Washington's role in expediting the political exit of its longtime ally Hosni Mubarak aroused understandable anxiety in Israel. If the United States is willing to abandon a trusted friend like the former Egyptian president, wondered Israeli pundits and policymakers, might it not desert us just as quickly?
But such a fear may prevent us from seeing the true lesson emanating from Washington's choice. The United States did not abandon Mubarak because their interests diverged; rather, it did so despite their convergence. Washington's move reflected a profound truth about the nature of its strategic alliances: They only last when the partner is a democracy, truly committed to human rights and the rule of law. Sure, the United States supported the Suhartos, the Pinochets and the Mubaraks of the world when it suited its national interests. In fact, driven by those interests, it still supports some non-democracies, such as Saudi Arabia.
However, only alliances with fellow democracies such as Australia and the United Kingdom are built on foundations that are immune to changing political fortunes, such as the one experienced by President Mubarak. Indeed, Israel and its supporters in the United States traditionally assert that the "special relationship" between both countries is based equally on interests and a shared commitment to democracy. It is no coincidence, therefore, that at the recent zenith of the Israeli-American alliance, in the previous decade, President George W. Bush famously stated that "If you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky's book 'The Case for Democracy.'"
Israel's commitment to democracy is further important as a cornerstone of the alliance with the United States because of the Jewish factor. Alongside strategic interests, and friendly public opinion, it was the political, material and moral support of American Jewry that cemented the Israeli-U.S. alliance. With the ingrained commitment of the majority of American Jews to liberal freedoms, Israel's own commitment to these ideas has been crucial in maintaining Jewish-American support.
Therefore, separate from its moral significance, democracy as a system of governance and as a set of values is central to Israel's strategic interests. Residing in a region that generally rejects us, and lacking the resources needed to develop a comprehensive military arsenal, Israel traditionally sought an alliance with a great power. Since the late 1960s, the United States had played this role and assisted us not only to survive, but also to emerge as one of the strongest players in the region.
Democracy is a strategic asset for Israel, even beyond its importance in the relationship with the United States. If we learned something from the 20th century, it is that open societies tend to win; closed societies tend to lose. Though not perfect democracies at the time, the United States, France and the United Kingdom beat the non-democratic imperial monarchies of Germany, Russia, Austria-Hungary and Turkey in World War I. The United States and the United Kingdom went on to dismantle the authoritarian regimes in Germany, Japan and Italy in World War II. They then succeeded in overcoming their wartime non-democratic ally, the Soviet Union, during the Cold War.
Similarly, the almost century-long campaign against the democratic Jewish national home by its non-democratic neighbors failed, at least in part, due to Israel's democratic qualities. Indeed, Israel was able to choose effective leaders and hold accountable those who failed; to deploy armed forces motivated by a desire to defend a just society; and to control, to an extent, the inevitable adverse effects that come with being a society that is perpetually engaged in external violent conflict.
Israel's effectiveness in competing regionally is not limited to traditional security matters. In fact, the country's democratic values helped it to adjust to the kind of competition fostered in the new globalized world that opened up after the end of the Cold War. Israel's transparent institutions assist in attracting foreign direct investment, and its vibrant society helps keep a large portion of its mobile, qualified workforce at home - despite the attractions of bigger, richer places.
Yet, we cannot rest on our laurels. Just as our non-democratic neighbors may become more democratic, we risk becoming less so. A host of legislative measures, attacks on academics in universities, and openly discriminatory calls by religious and political leaders suggest that our commitment to an open society that respects minority rights may be weakening. A statement made recently by a famed democracy activist perhaps best exemplifies the irony of this possible transformation: "Twenty percent of all" American foreign aid "should go to strengthening and developing democratic institutions." Yet, some Israeli NGOs that might hope to benefit from this suggestion could soon face legal sanctions for doing just that, if certain legislation is passed by the Knesset. Ironic, isn't it? After all, this prescription for freedom - aimed at the Arab world - was proposed recently by the director general of the Jewish Agency, Natan Sharansky.
Some of us may feel uncomfortable with the American response to events in the region. But let us not forget its real message: Democracy, with all its imperfections, is not an encumbrance on Israeli national security, it is its foundation.
Ehud Eiran is an associate at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government. He is the author of the "The Essence of Longing: Erez Gerstein and the War in Lebanon" published in Hebrew by Yediot Ahronot in 2007.
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