On Egypt, from Israel
February 9, 2011 12 Comments
Hod Hasharon, Israel—I 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.