Israeli responses to the Egyptian upheaval

January 31, 2011
Richard Kuper


Israeli leaders used to say that democracy in the Arab world is the key to peace and prosperity in the region. So why are they so unhappy with the current demonstrations?

Eyal Clyne,  30 January 2011

This piece was originally posted on the Israeli-based +972magazine

See also:
Zvi Bar-el, An Arab revolution fueled by methods of the West, Haaretz 30 January
Barak Ravid, Israel urges world to curb criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak, Haaretz 31 January
Gideon Levy, The Egyptian masses won’t play ally to Israel Haaretz 30 January

Four months ago, deputy-Foreign Minister Ayalon, who often serves as media front for Foreign Minister Lieberman, addressed the high-level audience of ministers, speakers of parliaments and politicians from across the globe about the lack of democracy in the Middle East”, according to the Israeli embassy to the US. Ayalon apparently said (highlights are mine):

“If the Middle East was more democratic, then there would be no conflict, as history has proven that, in general, democracies don’t fight each other or send terrorist proxies. Our conflict is not over territory or resources but over basic ideology, Israel is not accepted in the region because it is democratic. […] I am embarrassed to be the only speaker from a democracy in our region.” .

Given Israel’s complaints over the lack of democracy in the Middle East, one would expect it to be encouraged by the winds of change blowing from Algeria, Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt, and possibly Jordan, Syria, Lebanon, and Sudan. But this is not the case. Although Netanyahu specifically ordered his ministers not to comment on the Egyptian issue, at least one of his cabinet members did. “We believe that Egypt is going to overcome the current wave of demonstrations”, s/he told TIME Magazine. The minister added: “I’m not sure the time is right for the Arab region to go through the democratic process”, suggesting that instead of an open and free elections, what the Egyptians really need is “a process” that should “take generations”; and concluded with wishful thinking: “We do believe the regime is strong enough to overcome it”.

This statement is in line with the general atmosphere in the Hebrew media this morning. Israel’s main stories express concerns voiced by senior military brass, fearing of any change in the status quo. “We must ask ourselves what is the worst-case scenario” said Ya’acov Amidror, former head of the Israel Defense Forces’ Research and Assessment Directorate. And these concerns from a democratic Egypt are not limited to circles of army generals. “I was interested today to see reaction from pro-Israel groups in the United States — which were favorably disposed to the democratic aspirations of the Green movement in Iran in 2009 — to the Egyptian pro-democracy protests” – noted’s Justin Elliott. He quotes Alan Elsner, senior director of communications at the Israel Project, an influential D.C.-based pro-Israel group, saying: “There is a huge difference between the governments of Iran and of Egypt. The government of Egypt has a peace treaty with Israel and has observed it, [and Iran is antagonistic to it]“.

This is, in a nut shell, the reason for Israeli support vis-a-vis concern of a possible democratic revolution in other countries, such as Iran or Egypt. What comes first is the government’s own interest, not any kind of support for universal democracy and human rights. And as far as the Israeli mainstream is concerned, (a) a “friendly” suppressive dictator, ruling 80 million people for decades, is not necessarily worse than a neighboring democracy; and so (b) the support for the green-movement in Iran wasn’t due to its democratic values, as many claimed at the time to western media over and over again, but rather because they wished for a different regime in Iran with a different foreign policy.

Two things should be said about this revealing moment.

First, there is no guarantee, neither in Iran nor in Egypt, for the convenient policy Israel wishes for. For example, what would have happened if the green-movement would have culminated in a democratic revolution last year, but a democratically elected Iranian government would have continued to support a confrontational policy with regard to Israel, as indeed happened in Turkey, Lebanon, and with the Palestinians’ election of Hamas?

Second, while it is understandable that they hope for policies more convenient to their interests, it is less acceptable that they cynically abuse democratic rhetoric for this purpose. Now we know what some have suspected: When Israeli officials and supporters emphasize Israel’s democratic aspects, it is not because they truly unconditionally stand behind their universality, but rather to tactically raise sympathy among western publics, for their own needs. In particular, they are abusing the empathy for democratic values to promote and defend their military rule in the West Bank, and the ethnic and emergency laws and practices in Israel-proper. As we can see at least in the case of Egypt, they rather compromise their support of (other people’s) freedom and democracy, for their own interests, and this episode may cost them (whatever is left of) their integrity and reliability in the West.

Moreover, if we believe Netanyahu’s statements and follow his logic, more democracy should actually bring peace and security to the region. Only last year he asserted to British and American media that “democracies don’t fight each other”, (relying on liberal political scholars, who see this as self-evident truism). So, if this is indeed his belief, and it’s not the fear of war and security issues, then why are Israelis so worried of a democratic Egypt? A possible if unintentional outcome may be that Israel will lose its legitimizing argument, and its self-proclaimed monopoly of being the democratic beacon of the region; what’s more, Israelis they face fresh regional competition they may seem less democratic. If indeed things will turn this way, it would be a very interesting change in Middle East politics to see, that – as Arab countries become more democratic, Israel is and will be getting less so.

Eyal Clyne is an Israeli researcher of society(ies) in Israel-Palestine. He focuses on the conflict and other Israeli political issues. Some of the posts on his Hebrew blog appear also in English and elsewhere, and some of his pieces for JNews are also cross-posted with other sites.

Israel urges world to curb criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak

Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime.

Barak Ravid,  31 January 2011

Israel called on the United States and a number of European countries over the weekend to curb their criticism of President Hosni Mubarak to preserve stability in the region.

Jerusalem seeks to convince its allies that it is in the West’s interest to maintain the stability of the Egyptian regime. The diplomatic measures came after statements in Western capitals implying that the United States and European Union supported Mubarak’s ouster.

mubarak - AP - January 31 2011 Mubarak, left, and Suleiman, center, seen on Egyptian state TV.
Photo by: AP

Israeli officials are keeping a low profile on the events in Egypt, with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu even ordering cabinet members to avoid commenting publicly on the issue.

Senior Israeli officials, however, said that on Saturday night the Foreign Ministry issued a directive to around a dozen key embassies in the United States, Canada, China, Russia and several European countries. The ambassadors were told to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt’s stability. In a special cable, they were told to get this word out as soon as possible.

EU foreign ministers are to discuss the situation in Egypt at a special session today in Brussels, after which they are expected to issue a statement echoing those issued in recent days by U.S. President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Obama called on Mubarak to take “concrete steps” toward democratic reforms and to refrain from violence against peaceful protesters, sentiments echoed in a statement Saturday night by the leaders of Britain, France and Germany.

“The Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren’t considering their genuine interests,” one senior Israeli official said. “Even if they are critical of Mubarak they have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications.”

Netanyahu announced at Sunday’s weekly cabinet meeting that the security cabinet will convene Monday to discuss the situation in Egypt.

“The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist,” Netanyahu told his ministers. “We are closely monitoring events in Egypt and the region and are making efforts to preserve its security and stability.”

The Foreign Ministry has called on Israelis currently in Egypt to consider returning home and for those planning to visit the country to reconsider. It is telling Israelis who have decided to remain in Egypt to obey government directives.

An Arab revolution fueled by methods of the West

The Arab street suddenly uses ‘our’ methods: Facebook and Twitter – the tools of democracy we have invented – to present us with a situation of disorder.

Zvi Bar’el, 30 January 2011

So what has happened so far? A corrupt president in Tunisia flees, to cheers from around the world. Protests erupt in Egypt, and gloom descends. Protests are held in Iran, and the world cheers. A prime minister is deposed in Lebanon, to fear and dread. An Iraqi president is overthrown in a military offensive, and it’s called democracy. Raucous demonstrations take place in Yemen, and they’re called interesting but not terribly important.Why the different reactions? This is supposedly the new Middle East the West always wanted, but something still isn’t working out. This isn’t the Middle East they dreamed of in the Bush administration, and not what nourished Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s wildest dreams. A new, unexpected player has appeared: the public.

Up to now, the world has been divided into two camps: “complicated” countries where the government represents the public and every decision is subject to public oversight, and “easy” countries where business is conducted at the top and the public is just window dressing. The dividing line between the two has always been starkly clear. Everything north of the Mediterranean belonged to the first group and everything to the south and east to the second.

The north had political parties and trade unions, a left wing and a right wing, important intellectuals, celebrities who shaped public opinion, and of course, there was public opinion itself. In the south the division was simple. It was the distinction between moderates and extremists, meaning pro-Westerners and anti-Westerners.

If you’re a Saudi king who buys billions of dollars of American weapons, you’re pro-Western and therefore entitled to continue to rule a country without a parliament, one where thieves’ hands are amputated and women aren’t allowed to drive. If you’re an Egyptian president who supports the peace process, you’re pro-Western and have permission to continue to impose emergency rule in your country, jail journalists and opposition members, and fix elections.

And what if you’re the ruler of Qatar? There’s a problem classifying you. On the one hand, Qatar hosts the largest American military base in the Middle East. But it has close relations with Iran and Syria. On the one hand, its ruler promotes democratic values and its foreign minister occasionally meets with top Israeli officials. But it nurtures Al Jazeera.

Of course, we love Al Jazeera when it shows us exclusive pictures of mass demonstrations, discloses secret documents, and is open to interviewing Israeli and Jewish spokespeople. But we hate it because it covers Hamas and Hezbollah’s successes. The huge challenge of categorizing Qatar shows that the terms pro-Western and moderate have no connection to the universal values the West seeks to export. They only represent the degree of the fear and the threat posed by the values the anti-Westerners send to the West.

And all of a sudden, into the whirlwind, into the era of certainty and the lexicon in which the region’s countries are neatly packaged, the Arab “street” erupts, a sophisticated street. It uses “our” methods: Facebook and Twitter – the tools of democracy we have invented – to present us with a situation of disorder. How do you defend yourself against this? This Arab street has already used these tools to depose Tunisian President Zine El Abedine Ben Ali, and its ideas have gone viral. What if it manages to establish democracy in Egypt? In Yemen? Look what happened to the Shah of Iran, albeit using now-outmoded cassettes.

And when Al Jazeera’s cameras come close to the demonstrators, it also becomes clear that these are not religious radicals. Lawyers, journalists, university students, women with their heads uncovered, high school students, the secular and the religious are taking to the streets. They’re not shouting “God is great,” but “corruption out,” “dictator out” and “we want jobs.” Such nice slogans make you identify with them. In the words of “The Internationale”: “arise ye workers from your slumber.” It makes us want to join them until we remember that, as U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt described Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza, he “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” It’s disrupting the order of things.

We don’t have to wait for other regimes to fall to understand that the revolution is happening before our very eyes. Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak will not fall due to demonstrations in Cairo’s Tahrir Square, and Yemen’s ruler will also continue to rule by force. But it’s a revolution of awareness and of the fundamental notions of what the Middle East is. Most importantly, we need a revolution in the way the West views the region.

haaretz.comThe Egyptian masses won’t play ally to Israel

As long as the masses in Egypt and in the entire Arab world continue seeing the images of tyranny and violence from the occupied territories, Israel will not be able to be accepted, even it is acceptable to a few regimes.

Gideon Levy, 30 January 2011

Three or four days ago, Egypt was still in our hands. The army of pundits, including our top expert on Egypt, Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, said that “everything is under control,” that Cairo is not Tunis and that Mubarak is strong. Ben-Eliezer said that he had spoken on the phone with a senior Egyptian official, and he assured him that there’s nothing to worry about. You can count on Fuad and Hosni, both about to become has-beens.

On Friday night everything changed. It turned out that the Israeli intelligence estimates, which were recited ad nauseum by the court analysts, were again, shall we say, not the epitome of accuracy. The people of Egypt had their say, and had the nerve not to fall in line with Israeli wishes. A moment before Mubarak’s fate is sealed, the time has come for drawing the Israeli conclusions.

Not a plague of darkness in Egypt but the light of the Nile: the end of a regime propped up by bayonets is foretold. It can go on for years, and the downfall sometimes comes at the least expected time, but in the end it will happen. Not only Damascus and Amman, Tripoli and Rabat, Tehran and Pyongyang: Ramallah and Gaza are also destined to be shaken.

The hypocritical and sanctimonious division of countries by the U.S. and the West between the “axis of evil” on the one hand, and the “moderates” on the other, has collapsed. If there is an axis of evil, then it includes all the non-democratic regimes, including the “moderates” and the “stable” and the “pro-Western.” Today Egypt, tomorrow Palestine. Yesterday Tunis, tomorrow Gaza.

Not only is the Fatah regime in Ramallah and the Hamas regime in Gaza destined to fall, but perhaps also, one day, the Israeli occupation, which certainly meets all the criteria of criminal tyranny and an evil regime. It too relies only on guns. It too is hated by all levels of the ruled people, even if they stands helpless, unorganized and unequipped, facing a big army. The first conclusion: Better to end it well, with agreements based on justice and not on power, a moment before the masses have their say and succeed in banishing the darkness.

A second, no less important conclusion: Alliances with unpopular regimes can be torn up overnight. As long as the masses in Egypt and in the entire Arab world continue seeing the images of tyranny and violence from the occupied territories, Israel will not be able to be accepted, even it is acceptable to a few regimes.

The Egyptian regime became an ally of the Israeli occupation. The joint siege of Gaza is irrefutable proof of that. The Egyptian people didn’t like it. They never liked the peace agreement with Israel, in which Israel committed itself to “respect the legitimate rights of the Palestinian people” but never kept its word. Instead, the people of Egypt got the scenes of Operation Cast Lead.

It is not enough to have a handful of embassies in order to be accepted in the region. There also have to be embassies of goodwill, a just image and a state that is not an occupier. Israel has to make its way into the hearts of the Arab peoples, who will never agree to the continued repression of their brothers, even if their intelligence ministers will continue to cooperate with Israel.

If there’s one thing shared by all factions of the Egyptian opposition, it is their seething hatred of Israel. Now their representatives will rise to power, and Israel will find itself in a difficult situation. Neither will anything remain of the virtual achievement that Netanyahu often paraded – the alliance with the “moderate” Arab regimes against Iran. A real alliance with Egypt and its sister-states can only be based on the end of the occupation, as desired by the Egyptian people, and not on a common enemy, as an interest of its regime.

The masses of the Egyptian people – please note: on all levels – took their fate in their hands. There is something impressive and cheering in that. No power, not even that of Mubarak, who Ben-Eliezer likes so much, can overcome them. In Washington the gravity of the moment has already been understood, and they were quick to dissociate from Mubarak and tried to find favor in the eyes of his people. That should happen at some point in Jerusalem.

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