For decades Israel’s overall strategy was based on two conflicting assumptions. One is that Israel’s strategic position depends on the survival of authoritarian regimes like those of Mubarak and Ben Ali. Common “wisdom” has been that the alternative to these dictatorships is Islamic fundamentalism, and this means endless, often armed conflict with Israel’s neighbors. The Iranian revolution of 1978 and the Algerian elections in the 1990s seem to indicate that repressive regimes that democratize indeed move towards Islamization.
There has also been another common wisdom - which Netanyahu has been identified with: there will be no peace in the Middle East, and Israel will know no security as long as there is no democracy in Arab countries. This theory is based on the rather strong evidence that developed democracies tend not to go to war with each other, because, once a strong middle class is established, war is contrary to the interests of the people.
The problem in Israel’s position is rather obvious: the support for corrupt regimes and the call for democracy mostly contradict each other, and this has not just been Israel’s problem, but also that of the U.S., which often supported autocratic regimes. It started with the cold war doctrine that assumed that the choice was between communist regimes and dictatorships more congenial to the U.S.
The U.S. meddled in Iranian politics from early on. After the election of Mohammed Mossadeq as prime minister in 1953, the U.S. was involved in toppling him and instating the Shah, who for decades ran a brutal regime based on persecution, torture and surveillance. The Iranian people never forgot the American involvement in instating and supporting the Shah, and it is doubtful that the Islamic republic would ever have come into being without the U.S. intervention in 1953.
What would it mean to bet on democratization rather than supporting autocrats because they seem more friendly to Israel or the West? The process of democratization is, more often than not, messy. But most of all, it cannot be done under the auspices of external powers. The U.S. has just had another painful example of how quixotic it is to try to impose democratic structures from the outside, both in Afghanistan and in Iraq.
Israel has made the same mistake in the past when it tried to meddle in the affairs of Lebanon, trying to support its Christian allies. The result was a quagmire of eighteen years that, among others, created Hezbollah – now one of Israel’s greatest problems. Similarly, Israel crushed all attempts to create viable political structures in the Palestinian territories during the 1970s and the 1980s, in the hope that it could suppress Palestinian quest for independence altogether. In its attempts to counteract the PLO, it was instrumental in the creation of Hamas – again now one of Israel’s greatest problems.
Of course Israel is apprehensive about what will happen to Egypt. Nobody can be certain that the cold peace between Israel and Egypt will survive the fall of Mubarak, and the emergence of a new political system. Nevertheless, experts like Scott Atran strongly doubt that the Muslim Brotherhood is as dominant as often assumed, and panicking is certainly not advised.
The uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt should be taken as a historical opportunity to stop wavering between the support of tyrants and the belief that only democracy can bring stability, prosperity and peace to the Middle East in the long run. Anyone who truly believes in democracy and human rights cannot but rejoice for the people of Egypt: a repressive regime that will come to an end. As many commentators have pointed out, this uprising has not been controlled by any one party: It is an uprising of the people, in the interests of the people.
We can only hope that the people of Egypt will realize that it has been a tactic of many Arab regimes to divert attention from their misdoings by focusing on Israel, as if Israel were responsible for the problems of their societies and economies. Solving the many ailments of their society and economy will not be served by making anti-Israeli sentiment the center of the new economic, political and social order that they are striving for. Rather, they will have to embark on the long, painful process of building viable democratic institutions and to erase corruption.
For Israel, it is crucial not to use the events in Egypt to argue, as Moshe Arens has done in recent days, that Israel can only make peace with Arab dictators, because the Arab people always oppose peace with Israel. The Al Jazeera leaks have shown beyond any doubt that there is a Palestinian partner for peace. If Israel will show that it is capable of relating to the Palestinians from a position of mutuality and to truly respect their dignity and desire for self-determination, the Arab peoples around us may realize that the wellbeing of the whole area depends on moving from confrontation to cooperation, from tyranny to democracy.
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