Saturday, February 12, 2011

israel, egypt, america

Everyone seems to be happy about Egypt's mini-revolution, except maybe Mubarak himself . . . and a lot of Israelis. The fear is that the smiles in Tahrir Square will eventually give rise to an Islamic-oriented Government that is even less fond of Israel than its predecessor, and potentially more willing to act on its dislike. The outgoing Chief of Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, said what many Israelis were thinking: in the Middle East stability is better than democracy--at the very least, it's better for our interests.

There's something to this, of course, but I think it's more of a mixed bag than many people think. For one thing, the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty was never based on love, but on self-interest. Having from its perspective won the last Egypt-Israel War, in 1973, Egypt has a lot to lose and not terribly much to gain from renewing it.

It's also not clear that democracy always works out badly for Israel. The most commonly cited example is Turkey, whose Islamic parties are less comfortable with Israel than its secular elite, and of course Iran, which turned sharply against Israel after the overthrow of the Shah in 1979. But Iran isn't a democracy and--while Turkey often talks like an enemy--nobody really expects to see Turkish soldiers on Israel's border anytime soon. If it succeeds in creating an Islamic-influenced democracy, a la Turkey, and still maintaining a stable if less than friendly peace with Israel, Egypt might offer an alternative example for the entire Middle East, one ultimately not all bad from Israel's perspective.

If I were the Israeli prime minister, I would be less worried about the strategic threat than the political one. Thirty years ago most Americans saw the Middle East through Israeli eyes. Now Egypt is a fledgling democracy; Emirates is one of the world's largest airlines; and hundreds of thousands of Americans have served time in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, or Afghanistan. In this situation many Americans--including some Jews--are already beginning to see the Middle East through Arab- rather than Israeli-colored glasses. TV and movies regularly picture Israelis as exotic, attractive, but not especially likable. Sooner or later, this kinds of stuff affects people's attitudes toward political questions, as well. Better to be feared the liked, one might respond; but are those the only two choices?


At 6:21 PM, Anonymous Craig Oren said...

You say that the American media do not depict Israelis as likeable. There is a simple explanation: they are not. Instead, they pretend they are all Mr. Macho, and that Americans are just a bunch of effete weaklings.

At 9:54 PM, Anonymous "PC" said...

I agree that public opinion is changing, or more accurately, can now be better expressed. Democratic opinion in the Arab world now has more of a voice. Americans can now see for themselves the "Arab street" (such a racist and classist term, really) and make an informed call on policy. This is NOT good for traditional policy of the US in this region (i.e. support any dictator no matter how brutal as long as they do what we tell them to), but it is very good for a saner policy that better secures America's authentic interests in things like democracy, trade, liberty and counter-terrorism.

It's a little disturbing that you would question at all the basic desireability of democratic movements in Egypt and elsewhere since they do improve on a very very despicable situation which we, as Americans, are directly (though not fully) responsible for. Certainly, they are an improvement for Egyptians. I don't understand why we wouldn't want to encourage full democratization. I do, of course, understand our oil interests and the interests of putting down democratic movements in general for US planners. The labor movement in Egypt is particularly distressing to US planners, I am sure.


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