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Does Israel want a democratic Middle East?

Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend’s Times, but I think she goes astray here: Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that ...

Helene Cooper has an interesting take on the Gaza boat affair in this weekend’s Times, but I think she goes astray here:

Some foreign policy experts say the new willingness to suggest that the Israeli government’s actions may become an American national security liability marks a backlash against the Bush-era neoconservative agenda, which posited that America and Israel were fighting together to promote democracy in an unstable region.

Some American neoconservatives may have thought this, but few Israelis did. With the notable exception of former Soviet dissident Natan Sharansky, leading Israelis generally scoffed at the notion that the United States would succeed in promoting democracy in the Arab world — and to some extent, the record vindicates their skepticism.

I’d divide the thinking into two main camps: those who thought Arab states couldn’t become real democracies, whether for cultural or socioeconomic reasons, and those who recognized that free and fair elections in the Arab world would likely see Islamist groups with deep antipathy toward Israel come to power. The second group saw its fears realized in 2005 and 2006, when elections in Egypt and the Palestinian territories saw the Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas make big gains  at the polls. One could also point to Hezbollah in Lebanon, the AK Party in Turkey, and Nuri al-Maliki’s coalition in Iraq as examples of Islamist groups of various stripes benefitting from democracy.

Even Sharansky wasn’t necessarily a genuine advocate of democracy in the Arab world. Some would say, given his hard-line positions on settlements and peace negotiations, that his real aim was to add a new condition — democratic governance — to the long list of things the Palestinians must achieve to be considered a viable partner for peace.

As for the flotilla incident, Turkey’s reaction to it will likely only strengthen the conviction in Israel that it’s much easier to deal with autocrats like Jordan’s King Abdullah and Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak than it is with elected governments. After all, you don’t hear either of those two guys threatening to break off relations with Israel, and Mubarak has been awfully silent about his own role in enforcing the Gaza blockade.