, Israel’s exceptionalist claim would essentially disappear. And second, given the anti-Israel and Islamist sentiment in the Arab street, Israel knows that an Arab democracy could produce a government even more antagonistic than an autocratic one.

In recent blog post the New York Times’ Nate Silver writes: “Who doesn’t the Egyptian public like? Israel. In the 2010 poll, just 3 percent of Egyptians had a positive opinion about it versus 92 percent unfavorable; these were the worst grades for Israel of any country included in the survey.” Yet many Israelis still believe, or hope, that a democratic country would be a more stable peace partner than an autocratic one. Despite the fact that Theodore Herzl, the ostensible patriarch of Zionism, was a monarchist and that early Zionism had a strong attachment to Marxism and socialism, Israel has predominantly been dedicated to democracy as the fairest way to govern and views a democratized Middle East as good for Israel in the long run. That commitment to democracy (albeit one that gives preference to one ethnic group) has become even more resolute as Israel moved closer to the United States in the 1960s when the Soviet Union signaled that it would back the Arab world.

The mainstream Israeli left, perhaps best represented by Haaretz, supports the uprising for democracy and removal of Hosni Mubarak as a positive shift in Middle East politics. A January 31 editorial, while not explicitly calling for the removal of President Mubarak, hopes that movements for democracy in other autocratic nations in the region will follow:

Hopefully the turmoil in Egypt, which is affecting all its allies in the Middle East and West, will encourage leaders there and in Arab states to quickly change the contract between the regime and the citizens. This is a new order that hopefully the whole region will move toward. It deserves to be encouraged by the West.

The commitment to democracy of the Israeli religious far-right, frequently associated with the settler movement, exists only insofar as it doesn’t threaten the goal of Jewish hegemony in Greater Israel. Its theological ideology focuses more on territory than politics. The position of the government (right, but not far-right), represented by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, is committed to democracy in principle but concerned about what democracy in Egypt might yield. A circumspect Netanyahu

instructed ministers to make no public comment on events in Egypt. But his ambassadors abroad were instructed to plead with the governments of major powers to be more supportive of Mr. Mubarak. Mr. Netanyahu on Monday said he was following events in Egypt with “vigilance and worry” and that he feared the country could be led by a radical Islamic regime like that in Iran.

Israel’s leader is well aware that Mubarak has protected the fragile peace between Israel and Egypt, and that Mubarak has consistently marginalized the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood from Egyptian politics. And indeed, it’s true that if Mubarak steps down and democracy ensues the Brotherhood (with the backing of 35% of Egyptians, according to recent polls) will likely enter a new unity government.

The fact that the Brotherhood has agreed to back the secular Mohammad ElBaradai as spokesman for the opposition groups may or may not mean a change of heart in relation to their Islamist roots or their position on Israel. (And here it should be noted that the Brotherhood does not advocate a theocratic state, nor does it support rule by the clerics as in Iran. It has a particular Islamist agenda but supports a democratic process. In any case, what this does show is that this is not an Islamist revolution, as Haroon Moghul argues in his must-read essay, “4 Reasons Why Egypt’s Revolution Is Not Islamic.”)

But of all countries, Israel knows that radical, even terrorist, organizations can be transformed. Anwar Sadat, the first Arab leader to sign a peace treaty with Israel was a member of the Muslim Brotherhood as a young man; the Palestinian Authority (formerly the PLO) has become a dependable security force working with Israel in the West Bank; and Israel itself elected two Prime Ministers, Menahem Begin and Yizhak Shamir, who were terrorists earlier in their lives. Both governed according to their nationalist ideals but did not advocate or tolerate terrorists in their government. It should be noted that even some Likud members (Begin and Shamir’s party) voted to effectively ban Meir Kahane’s Kach Party, which arguably advocated and participated in terrorism, from participating in the Knesset.    

Will Egypt Spark a New Palestinian Uprising?

Netanyahu is also concerned about what it would mean for him should Egypt’s nonviolent popular movement succeed. For example, what would happen if the nonviolent revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt sparked massive nonviolent acts of civil disobedience on the part of the Palestinians (and their Israeli supporters) in the West Bank? This could have a profound effect on the situation and take the power away from the government to dictate terms.

Would Netanyahu send in the army and risk state-sanctioned violence against nonviolent protesters that would ostensibly be broadcast throughout the world? Would he command the Israeli Defense Forces to protect the nonviolent protestors against a potentially violent Jewish settler response? The “ace in the hole” of the Palestinian movement has always been massive nonviolent resistance to the occupation. If successful, the events in Egypt could be a call to action. If the Palestinians see that nonviolence can achieve its goals, the situation on the ground could change drastically.

No one knows what will emerge in a post-Mubarak Egypt. The Brotherhood will likely become part of any lasting governing coalition, though Egypt is still largely a secular country where Islam serves more as a resource of a rich cultural life roughly analogous to Judaism in secular Israel. Is there an Islamist minority that seeks to extend its power? Yes. But Israeli democracy has a similar problem in the Ultra-Orthodox parties—some of whom advocate theocracy—which have coalesced into a strong anti-Arab/Palestinian block. In the next two decades, 50% of Israeli citizens will either be Ultra-Orthodox Jews or Israeli Arabs (Muslim and Christian). In short, Israel has its own problems if it wants to remain committed to democracy. And yet, in Israel democracy still rules, the press is still free, the courts still function, and human rights is still a value in principle—if not always in practice.

Part of the belief in democracy is that it is by nature a moderating force (one can even see this with Hezbollah in Lebanon). We cannot support democratic change contingent on what democracy will bring; even if it may not serve our interests in the short run, it’s still the best alternative human beings have come up with. In this case, one can certainly understand Netanyahu’s concern; Mubarak is “the devil he knows.” But it’s often the case that autocratic rulers are easier to deal with since they typically answer to no one. Yet, while they appear more stable in the short run, more dictatorships have been overthrown by democratic movements than the other way around. And when that uprising comes, supporting a dictator against the populace is not the best role for an elected leader.    

Jerusalem’s problem is also Jerusalem’s opportunity. It can have a role to play in this transition that may impact what most hope will be a democratic Egypt, and the Arab street is watching closely. Israel’s problem, even according to some of its supporters, is that it has never had a long-term plan in regard to the Palestinians, leading to actions that are largely reactive and myopic. Perhaps these events can convince Israel that it has to act and not simply react, for it will soon no longer be the “the only democracy in the Middle East.”

If Israel acts in accordance with its own stated goals of (proactively) ending the occupation by engaging in serious negotiations with President Abbas and taking on the settlers’ opposition, Egyptians may take notice. They know Israel is their democratic neighbor and they’re looking for direction. If they see that (Israeli) democracy can lead to a just solution to end Palestinian oppression who knows what may come? If Israel can act against its growing extremist and militant forces in the government and its citizenry and end the occupation because it is the right thing to do—right for them and right for the Palestinians—the Arab street in Egypt may take notice. These are fluid times. Egyptians are in an expansive mood and the Arab world in general is tasting freedom. A window has cracked open across the border that Israel can either help widen or else it can join Mubarak on the wrong side of history. Perhaps this is another opportunity not to miss an opportunity.