Seizing New Middle East Opportunities


By Abraham Foxman

Published March 09, 2011, issue of March 18, 2011.
  • Print
  • Share Share

The Egyptian uprising for freedom has appropriately received an enthusiastic response from citizens of democratic countries around the world. Of course, there are still potential pitfalls on Egypt’s path to democracy. Many worry that the military will, in the name of stability, refuse to allow needed political reforms or that the Muslim Brotherhood will hijack democratic processes in order to subvert democracy.

Both are legitimate concerns, and to the extent that the United States can be helpful in making sure that neither scenario occurs, we should do all we can.

But what if neither of these pessimistic scenarios comes to pass? What if Egypt becomes a real democracy? Then a truly remarkable result would have emerged from the people’s revolt, one that could be as transformative for the Middle East as the fall of communism was for Central and Eastern Europe.

Still, we are left with the question of what democracy in Egypt would mean for its relations with Israel. Some argue that democracy and peace are linked, that democracies are less likely to go to war with one other. Fundamentally, this analysis is correct. But we should not be so naïve as to conclude that peace and respect simply evolve out of the presence of democratic processes. Democracy may provide the best opportunity to realize these values, but there is nothing automatic about it.

Let us remember that while Egypt has been at peace with Israel for 30 years, the Egyptian public has mainly heard only the worst things about Israel and Jews. The Anti-Defamation League issues periodic reports on anti-Semitic cartoons in the Arab media, and Egypt has been a main offender. When we made representations to President Hosni Mubarak about this anti-Semitism and the impact it was having on public opinion, his lame and disingenuous response was “freedom of the press.”

In an environment in which any new Egyptian government will have to make difficult political and economic decisions, there will be a strong temptation to distract the public by playing on already existing anti-Israel sentiment. At risk is one of Israel’s most important strategic relationships.

The role of Egypt vis-à-vis Israel under Mubarak was a mixed bag but overall far more positive than negative. Yes, it’s true that Mubarak never made an official state visit to Israel all those years, despite the peace treaty. But Israeli prime ministers were in Egypt quite often, and there were frequent meetings between government ministers from the two countries. It’s also true that Mubarak played a double game initially on the issue of arms smuggling into Gaza. But in the end his regime became a significant factor in limiting arms to Hamas.

One can’t assume that whatever Egyptian government emerges over the next year or two will be interested in continuing to play a constructive role with respect to Israel. The loss of this relationship would be a blow to Israel, which in the last two years has seen the souring of its ties with Turkey, its other major regional asset.

The challenge for Israel is twofold: How can it work with the United States to begin to change the long history of anti-Israel sentiment among Egypt’s media and other elites? And what policy initiatives should the Israeli government consider to have an impact on Egyptian public opinion?

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s announcement that he is planning a new peace initiative demonstrates his recognition that the changed situation requires an active rather than a passive approach. While there’s no guarantee that an Israeli proposal to the Palestinians will calm the waters, let alone bring peace, this kind of thinking is important in a Middle East that may present not only new challenges but new opportunities as well. Similarly, the prime minister’s recent comments to his Likud colleagues about restraining settlement expansion also suggest that there is a new alertness to the impact of Israeli decisions on popular opinion in the Arab world and beyond.

It has become a mantra to suggest that Israel needs to be more cautious about security concerns surrounding peace agreements now that the region has proven so volatile. This is indeed correct. On the other hand, Israel now has to consider the impact of its decisions on Arab public opinion in a new light. Yes, Islamic extremists are beyond influence, but what about the millions who support true democracy?

As long as it is understood that Israeli security remains the number one priority, Israel and its friends need to be reaching out to those in the Arab world who are rightfully demanding a say in their countries’ futures.

Abraham H. Foxman is national director of the Anti-Defamation League and the author, most recently, of “Jews and Money: The Story of a Stereotype” (Palgrave Macmillan, 2010).

The Jewish Daily Forward welcomes reader comments in order to promote thoughtful discussion on issues of importance to the Jewish community. In the interest of maintaining a civil forum, The Jewish Daily Forwardrequires that all commenters be appropriately respectful toward our writers, other commenters and the subjects of the articles. Vigorous debate and reasoned critique are welcome; name-calling and personal invective are not. While we generally do not seek to edit or actively moderate comments, our spam filter prevents most links and certain key words from being posted and The Jewish Daily Forward reserves the right to remove comments for any reason.

Find us on Facebook!
  • “I don’t want to say, ‘Oh oh, I’m not Jewish,’ because when you say that, you sound like someone trying to get into a 1950s country club, “and I love the idea of being Jewish." Are you a fan of Seth Meyers?
  • "If you want my advice: more Palestinians, more checkpoints, just more reality." What do you think?
  • Happy birthday Barbra Streisand! Our favorite Funny Girl turns 72 today.
  • Clueless parenting advice from the star of "Clueless."
  • Why won't the city give an answer?
  • BREAKING NEWS: Israel has officially suspended peace talks with the Palestinians.
  • Can you guess what the most boring job in the army is?
  • What the foolish rabbi of Chelm teaches us about Israel and the Palestinian unity deal:
  • Mazel tov to Idina Menzel on making Variety "Power of Women" cover!
  • "How much should I expect him and/or ask him to participate? Is it enough to have one parent reciting the prayers and observing the holidays?" What do you think?
  • New York and Montreal have been at odds for far too long. Stop the bagel wars, sign our bagel peace treaty!
  • Really, can you blame them?
  • “How I Stopped Hating Women of the Wall and Started Talking to My Mother.” Will you see it?
  • Taglit-Birthright Israel is redefining who they consider "Jewish" after a 17% drop in registration from 2011-2013. Is the "propaganda tag" keeping young people away?
  • Happy birthday William Shakespeare! Turns out, the Bard knew quite a bit about Jews.
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.