David's Harp / The lesser evil: Losing Egypt or losing Europe
Israel has been trying to ignore the true existential danger, which isn't where one might assume.
If they had election day in hell – and come to think of it, I bet they do – it would probably look something like the polls in Greece and Egypt this week.
Greeks could opt for a party (Syriza) whose strategy is to rip up every debt agreement the country has with the European Union and hope for the best. Or they could bring back the tired, old, corrupt apparatchiks (New Democracy or Pasok) who led the economy into the mess in its today.
In Egypt, less than 18 months after a revolution supposedly called in the name of freedom and democracy, the choice was between the Islamists (the Muslim Brotherhood’s Mohamed Morsi) and a holdover from the Hosni Mubarak era (Ahmed Shafik) who has publicly declared the revolution over.
Given how bad the offerings were on the two menus, the indigestion could have been worse.
Greek voters made the best of a bad situation and backed New Democracy. If Syriza was going to drop an a-bomb on Europe, we can rest assured that New Democracy isn’t capable of assembling one. In the Egyptians elections, the army won. Days before the presidential vote, it disbanded parliament and wrote a new constitution awarding itself special powers.
If Morsi ever gets to see the inside of the doors of the presidential palace, his writ is unlikely to extend much beyond them. Egyptians are about to lose their freedoms but the few who care will probably get to keep their booze and bikinis.
At the risk of being provincial, however, the most remarkable thing about these two election days and the bigger trends they represent is how Israel has been left unfazed by it all.
Yes, the Tel Aviv Stock Exchange has drooped over events in Europe and the instability in Egypt has caused security headaches and the loss of Israel's main source of natural gas, until the development of deep-water fields in the Mediterranean Sea is complete. But in fact, Israel is located quite literally between two of the greatest crises of the day and we're going about our business pretty much as of nothing is happening.
The worse evil
It’s natural to think that Egypt’s problems are the more worrying ones. It is right next door and, in the worst-case scenario, presents a military threat.
But less has changed in Egypt than meets the eye. There wasn’t so much of a revolution as there was a brief moment in the first weeks of 2011 when the dictator lost his cool. The army stepped in to save the situation and it will now try to run the country pretty much along the lines established in the Sadat-Mubarak era. It will do so chastened by how close it came to losing power and by the undeniable knowledge that Islamists do indeed command the loyalty of the great majority of Egyptians.
In the bestcase scenario, Egypt will stay on the sidelines of the Arab world and focus on its multiple domestic problems. At worst, it will turn into another Algeria, where the army stamped out an Islamic election victory and fought a 10-year civil war at the cost of tens of thousands of lives. From Israel, these are not great outcomes but they are certainly manageable.
Europe, however, is something different.
The fact that the Greek elections produced the least bad outcome simply means Europe remains on the same disastrous financial trajectory as before, not that anything has gotten better. Spain and Italy are teetering financially and the damage that will ensue if they fall is far more serious than anything Greece could ever cause.
In the end, Europe, and probably the euro, will pull through, but in the process both institutions will be chastened, discredited to a greater or lesser extent by the failure of the European model. That means Europe, for a generation or more, will not have the global standing it enjoyed in the post-war era.
So what? There are a lot of people in Israel would say Europe was a poor friend to Israel and the fewer chidings we get from EU commissioners or human rights groups the better. But that is a failure to see the forest for the trees, I would say even the saplings.
The bigger picture is that Europe has been Israel's biggest trade partner, a supportive albeit critical friend and that Europe and Israel (more often than not) share values of democracy and human rights. A world system dominated by, let’s say China as the most likely candidate, will be much more Hobbesian place where military and economic might are paramount, and small countries are left to their own devices.
However, halting and hypocritical Europe’s attitude toward Syria and Iran has been, without Europe and the U.S., Assad would be massacring his people with impunity and Iran would be marching forward unimpeded toward a bomb. Neither can Israel build settlements without fuss because of Europe. At least some of us can thank them for that, too.