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Israel's Caution toward Egypt

Israel's Caution toward Egypt

Why Thomas Friedman's rebuke of Israel is wrong.

by

Thomas Friedman takes time out from his Cairo reportage to castigate the Government of Israel for not urging the American government to hasten the departure of Hosni Mubarak. Mubarak, after all, merely made Egypt's American alliance and its peace treaty with Israel the cornerstones of his foreign policy for thirty years.

One could wish that Mr. Friedman's enthusiasm for democracy in the Arab world were consistent and principled. If it were, he might have warned, as some Israelis did, against importing Yasser Arafat and the PLO to the West Bank and imposing his dictatorial rule upon the Palestinians. He might have shared my shock and foreboding upon hearing Israeli leaders justify this imposition by arguing that Arafat would "keep order, without bothering with courts or civil rights organizations." He would not have been surprised, as I was not, when the argument proved false and bright hopes of Oslo led to over a decade of dictatorship in the Palestinian Authority, to war and terror.

Liberal political culture involves a commitment to the twin values of democracy and peace. Where the former is fragile, the latter is likely to be as well. When liberal democracies sign peace treaties with countries where the future of democratic culture is uncertain, they must necessarily do so with trepidation. Like democrats everywhere, I wish for the Egyptian people to enjoy the blessings of liberty, and hope that their popular revolution leads to it. But I do not delude myself that the path is likely to be either quick or certain.

Democratic transitions tend to be the work of generations.

Democratic transitions tend to be the work of generations. They often involve episodes of backsliding into aggressive authoritarianism. I well remember the hopes and enthusiasm that greeted the dawn of democracy in my native USSR twenty years ago. Many of those hopes have been dashed. Mubarak was an authoritarian leader, but he was prudent enough to understand his people's interest in peace. We will be lucky if whatever regime emerges in Egypt serves the Egyptian people's interest in peace equally well.

The past month's events in Egypt are not "unprecedented" in the Middle East, as Friedman claims. They share parallels with events in Tehran 31 years ago, and in Beirut 5 years ago, though there are differences as well.

In Tehran, street demonstrations brought down an unpopular leader. Then, too, popular revolution was accompanied by paroxysms of enthusiasm on the part of foreign observers who thought that Iranian politics began and ended with what they could observe in the streets. The major difference is that in falling, the Shah of Iran took down with him all Iran's conservative, pro-Western institutions. For a while the Iranian political arena bubbled with transient forces and figures who had their day and disappeared. Then the new political hegemon took over, and the region and the world have regretted it since.

In Beirut, Lebanon's Cedar Revolution forced out a foreign occupier and seemed to restore Lebanon's sovereignty and democracy. Liberal, pro-Western forces seemed well-organized and ready to lead. Then, too, popular revolution was accompanied by paroxysms of enthusiasm on the part of foreign observers who thought that Lebanese politics began and ended with what they could observe in the streets. How poignant Lebanon's tragedy is today. Fear, not freedom, guides Lebanon's Parliament as it votes to resume the yoke of Lebanon's oppressors. The Lebanese army, once touted as the counterpoise to Hizbullah, has become its proxy.

The Egyptian people's uprising creates hope for the eventual emergence of democracy, but it also opens the door for demagogues who, as in Iran and Lebanon, will fan hatred and fanaticism and try to ride them to power. We well know who will be the object of their demagoguery. I would have expected Mr. Friedman, instead of singling out the government of Israel for criticism, to call on all liberal democratic regimes to aid in promoting the liberal values of tolerance and peace within the newly liberated Egyptian polity. Without such values neither peace nor democracy will survive.

Will Egypt's army retain control of the situation? Will it use that control to advance or derail the revolutionary agenda of the forces that demonstrated in Tahrir Square? Will it lose control and let Egypt slip into a whirlwind like that which engulfed Tehran 30 years ago?

I do not know. By his own admission, Friedman does not know either. He can only wield influence without responsibility, condemning those who decline to join in his transports of enthusiasm as "out-of-touch, in-bred and unimaginative." He advises my government to embrace Egypt's uncertainty as a good thing, because it may lead to a positive outcome. But it is well to note that as the Egyptian crisis came to a close the positions of my government and the American government became parallel. Both governments heard the assurances of Egypt's Higher Army Council regarding the stability of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty with relief.

Friedman wonders how Israel's government can point out the strength of its own democracy while treating the possible emergence of democracy in Egypt with caution. Serious reflection will reveal that no other approach does justice to the case. Democracy in Egypt and Israel are profoundly different.

The foundations of Israel's commitment to liberty and democracy are, equally, the foundations of our abhorrence of war.

Our reconstituted national institutions, beginning with the Zionist Movement founded in 1897, have been democratic since their inception. Democracy is bred in our bone; divided by our own political and cultural differences, we have developed tolerance for different cultures and opinions, sometimes grudging tolerance, over several generations. Israel's democracy is based on a firm and deep foundation of social and political capital that no other people in the region can equal.

The foundations of our commitment to liberty and democracy are, equally, the foundations of our abhorrence of war. When nations make peace with Israel and sign a treaty to that effect, they know the Israeli people will not permit the violation of that treaty. In that sense Israel is indeed different; but the difference lies deep and may not be evident to one who confines his vision to the events unfolding in Tahrir Square.

Publicists who bear no responsibility for the conduct of their nation's policy can afford to allow their enthusiasms to color their writing. Elected representatives who bear responsibility for the welfare of their people enjoy no such luxury. They must take the counsels of prudence. Only a puerile and superficial enthusiasm would urge us blindly to embrace change which may endanger the peace that the Middle East has already achieved, with such difficulty and at such cost, because it may yield a positive result in some as yet uncertain future. It is far wiser, as the American administration has found, to try to ensure that the process of change in Egypt is accompanied by elements of stability that help secure peace. This has been my government's policy as well.

Published: February 20, 2011


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Visitor Comments: 17

(17) Anonymous, November 10, 2014 5:50 PM

empty words are useless

(16) Anonymous, November 10, 2014 5:45 PM

empty word are useless in this situation

(15) Dani, April 19, 2011 3:09 PM

At a CAMERA event many years ago I clearly recall during a Q&A, a questioner asked Andrea Levin to comment on a series of articles by Thomas Friedman for consistantly scolding Israel for any and every reason that he could invent while excusing Israels enemies for their brutal behavior. Levin's terse one sentence comment was as follows: "Thomas Friedman has a lot to answer for" . That still stands...

(14) Anonymous, February 23, 2011 3:59 PM

no demacrecy in evil coutrios and united states is high respected

(13) Elias Ghosalkar, February 23, 2011 1:20 PM

Excellent reply to Friedman's armchair blabber

I am so glad to see a fitting reply to Friedman's nonsensical blabber..(which anyways never comes as a big suprise). The US adminstration was grasping in the dark (again as always) as they didnt see this coming..but then again its always Israel who doesnt do its homework properly....People fail to understand, but the situation in Egypt is extremely unnerving as history has proved that you only need a fanatical mulla to hijack the entire democratic movement (like what happened in Iran). All liberal voices were silenced in Iran and anyone with divergent views or opinions was considered an enemy of Islam. There lies a real and potent threat of history repeating itself especially since democratic values are not deep rooted in the middle eastern society and psyche. We can just hope that the Egyptians and countless people in the middle east achieve their goals & dreams of having a vibrant democracy in their country and the revolutions we should all really look forward to are in Iran and Syria.

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