The Middle East Channel

Israel’s Demophobia

The spectacular downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has cast a spotlight on a great many facts about the Middle East: the contempt and hatred that the masses harbor toward the dictators of the region; the wanton brutality of police forces and regime-sponsored thugs; the deliberate manipulation of fears-foreign and domestic-about the Islamist threat; the popular ...

AFP/Getty images
AFP/Getty images

The spectacular downfall of President Hosni Mubarak has cast a spotlight on a great many facts about the Middle East: the contempt and hatred that the masses harbor toward the dictators of the region; the wanton brutality of police forces and regime-sponsored thugs; the deliberate manipulation of fears-foreign and domestic-about the Islamist threat; the popular yearning for democracy and dignity; and the energy and inventiveness of the region’s youth.

Also starkly apparent is the dire predicament that Israel is in, largely as a result of its own doing. This predicament is not, as many in Israel and the American pro-Israel lobby fear, a growing encirclement of the country by the forces of radical Islam led by Iran. Rather, the predicament is simply that the only ‘friends’ that Israel has in the region are autocrats whose support-overt and covert-for Israeli policies is deeply unpopular. As such, Israel is basically an opponent of democracy in the region, except of course when it can undermine its enemies, as in the case of the current regime in Iran.  

While Egyptians were ecstatic, Arabs across the region inspired, and millions around the world cheered by Mubarak’s sudden fall from power, Israelis-more precisely Israeli Jews-were anxious and fearful. Naturally enough, they view the dramatic events in Egypt through the prism of their own concerns, and viewed in this way many in Israel believe that the Egyptian revolution is bad news for them. From an Israeli perspective, Mubarak may have been an unpopular dictator and his regime brutal and corrupt, but at least he could be trusted to keep the peace with Israel and keep the Islamists at bay.  Whoever and whatever comes to power in Egypt after him might not be so reliable.

Israelis fear a post-Mubarak Egypt. They fear the Muslim Brotherhood coming to power.  They fear that Egypt will become like Iran after its revolution. They fear that the peace treaty they have with Egypt since 1979 will be scrapped. They fear spreading regional instability, especially in neighboring Jordan. They fear that Hamas will be strengthened in Gaza and in the West Bank, maybe even allowing it to gain power there as well. They fear being surrounded by hostile regimes, as they were until Egypt broke the Arab consensus and made a ‘separate peace’ with Israel. 

Although it has always been a ‘cold peace’ between Israel and Egypt, its strategic and psychological value for Israel is immense. Not only did it take out the strongest Arab army from the military balance of power, secure Israel’s southern flank, and allow Israel to reduce its defense burden, but it also relieved the suffocating sense of encirclement that Israelis experienced for the first three decades of their state’s existence, and demonstrated to them that peace is in fact attainable. To lose this now, at a time when Israel already faces a growing threat from Iran and must deal with Hezbollah and Hamas on its northern and southern borders respectively, would be a strategic nightmare and a serious psychological blow.

But is this really likely to happen? Are the dire scenarios now being imagined by Israeli officials in Jerusalem and feverishly repeated in the Israeli press credible? In short, are Israel’s fears well-founded?

The bottom-line is: no. The fear that is now gripping Israel is excessive and overblown.  Certainly, Israelis have every reason to be concerned about what happens in Egypt, as well as in Jordan. They have learned from bitter experience that change in the region rarely turns out well for them, as the coming to power of Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Gaza most recently testify. Their profound sense of vulnerability is not simply delusional-for all its military might, Israel is a small country with a small population and has little margin for error in its national security. Nevertheless, Israelis need to get over their longstanding fear of Arab democracy.

Israel has always proudly identified itself as the only democracy in the Middle East (an identity which itself is now at risk as the rights of its Arab minority and human rights groups in the country have come under attack from right-wing nationalist forces). Yet, it has never been particularly eager for Arab nations to join its exclusive club. Whatever the intrinsic virtues of democracy, Israelis are convinced that it is not in Israel’s interests for Arabs to enjoy it. To be sure, some on the Israeli political right – including Prime Minister Netanyahu himself – have argued that true Arab-Israeli peace will only come once the Arab world democratizes, but this has been more of a rhetorical argument used against the left’s attempts at peacemaking than an sincere expression of support for democracy in the Arab world (as the Netanyahu government’s barely concealed opposition to democratic change in Egypt has proved). In practice, Israeli policymakers on the left and right have preferred the continued rule of authoritarian regimes to democratization in the region. The outcomes of recent open elections in Lebanon (in 2009) and the Palestinian territories (in 2006), resulting in the empowerment of anti-Israel Islamist groups (Hezbollah and Hamas) has further vindicated this preference in the minds of most Israelis.

Israeli antipathy towards Arab democracy is not just a result of recent history. Arab masses – the so-called Arab street – have long been an object of widespread fear and mistrust among Israeli Jews. This goes all the way back to the popular protests and violent attacks that Palestinians carried out against Zionist settlers during the period of the British Mandate in Palestine. Although early Zionist ideologues hoped that the Zionist settlement project could gain the support of the Palestinian peasant masses, whom they claimed it would materially benefit, over the objections of the Arab landowning elite, this did not turn out to be the case. The vast majority of Palestinians were adamantly opposed to Zionism, eventually staging a popular uprising against British rulers and Zionist settlers in the late 1930s (in many ways, the first Palestinian ‘Intifada’).  From that point on it was clear that the Arab masses were opponents of the Zionist project (a fact that led a small group of dovish Zionists such as Martin Buber and Judah Magnes to advocate a binational Jewish-Arab state as a means of gaining Arab support).

As far as most Israeli Jews are concerned, Arabs – whether Palestinians, Egyptians, Jordanians, Lebanese, etc. – remain uncompromising enemies of the Jewish state. The peace agreements that Israel has signed with Egypt and Jordan are regarded as the decisions of individual rulers (Anwar Sadat and King Hussein) based upon the logic of realpolitik, not popular sentiment. In line with this view, Israelis assume that if the Egyptian and Jordanian publics had their way, the peace agreements would soon be shredded. Even worse, many Israelis fear that if Arab public opinion is allowed to determine the foreign policies of Arab states, then a resumption of Arab-Israeli hostilities is the likely outcome. Arab public opinion, according to this view, is bellicose and fanatically anti-Israeli, even anti-Semitic.

Fundamentally, many Israelis continue to believe that Arabs want to destroy the Jewish state and will try to do so if given half a chance. In their eyes, what’s happening in Egypt now might well give them that chance.

Such is the prevailing fear in Israel. The problem with it – aside from its reliance upon a sweeping generalization about Arabs – is that it completely ignores the fact that Egyptians themselves have every reason to maintain peace with Israel. The hundreds of thousands of Egyptians protesting in the streets in recent weeks were not burning Israeli flags and calling for a jihad against the Jewish state. They were calling for freedom, democracy, and economic opportunity. They wants jobs and a better standard of living, and renewed conflict with Israel is certainly not going to help them achieve this, as impoverished Palestinians in Gaza can attest. However much they support the Palestinian cause, Egyptians will not sacrifice their own futures for it. Peace, in other words, is in their interest as much as it is in the interest of Israelis.

Even in the unlikely event of a Muslim Brotherhood-controlled government, Israel need not be too worried. While such a government would undoubtedly lend its support to Hamas, it would not necessarily actively arm Hamas or align itself with Iran. Its primary interest would be in successfully governing Egypt, and it would need stability and continued foreign investment and tourism in order to do that. Although it is an opaque organization with a checkered history, it is clear that the Muslim Brotherhood is not al-Qaeda (they strongly oppose each other).

It is time for Israelis to realize that not all Islamist groups are the same. While they are all deeply and maybe implacably opposed to Israel, they are not all willing to take up arms against the Jewish state, and some may be reluctantly willing to co-exist with it. 

A democratic Egypt, therefore, will not abrogate the peace treaty or go to war with Israel. But, Egyptian policy toward Israel and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is bound to change.  The Mubarak regime’s policy, which essentially amounted to acquiescence to Israel’s continued occupation and settlement of Palestinian territories, was deeply unpopular among Egyptians. It struck them as fundamentally immoral and as a betrayal of Arab solidarity. A reversal of this policy is surely inevitable. 

This is likely to mean an end to Egypt’s cooperation in maintaining Israel’s ongoing blockade of the Gaza Strip, and quite possibly a refusal to continue to support the charade of a peace process between Israel and the Fatah-led Palestinian Authority. How bad would this be for Israel? That really depends on what Israel you’re talking about. It’s certainly bad for ‘Greater Israel,’ that is, an Israel that continues to occupy the West Bank and East Jerusalem and keep the Gaza Strip under siege. But if Israel is willing to end its counter-productive stranglehold on Gaza, stop expanding Jewish settlements, and begin real peace negotiations with the Palestinians-as opposed to pretending to negotiate while simultaneously undermining those negotiations through continued land grabs-then a democratically elected Egyptian government would face a lot less public pressure to oppose Israeli policies.

Israelis should not assume the enmity of the Egyptian public. Although this undoubtedly exists, it is more the product of anger and frustration over Israel’s actions, past and present, towards the Palestinians than the product of ideology or theology (it has also been stoked by the Mubarak regime itself which allowed virulently anti-Israeli and even anti-Semitic ideas and beliefs to be widely disseminated in Egyptian popular culture). As the recent mass protests demonstrated, Egyptians have largely discarded the ideologies of the past-Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, even Islamism-in favor of concrete and pragmatic political and economic demands. This is also true when it comes to their foreign policy attitudes. These attitudes are influenced less by fiery demagogues than by what they watch on TV (especially the popular Arab satellite channels) and read in the newspaper. Accustomed to graphic images of Israeli violence and stories of Palestinian suffering, is it any wonder that Egyptians stridently oppose Israel?

Instead of immediately dismissing Arab public opinion in Egypt and elsewhere as hopelessly and unremittingly anti-Israeli, Israeli Jews should recognize that what Israel does – not simply what it is – shapes public opinion in the Arab world, and in the rest of the world too for that matter. Rather than desperately hope that somehow the rising tide of democratic change in the Middle East can be held in check, Israelis need to seriously think about how they can improve their relations with Egyptians and other Arab publics.  To be sure, this will not be easy to do. Egyptians, like Arabs across the Middle East and beyond, have a very negative view of Israel and of Israeli Jews. More than anything else, Israel’s continuing occupation of the Palestinian territories is responsible for this (but it is not the only factor). By ending the Occupation, therefore, Israelis can make peace with the Palestinians and finally begin to really make peace with Egyptians as well. 

Unfortunately, Israelis now seem to be drawing the opposite conclusion. The political upheavals and turmoil in the region are regarded by many as yet another reason not to carry out any risky territorial withdrawals in the future. They are pining their hopes on the military maintaining power in Egypt, whether openly or behind the scenes, and other pro-Western authoritarian regimes weathering the storm of protest they are now facing.  

Whether or not real democratization will soon take place in Egypt or elsewhere in the Arab world, Israelis are counting on an unstable and ultimately doomed political order in the region. The era of Arab autocracy is coming to end and the era of Arab democracy is beginning. In this new era, Israel must make peace with the people of the Middle East, not just with their autocratic rulers. Only by doing so can Israelis truly achieve the security and acceptance they still long for. 

Dov Waxman is an associate professor in political science at Baruch College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.

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