Up until the world changed, Israel had done its best – and only – peacekeeping deals with dictators. The agreements with the Hashemite regime of Jordan and the Sadat/Mubarak regimes of Egypt held, in the main, because these guys knew how to deal with internal dissent. But that was then. Now, either Israel and the US take the once-in-a-generation opportunity offered by the democratic revolt in Egypt and apply it to Palestine, or the region will almost certainly explode. By KEVIN BLOOM.
At Friday night dinner tables clear across the Jewish diaspora, the subject of the popular revolt in Egypt has placed attendees in an awkward and near unprecedented position – they’ve been finding themselves at a loss for words. The problem is a matter of intractable paradoxes. One the one hand, there’s the incontrovertible fact that the overthrow of Hosni Mubarak by grassroots protestors was a first for the Arab world – if you claim to be a democrat, and you want to be seen to be a democrat, it’s tough to argue that the anger and attendant jubilation on the streets of Cairo was anything but a momentous human achievement. On the other hand, Friday night dinner tables in the Jewish diaspora tend to be peopled by individuals who take an abiding interest in the State of Israel’s welfare. More often than not, and especially in South Africa, the majority opinion on any particular Israeli issue is a reflection of the views of the orthodox Rabbinate – which are in turn a reflection of the views of Israel’s centrists and conservatives; the so-called “realists”.
For a summary of how this last group assesses the impact of the Egyptian revolt, one need look no further than a column published in Ha’aretz more than a week before Mubarak resigned. The writer was Moshe Arens, a longstanding member of the centre-right Likud party, who served three times as Minister of Defense in the Israeli cabinet, and as Minister of Foreign Affairs from 1988 to 1990 (in the early ‘80s, he was also Israel’s ambassador to the United States). In Arens’s experience, it is way easier for a dictator to meet Israel’s conditions for peace than it is for a democratically elected Arab government, and to back himself up he cited the only two lasting peace treaties that the country has concluded thus far – the one with Egypt under Anwar Sadat, and the other with Jordan under King Hussein.
“Had the option been open to Israel, Israel would, of course, have preferred to make peace with a democratic neighbor, but that option was never even on the horizon, considering the state of affairs in the Arab world in the years since Israel was established,” Arens continued. “The question that Israelis ask themselves at this moment is, if Hosni Mubarak’s regime were to be replaced by a democratically elected government in Egypt, would this government continue to maintain the nearly 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel?”
The implied answer was: probably not. Arens emphasised that although territorial concessions have appeared to be the main driving factor in peace agreements with Arab neighbours, there have really always been two fundamental requirements for a deal. The first has been that the treaty would put an end to any further territorial claims and thus effectively end the conflict; the second has been that the signatory be able to combat and quell any internal terrorist activities directed towards Israel. Noted Arens: “These are conditions that a dictator, if he so wishes, could conceivably satisfy.” Why? Because dictator’s decisions will of necessity dominate public discourse, just like his security forces will of necessity quash any violent actions that are deemed against his best interests.
Obviously, the fear of the majority of Israelis is that the Mubarak regime – which followed on philosophically from Sadat’s, just as King Abdullah followed on from King Hussein – will be replaced by a democratic dispensation that quickly elevates anti-Israel Islamists into power. In Egypt’s case, with the Muslim Brotherhood as the largest opposition group, such a fear is easy to understand. Still, the question of leftist Israeli public intellectual Carlo Strenger is a good one: “Why are so many Israelis convinced that Egyptian, and more generally Arab, democracy is an illusion?” The reason, argues Strenger, in a compelling hypothesis that stretches back to Moses and the exodus – and the purported original source of monotheistic in-fighting – is that Israel’s history makes it challenging to move from fear to hope. Strenger directs his reader to an extensive interview that appeared on 11 February in the Jerusalem Post, where the conservative Israeli politician and author Natan Sharansky breaks the mainstream mould and urges his fellow citizens to put faith in the Egyptian democracy.
“If the free world helps the people on the streets, and turns into the allies of these people instead of being the allies of the dictators, then there is a unique chance to build a new pact between the free world and the Arab world,” Sharansky said. “And we, Israel, will be among the beneficiaries, simply because these people will then be dealing with their real problems.”
Importantly, Sharansky was not advocating that Israel stop relying on the strength of its military. He was advocating, rather, that the armed forces be kept at the ready in case the “chance” turned sour. A critical question put to him by the interviewer was – what if the genuine will of the people in a democratic Egypt or Palestine is to wipe out the State of Israel? Sharansky’s response was that the only way the country could conceivably become less dependent on its military would be through letting go of hard-line attitudes and supporting democratic reform in the region.
“And I think it’ll succeed,” he added, “because I think, in the end, the majority of Palestinians don’t want to continue living in refugee camps. They got closer to the ideas of the free world, a free economy, more education, than did many others, because of their proximity to Israel. But the fact is, they were never given the opportunity to choose. In 1993, we brought Arafat from Tunis, who said, ‘Now we’ll be a dictatorship’.”
Sharansky was of course referring to the process that resulted in the Oslo Accords, the first direct and face-to-face agreement between Israel and the Palestinian Liberation Organisation. He was also subtly indicating that his view on those accords was in line with the views of old-school hawks like Arens – Arafat, although he may have been a dictator with the power to implement the principles of interim Palestinian self-government, had no intention of bringing an end to the conflict.
In February 2011, though, on the back of events in Egypt, Tunisia (where the ruler fled), and Jordan (where King Abdullah has replaced his cabinet and installed a prime minister who promises reform), the hand of the United States in brokering a deal has been strengthened. A major story published in the New York Times magazine last week suggests that the time has never been riper for an Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement that could actually work. The piece, written by acclaimed Middle East observer and author Bernard Avishai, documents a series of meetings that took place between Ehud Olmert (then Israel’s prime minister) and president of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas from 2006 to 2008. These talks, according to Avishai, were the source for the leaked “Palestine Papers” published by Al Jazeera in January. While an agreement was never signed, the points apparently agreed on by the two leaders have set the Americans up for a new and powerful set of “bridging proposals”.
Avishai met separately with Olmert and Abbas last month to get their respective impressions of the talks. He wrote: “Each told me that if new violence breaks out in Palestine, as seems quite likely, historians will look back with a sense of pathos on how narrow and, in some key areas, trivial the gaps were. ‘We were very close,’ Olmert told me, ‘more than ever in the past, to complete an agreement on principles that would have led to the end of the conflict between us and the Palestinians.’ Abbas said the talks produced more ‘creative ideas’ than any in the past. He took pains to assure me that he had been most flexible on Israel’s security demands. Olmert, in retrospect, agrees, saying that Abbas ‘had never said no.’ Olmert insisted that he had conceded to Abbas every major demand Palestinians had made for decades: a border based scrupulously on the 1967 lines, a Palestinian capital in Jerusalem and ‘recognition of the problem’ of refugees. ‘I was ready to take complete responsibility and move forward forcefully,’ Olmert told me. ‘I believed, I still believe, that I would have broken through all the barriers and won over public opinion in this country and the world.’”
What happened instead was that Olmert was investigated for corruption and forced to step down, making way for Benyamin Netanyahu. In late 2008, Abbas strategically stalled while waiting to see which American presidency the Palestinians would confront, and negotiations were suspended when Israel attacked Gaza in January 2009. Currently, Abbas still expects the US – under President Barack Obama – to push the deal through. Without a deal, Avishai maintains, “Jerusalem and the West Bank will almost certainly explode again, this time perhaps igniting the kind of local war we saw in Bosnia: violence spreading to Israeli Arab towns and drawing in both Syrian-backed Hezbollah from Lebanon and Hamas from Gaza, each armed with thousands of missiles.”
It’s a scenario too tragic to contemplate, particularly given the once-in-a-generation gap that current events in the region symbolise. Obama didn’t have much to do with the Egyptian popular revolt, but if he rides the momentum his greatest legacy may turn out to be the democratisation of the Arab world and – incredibly – the golden chalice of peace in the Middle East. Should that occur, conversations at Friday night dinner tables in the Jewish diaspora will never be the same again. DM
Photo: Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu (L) and Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman stand together during an award ceremony for new immigrant scientists in Tel Aviv October 26, 2010. REUTERS/Baz Ratner.
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