Israel’s Best Policy Option: Democracy in Egypt

by Gedalyah Reback

Prime Minister Netanyahu is categorically wrong in his approach to the Egyptian protests, should never have agreed to military reinforcements’ deployment in Sharm el-Sheikh the week of the uprising, and risks manufacturing the very scenario the Israeli security establishment fears would result from an Egyptian revolution.

The 1979 Iranian Revolution is, and no doubt should, shape Israeli and American policy as it is quickly drawn up and implemented vis a vis 2011 Egypt. The united States, after a stumbling start, has positioned itself as the biggest supporter of the demonstrators in the world. The administration does want to be associated with Mubarak as Jimmy Carter was associated with the Shah. Israel has diverted sharply from this position, and been much more extreme its flip-flopping. Israel’s anxiety about the Islamic Brotherhood is guiding its policy, a position that hinged its practicality on the realistic possibility Mubarak would hold on to power.

The Israeli approach, at this point, is far more precarious than that of the Obama Administration. Buffered initially by calls from other Middle Eastern powers like Saudi Arabic to urge a cautious transition in Egypt, the direction of Saudi Arabia’s response to the American stance reduces Israel’s options. Saudi Arabia is now opting for a diplomatic opening with Iran, showing a glaring divide between the US and Saudi Arabia. Any flaring hope Saudi Arabia and Israel would be on the same page has, again, been dowsed.

At this point, the Netanyahu government has to do damage control for its reckless statements early in the process. Initially smart enough to order ministers to keep quiet, it was Bibi himself that dropped the verbiage that angered Egyptians and made Israel out to be a supporter of authoritarianism. Without a sharp and unequivocal turn in Israeli foreign policy, it could find itself isolated from Turkey, Saudi Arabia and Egypt (even if all three countries turn out to be rivals).

As the US aims to move in the opposite direction of its 1979 reaction to Iran’s revolution, so too should Israel consider a counter-intuitive approach. As Ayatollah Khomeini disembarked in Iran after a long exile in Iraq and France, the former president of Syria, Hafez al-Assad, was sending congratulatory messages to the revolutionary leader. He followed up his diplomacy consistently, and offered his congratulations again when a referendum passed the new constitution of the Islamic Republic.

This approach seemed to have been beyond awkward. Syria was then ruled, as it is today, by the Baath party. The Baath is a secular, Arab nationalist party influenced by the socialist doctrines propagated by the Soviet Union. It had the same ideological position as the Iraqi Baath party of Saddam Hussein. In 1980, Hussein invaded Iran, fearing a stabilized religious regime would encourage Iraq’s own Shiite population to revolt (in response to Iraq’s invasion, it made that a cornerstone of Iranian strategy when Iran invaded Iraq in 1982).

However, the Syrian approach was motivated more by its regional isolation and strategic pessimism than by its ideological positions. As of 1979, Syria was for various reasons isolated in the Arab world. Egypt under Anwar Sadat was concluding a peace treaty with Israel. Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Iran were consolidating a strategic alliance supported by the United States. Iraq had cut off its oil pipeline to Syria.

Israel circumstantially faces a similar sort of isolation. For whatever reasons this may be happening, its isolation from Turkey, the still dormant relationship with Iran and the weak relationship with the Egyptian people as of now signal an even heavier dependence on the United States than ever before. Even more acute, the frozen relationship with the Palestinians and lack of exit strategy from its occupying position in the West Bank leave the country needing a new outlook on its surroundings, policies and outreach to its neighbors.

It will take more than a cosmetic change to lift the country’s position in the region permanently. Israel can secure its treaty with Egypt and more by supporting the revolution to the utmost. Concerning Israel’s relationship with the United States, it makes the need more acute. Supporting civil rights will go much further for Israeli security than aligning with the tyrannical forces of Hosni Mubarak or his Vice President Omar Suleiman.

Egypt has no reason to rebuff reinforcing its ties to Israel, and that’s a line that ought to accompany a vocal support from Jerusalem for a democratic Egypt. Israel has the ability to protect a new Egyptian government from Saudi and Iranian intelligence. It can address the country’s burgeoning water crisis by offering desalinization technology in abundance. Israel also has rising ties with African states along the Nile, positioning itself as a mediator between those countries and Egypt.

There are other opportunities as well. From the side of how Egypt’s policies might change, Israel should see this as a chance to foster an array of parties, including long precluded minorities, that would diversify Egypt’s political outlook. The Muslim Brotherhood hardly has a monopoly on Egyptian political philosophy. In fact, Coptic Egyptians may provide an avenue to rekindle relationships between Israel and the Middle East’s embattled Christian populations in Lebanon, Syria and Iraq.

Most importantly, near and long term, a successful Egyptian revolution will increase pressure on Iran. The demonstrations in 2009 are still fresh in the minds of young Iranians, who are watching with envy the fall of autocratic regimes in Tunisia and Egypt. As I write this, Iranian opposition figures are very publicly trying to start a new round of demonstrations in Iran. A democratic flowering there would alleviate the strategic adversity Israelis face in the Middle East, no matter what government would seem to take power in Tehran.

Be it rhetorically, but all the more preferable in reality, Israel should embrace the path of democratization and publicly congratulate a new Egyptian government and the Egyptian body politic in its successful efforts to advocate nonviolent change. Let a revolutionary new approach to Egypt characterize a broader strategic mindset on the part of Israel’s foreign ministry. A revitalized relationship with sub-Saharan African and Nile Basin countries would also balance out Israel’s ties with Egypt, or turning the Tunisian and Egyptian uprisings into lightning rods for Iranians. An Egyptian revolution in no way has to constitute the threat Iran’s 1979 revolution did. Indeed, it would be the paradigm for a 2011 revolution.

Israel can enable the ideological option in a way Syria could not with 1979 Iran. Considering that ideologically-guided policy would be defined by supporting democracy, it avoids the arbitrariness of dictators. The fears of democracy in Israel are more attributable to near-term developments, not long-term. For whatever difficulties Israel might see with the Palestinians, denying Arab aspirations for civil rights is neither pragmatic nor moral. A different approach, even just to stir up debate in the Middle East about relations with Israel, is beneficial to the Jewish state.

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