On Egypt, from Israel

Hod Hasharon, IsraelI write from my son Daniel’s home, about 20 minutes outside of Tel Aviv. It has been six months since I saw Daniel, and I’ve been giddily happy in ways that elude me in Washington DC. I juggle that pleasure with graver feelings about what is happening a little distance to the south in Egypt, with, to date, 200 dead and hundreds more injured. I shudder along with many Israelis at the possibilities. I texture these emotions with contemplation of Natan Sharansky’s take on democracy and what is happening in Egypt—which, to complete the pastiche, permits me a respectful nod to one of Sharansky’s heroes, Ronald Reagan, who would have been 100 on Sunday.

When Israelis shudder these days, it is not with a gush of familial affection for Mubarak. After all, for Mubarak, as for most Middle Eastern tyrants today and the European tyrants last century, the Jews are such serviceable scapegoats. Indeed, Mubarak’s counter-offensive against the protesters began by blaming Israel and the Mossad for the protests. When the pro-Mubarak forces began attacking foreign journalists with shouts of “Jew!” they reflected the sinister reports from Egyptian state-run television that Jews had infiltrated the protests.

But Mubarak was a credible peace partner for three decades. He met regularly with Netanyahu. His steadfast adherence to the peace treaty with Israel has stabilized a volatile region and provided a critical paradigm for the world to see: coexistence is possible, honorable, and mutually beneficial. There has been no region-wide saber-rattling, much less war, against Israel since the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Israel’s president, Shimon Peres, fairly credited Mubarak with saving many Arab and Israeli lives by preventing war in the Middle East.

So, despite Mubarak’s periodic indulgence in cynical Jew-baiting – a global phenomenon to which Israelis are accustomed – Israeli prime ministers have regularly instructed their officials to avoid public criticisms of Mubarak. When the protests broke out in Egypt, Netanyahu wisely instructed his cabinet to stay mum. For the Israeli government – reflexively reviled both by protesters and regime – there was no percentage in taking sides. But the Israeli public hasn’t been mum.

For a people who suffered genocidal slaughter within the memory of some of the living, Israelis are remarkably even-tempered about anti-Semitism. It’s a kind of peace-for-hatred swap. Give us peace, keep your anti-Semitic cesspools. We’ll take a rough stability and reconcile to being blamed for shark attacks in the Red Sea. Hardly a bargain crafted in heaven – but enormously better than the hellish alternative, cesspools and war. It’s not a formula for long-term stability – all that government-inspired hatred will eventually spew somewhere – but for Israelis, for decades, it has been the only formula available.

That formula also makes many Israelis uneasy with Arab democracy. The “power of the people,” after all, springs forth according to the attitudes of the people – and populations programmed for so long to despise Jews may exercise less restraint than the autocrats they topple.

A 2009 Pew Research Center opinion survey of Arab attitudes toward Jews would be chilling at half the hostility: 95% of Egyptians, 97% of Jordanians, 97% of Palestinians and 98% of Lebanese hold unfavorable opinions of Jews. In other words, virtually the entire population.

Note that the survey specifically asked about “Jews,” not Israelis or the Israeli government. Note further the breakdown in Lebanon: 98% of both Sunni and Shia Muslims, and 97% of Lebanese Christians, hold unfavorable opinions of Jews. There is nothing inherently Muslim about anti-Semitism. Among Israeli Arabs, 35% hold unfavorable views of Jews. But most Middle Eastern Muslims live under governments that cynically spread virulent anti-Semitism like candy. Where there are populations other than Muslims in these countries, as with the Lebanese Christians, they gobble the candy just as fast as the Christians in Tsarist Russia and Nazi Germany.

It warrants note that Egypt’s anti-Semitism co-exists with an astounding level of racism concerning sub-Saharan Africa. I am reminded, only suggestively, not conclusively, of imperial Japan’s racial attitudes, not least the analogy of being in a continent, but not of it, rather above it. Egypt of course cannot embark upon a program like Japan’s in the 1930s – thankfully no modern nation can. But do I understand Israel’s uneasiness over the prospect of unleashing popular Egyptian attitudes in the Middle East? Yes.

Here is Israel’s geo-military reality, and why Egypt-anxiety looms large: Israel borders Hamas-controlled Gaza, Hizbullah-controlled Lebanon, Iranian ally Syria, Jordan and Egypt. If the largest of these, Egypt, turns Islamist, repudiates the treaty with Israel, or otherwise renews saber-rattling against Israel, then Israel confronts a very grave security threat.

Mubarak, for all his typical autocratic pathologies, has been a steadfast partner in the maintenance of peace with Israel. Egyptian “democracy” has the disadvantage of being substantially less predictable, even assuming some early version of democracy has any staying power.

Some Israeli commentators, bucking the prevailing anxiety, note that there are many good and decent people, with the most genuine democratic aspirations, involved in the Egyptian protests, and this is doubtless true. But history has often been unkind to good and decent people in the throes of revolution. There were heroically good and decent people in the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution, and the 1979 Iranian Revolution—and in the first two, none would have guessed the ultimate victory of the most radical and bloodthirsty faction. Each of the three became brutally repressive and terrorist regimes. Hillary Clinton was right to warn against repeating the takeover in Iran, with a “small group that doesn’t represent the full diversity of Egyptian society” seizing control and imposing its ideological beliefs.

Natan Sharansky has a different take, one unencumbered by doubts about democracy. He is one voice in a great crowd of voices in Israel, and not a dominant one. He had more influence in Washington than in Tel Aviv. George W. Bush said in 2005, “if you want a glimpse of how I think about foreign policy, read Natan Sharansky’s book, The Case for Democracy.” The book became a bestseller in the U.S.

Sharansky survived nine brutal years in the Soviet gulag for his advocacy on behalf of Soviet Jews wishing to leave the Soviet Union. Released in 1986, thanks to his wife’s campaign and the personal interest of Ronald Reagan, he moved to Israel and became active in Israeli politics. Sharansky was in the gulag when Ronald Reagan called the Soviet Union an “evil empire.” For Sharansky, it was a transformative moment, a rekindling of faith in the world to see evil and name it so—the necessary beginning to confronting and weakening it. It is a capacity with uneven fortunes in all times, including modern times.

The Wall Street Journal’s David Feith recently interviewed Natan Sharansky for the occasion of Reagan’s 100th birthday, and it is a most rewarding read. Sharansky insists that all people, regardless of religion or culture, desire freedom. “That’s a very powerful universal message. It was powerful when the Iron Curtain exploded, and it’s as powerful today.” As the events in Tunisia and Egypt illustrate, he says, there are limits to control by fear.

The current anxiety about what happens next, according to Sharansky, is an anxiety of our own making.

“Why is there such a big danger that if now there will be free choice for Egyptians, then the Muslim Brotherhood can rise to power?” Mr. Sharansky asks. “Because they are the only organized force which exists in addition to Mubarak’s regime.” Mr. Mubarak quashed almost all political dissent, with the general acquiescence of his American patrons. But he couldn’t stop the Brotherhood from spreading its message in mosques. Meanwhile, he used the Brotherhood as a bogeyman, telling the U.S. that only he stood between radical Islamists and the seat of power.

Sharansky exposes the fatal circularity – what we mean when we say “come back to haunt you” – of bedding with hate-mongering dictators.

Sharansky points out that Mr. Mubarak is no great man of peace. Indeed, since 1979, Egyptians’ “hatred toward Israel only grew.… Egypt became one of the world centers of anti-Semitism.” That’s because all dictators must cultivate external enemies in order to maintain their grip on power. So even when Mr. Mubarak “lost Israel as an enemy, he continued to need Jews as the enemy.”

Sharansky’s prescription is eminently sensible, if unlikely to be embraced in the U.S. Mubarak must go—lest hatred of Israel and America reach an even higher feverish pitch—and then, instead of focusing on an illusory “stability,” U.S. policy should link U.S. aid to measurable progress in Egypt’s development of free institutions.

Sharansky believes the White House pronouncements about Egypt are getting better – especially compared to President Obama’s disturbing silence about human rights or dissidents in Egyptian jails during his Cairo speech, and the administration’s truly bewildering and inexcusable silence during the 2009 uprising in Iran – which, unlike, Egypt, was actively hostile toward America and Israel.  It’s troubling to think the Obama administration is learning some basics on the job, but bearable if the trajectory is good.

My teenage son looks over my shoulder and says he has heard of Sharansky but can’t recall what he does. We talk about it briefly. We could all bear a little more familiarity with the voice of Natan Sharansky.

12 Responses to On Egypt, from Israel

  1. Terrance H. says:

    Kendrick,

    Thank you for the post.

    I’ve always had a special place in my heart for the Middle-East. So dear to me is this foreign land, I once incessantly lobbied my parents to allow a family friend to take me there, as he offered to pay my way. Once permission was finally granted for me to visit this seemingly wonderful well of history, a metamorphosis from a brave, curious young man to a gutless coward occurred. I chickened-out. Something I think my parents were sure would happen.

    Many say I shouldn’t be ashamed, as I was only sixteen at the time. But the dirty little secret I’ve kept until now is that I would likely quiver with fear if the chance were presented a second time, even though I’m twenty-five now and desperately want to visit. So it must be said that you and your son are far braver than me. I wish you both the very best of luck.

    Now that I have sufficiently embarrassed myself, I would like to pose a question.

    It’s apparent to me – and to all realists, as you’ve noted – that the Muslim Brotherhood is poised to take over should Mubarak’s regime tumble, like so many stones chattering down a Middle-Eastern hill I’m too chicken to visit. That much we know. They are, as Sharansky said, far more organized than other opposition groups. So I wonder: Aren’t we merely postponing the inevitable by lobbying for Mubarak and a “peaceful transition” of power come September? Unless the Muslim Brotherhood bizarrely decides it doesn’t want power in Egypt – or even more bizarre than that, changes it’s philosophy – we’ve managed to postpone the inevitable for a few months.

    What is the real solution, as you see it?

    • Hey Terrance. I’ve been to Israel close to 20 times since 1983. Never once felt unsafe. You should visit. Truly beautiful country.

      While a takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood is certainly one of the plausible scenarios, it’s not the only one. Another scenario is the Muslim Brotherhood garnering a number of legislative seats that reflects its 25-30% popularity. Not enough for control, but certainly enough to influence the direction of the country. The Muslim Brotherhood has been very ambiguous, even contradictory, in its pronoucnements on the question of the treaty with Israel — probably to preserve its options depending upon how much power it does, or doesn’t, ultimately have. At this point, though it’s still early, I think it unlikely that we’ll see an Iranian-style takeover by Islamists, much less a Hamas-style takeover as happened in Gaza. The Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt is not as powerful or popular as either the mullahs in Iran or Hamas in Gaza were. Hopefully, a careful and deliberate pacing will give other factions a chance to play organizational catch-up ball. So I think we’re well-advised to do most of our work behind the scenes, with occasional pronouncements encouraging or applauding movements toward freer civic institutions. I like Sharansky’s linkage approach, but doubt this administration will go that route. Hope I’m wrong. Ultimately, we won’t control, and may not even much influence, events in Egypt. The best we can do is be ready with intelligent responses to a number of scenarios that Egyptians themselves will dictate.

  2. Snoring Dog Studio says:

    I’m glad to have found this blog. I’ve been listening to and reading as much as I can about these issues and the players – in part to avoid the taint that comes from camps who present such un-evenhanded viewpoints. I do think this is a wait and see situation – but I certainly hope the seeing is followed by measured, intelligent responses. Thank you for this post.

  3. Paul Grubbs says:

    Kendrick- thank you for posting the disturbing aspect of OTJ training for our commander-in-chief. the administrations apparent lack of perspective is a great cause to pause and to pray. there are no easy answers to the Mideast. Sooner or later we must realize that building democracy should be left as a work at home project and be very careful in engaging dictators no matter how benevolent. I believe it was FDR who said, “sometimes you have to walk with the devil to cross a bridge.” Maybe we should just stay on our side!

    • Thanks Paul, and thanks very much for the post on Facebook! Much appreciated. I agree with your skepticism about engaging dictators, but I’m not sure I’d agree we should just stay on our side of the bridge. The global stakes are too high for us to invite isolationism again.

  4. Although Mubarak has been a “credible peace partner for three decades,” he has also been that tyrant you mentioned. I just hate it when our country shoves “democracy” down countries’ throats to justify war. Then when another country like Egypt is struggling for theirs, we’re not that supportive because of our interests and that of our allies.

    I know we don’t agree on these issues, but this was a well-written (as usual) post. Very thought provoking.

    I’m glad you’re able to see your son. How cool! I hope you have fun and make nice memories during your visit.

    • Thanks spinny. It’s a great visit. Daniel turns 18 on Friday. Kinda surreal. We do disagree on several of these issues, but I always appreciate your generosity of spirit in dialogue. And I do agree with you that we’ve been rather wildly inconsistent about democracy promotion — though I wouldn’t necessarily favor obligating us to perfect consistency in foreign policy. Put another way, the fact that we cannot do all the good there is to be done does not mean we cannot do any good.

      • Wow, Kendrick, I didn’t know he was so young!

        ” Put another way, the fact that we cannot do all the good there is to be done does not mean we cannot do any good.”

        Very nicely put. :-)

  5. Steve Ball says:

    It’s almost a relief to see information from the middle east from someone that I trust, and that person is close to the events of the day. I haven’t known of you for a long time, but I trust what you say. Much different than what I see from the news channels. I am very fearful for Israel. I don’t know if I could rest if I were a Jew in Israel these days. I guess if you sleep with dogs you get used to the fleas. Your blog doesn’t make me any less fearful. We live in historic times. You see them with a clearer eye than most. Thanks. IMHO

  6. Nader says:

    Steve, can you help clarify something for me? Is my wife’s family, who lives in Jerusalem but are not Israeli, dogs or fleas?Clearly you do not know Kendrick. I am certain Kendrick does not approve of your analogy to non-Israeli’s in the area. You highlight the lack of understanding many Americans have about the Middle East. Thank you.

    Kendrick, I read this post earlier this week and just too busy to reply timely. I admit that things are a bit different since you wrote this, now with Mubarak’s resignation, so I will comment according to this new reality and not about your entire piece, and hopefully, I can help give a different perspective on this issue to your readers. My prayers to those Egyptians who lost their lives in fighting for their freedom. If you ever meet an Egyptian, rich or poor, they are all about dignity and respect.. they are amazing people and Egypt is the cornerstone of Middle East politics. I am watching them now on TV, as they clean their streets after their uprising, heads held high in the air, and without a functional government in place.

    My wife’s family is Palestinian and lives in Jerusalem, about 20 miles from Daniel. This fact keeps our television on news channels (including Al-Jazeera) around the clock watching the events unfold in Egypt. What is funny is that there was not one one mention of Mubarak blaming Jews or Israel for the uprising here in the Western media. Yes, there was coverage of some “pro-Mubarak” demonstrators saying they hate CNN’s/ABC’s Anderson/Amanpour and blamed the western media, hell, they even blamed Hamas and Hezbollah … but most Egyptians know that these guys are the same guys on camels and horses who were paid by Mubarak to cause chaos and fear. I do not know if it was reported in that manner in the Israeli media. I do not doubt that Mubarak may have tried that strategy in the beginning to, again, cause chaos and fear.

    But let’s face it.. anyone who knows the Middle East conflict realizes that what happened last night in Egypt is NOT what Israel wants and that there is NO WAY the Egyptian people (or Israeli people for that matter) would ever believe or blame Israel for pushing Mubarak out of power. .

    Israel only has to worry about Mubarak’s exit is because there is not a “lasting” peace in place… and the reason there is no lasting peace is because Israel builds and annexes Palestinian land against UN law. Just as Mubarak was forced on the Egyptians, “peace” with Israel was “forced” on the Egyptian people. Do you really think that Egyptians didn’t want to allow medical aid get to the innocent Palestinian children during the Israeli seige on Gaza? The spokeperson of the Muslim Brotherhood responded to a question on CNN regarding peace with Israel and whether they would recognize Israel… he replied,”We do not hate Jews, we respect all religions.” (yes, not really an answer) He was then pressed about recognizing Israel and his response (which speaks volumes) was, “The question is does Israel recognize a Palestinian state?” Now that is the question.

    But what I hope Egyptians have shown to the whole world, including and especially the Muslim world, is that change can be accomplished through non-violence, as Mandela, Ghandi and MLK have shown us before, but we simply keep forgetting their message. Approximately 100 innocent lives were lost in Egypt’s uprising, but this death toll does not compare to the death toll in Iraq and Afghanistan, nor to many other regime changes/wars… and how much did this “war” cost us or the Egyptian people? hmmmm…. maybe they are on to something.

    My personal belief is that our government did nothing to stop this uprising as a pay back to Israel, specifically Netanyahu and his PM, for sticking their noses up to the United States when we request that Israel halt the building of illegal settlements on Palestinian land… so now the administartion will play their hand and watch Netanyahu sweat while he feels a two border weakness…. and remember, we ask Israel to do it for our (American) security interests against terrorists… as I have commented before, the continued building of illegal Israeli settlements is the biggest propaganda tool for recruitment of Muslim terrorists against the US and Israel. This is why the terrorists are able to sell this as a religious war against Islam. Muslims ask “How come the Arab/Muslim nations have to follow UN law regarding their territorial borders and not hold Israel to the same standard?”

    And as for the statistics regarding Arabs unfavorable view towards Jews… my experience is that Jews and Israelis are synonymous to Arabs…and the negative view towards them by Arabs is, again, based on the continued land grabbing by Israel. Imagine Daniel getting forced out of his home because Palestinians have told him that there is no more Israel… he’d probably have a negative view of Palestinians and Muslims. That is what Arabs do… the only Jews they refer to are Israeli. They only know of Israeli Jews.

    You and many others say “I support a two state solution” but no one can provide a description of the size or boundaries of the Palestinian state. Did you know that UN law/resolutions do not recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel? or even a part of Israel? Only Israel says it is so. It’s a two state solution soon, or I fear the ripple effect of Egypt.

    Kendrick, why don’t you discuss this issue of Israeli settlements? I’d love to learn why it is ok for them to continue.

    How do we end terrorist recruitment against the US and end our fear of “non-Jews” in the Middle East?… the first step is recognizing a Palestinian state and putting an end to the Middle East conflict. Then we will hopefully see true democracy spread across the Middle East and not be as “fearful” while we watch it happen…. just my two cents.

    • Thanks Nader, for a characteristically thoughtful and thorough reply. I know you’ve been wanting me to write about the settlements. I haven’t done so for several reasons, including the fact that I haven’t settled (as it were) on a definitive view. But here’s a preliminary take. I don’t like the settlements (excepting certain building in Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem that the Obama administration unwisely, unfairly and ineptly chose to make an international incident), but as a matter of realpolitik, do I blame Israel for creating facts on the ground? No. Israel honored a moratorium on building and then the moratorium expired. Not only was no peace agreement in sight — it appeared we had gone backward, and the Obama administration had contributed to the decline. So Israel could make another unilateral concession — extend the moratorium — or it could re-engage in building, thereby seeking mutual concessions. Was it ultimately wise policy? I don’t know. If, as you indicate, there is such wide consensus in the Muslim world that the settlements are *the* source of anger against Israel, then perhaps the policy was unwise. But there is something suspect about yet another new reason to demonize Israel and blame it for a lack of peace progress. It’s *always* something Israel does or doesn’t do. Even though Israel has actually, more than once, put a Palestinian state on the table (indeed, originally agreed to the 1948 UN partition), Palestinians have consistently rejected these offers, and opted for war or violence. So to say now that the settlements constitute *the* obstacle to a peace agreement simply doesn’t ring true. And finally, settlements constitute facts on the ground — but not immutable facts. Peace negotiations have long contemplated “land swaps” that rationalize populations in Israel and a new Palestinian state. And where Israel would need to withdraw from settlements as part of a peace deal, they’ve already shown the fortitude to do it — as with the unilateral withdrawal from Gaza that sometimes pitted the Israeli army against Israeli settlers. So instead of finding ever new ways to demonize Israel about being an “obstacle” to a peace agreement, how about let’s just negotiate a two-state solution? Settlements would be part of that negotiation, instead of a frankly lame excuse not to negotiate at all.

  7. Pingback: Arab Spring, Democracy Fall? « The Prince and The Little Prince

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