JERUSALEM – The Arab revolt against inertia, despair, and decline has rightly inspired the admiration of civilized people everywhere – everywhere, that is, except in Israel. The fall of corrupt Arab dictatorships is being met in Israel with profound skepticism, even hostility.
For years, the Israeli discourse has been that a true peace with the Arab world would be possible only when the region embraced democracy. But the prospect of Arab democracy has now become a nightmare for Israeli leaders. They are used to dealing with autocrats in Cairo, Damascus, and Amman, and now fear the consequences of an Arab foreign policy that genuinely responds to the voice of the people.
Egypt, where Hosni Mubarak’s regime was Israel’s closest ally in the war against Hamas in Gaza and in curtailing Iran’s drive for regional hegemony, is of special concern. Mubarak’s ineffectiveness as broker of an Israel-Palestinian peace was not truly inconvenient for some of Israel’s leaders.
All this is now bound to change. It is inconceivable, for example, that an Egyptian democracy, in which the Muslim Brotherhood would be a legitimate political force, would persist in Mubarak’s complicity with Israel’s siege of Hamas-controlled Gaza.
Egypt’s policies concerning two of Israel’s other key rivals in the region, Turkey and Iran, also might shift. The US had two requirements of Mubarak: that he undertake domestic political reform, and that he be a peace broker in the region. Mubarak conveniently focused on the “peace process,” which explains his jealousy at Turkey's recent attempts to usurp the role of regional broker.
Egypt’s regional power reflects its objective strategic weight, and this is not expected to change. But Egypt’s attitude to Turkey and Iran would not be as confrontational as Israel would like it to be. Indeed, one of the first decisions taken by Egypt’s interim government was to allow an Iranian vessel to cross into the Mediterranean through the Suez Canal for the first time in three decades.
Moreover, after 30 years of tension, preparations are under way for the exchange of ambassadors between Egypt and Iran. “Egypt does not view Iran as an enemy,” proclaimed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil el-Arabi.
The voice of a democratic Egypt in defense of the cause of Palestine or in putting pressure on Israel to join the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) would be far more credible than that of Mubarak’s regime, which sometimes looked as if it were simply going through the motions on policy issues like these.
Nor is Egypt’s political discourse likely to be especially palatable to Israelis. Already, the new Egyptian finance minister, Samir Radwan, has made it clear that he does not favor investments from “the enemy” – that is, Israel – which might lead to a takeover of the Egyptian economy.
All of this does not mean that Egypt’s commitment to the two countries’ peace treaty is in imminent danger. Egypt, whose new paradigm in foreign affairs increasingly looks like an imitation of Turkey’s strategy of “zero problems with its neighbors,” needs the treaty at least as much as Israel does. Any Egyptian democracy that was truly accountable to its popular base would have to address the country’s colossal domestic problems, and a state of war with Israel would hardly advance that goal.
The real threat to Egypt’s security today is on its southern and eastern borders, not in Israel. The secession of South Sudan is a real concern in Egypt, for it might eventually lead to the disintegration of the entire Sudanese state into fiefdoms of instability and Islamic radicalism. Egypt is now also rightly concerned about neighboring Libya possibly splitting into its tribal components.
Conservatism in revolutionary times is an inadequate option. Israel’s tragedy lies in its obsession with taking (or avoiding) decisions only on the basis of worst-case scenarios. This is blatantly obvious in its failure to respond creatively to the Arab world’s democratic upsurge. The Netanyahu government’s political paralysis – its wait-and-see philosophy in the face of massive change all around it – will end up leaving the initiative in others’ hands, to the detriment of Israel’s national interest.
No convincing peace initiatives or major policy responses are expected from Israel at a time when the United Nations General Assembly is poised to recognize overwhelmingly the creation of a Palestinian state – a move that would further isolate the country. Moreover, an emerging democratic Egypt that is reconciling with Israel’s sworn enemies, and that is bound to be more proactive in its defense of the Palestinian cause, is not viewed in Israel as a legitimate intermediary.
Inertia was not always Israel’s way. Netanyahu does not have to look very far for examples of bold and visionary Israeli leaders to follow. Some reached peace agreements with the country’s neighbors; others came very close – and at least succeeded in conveying to the Arab world Israel’s commitment to reaching out to the region’s peoples.
The focus of Israel’s regional policy should be building bridges to those peoples, the true masters of the current “Arab awakening.” A generous solution to the plight of the Palestinians is more vital to that task than ever before.
Shlomo Ben Ami is a former Israeli foreign minister who now serves as Vice President of the Toledo International Centre for Peace. He is the author of Scars of War, Wounds of Peace: The Israeli-Arab Tragedy.
Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2011.
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