Two Mideast Democracies, Side by Side

Egypt's Freedom Brings New Opportunities for Israel

Lining Up for Change: Egypt now has a democracy. That’s good for Israel, even if there are bumps in the road.
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Lining Up for Change: Egypt now has a democracy. That’s good for Israel, even if there are bumps in the road.

By J.J. Goldberg

Published January 09, 2012, issue of January 13, 2012.
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“For over 30 years we have enjoyed peace on two fronts,” namely the borders with Egypt and Jordan, Netanyahu said. One front was a quasi-military dictatorship, the other an absolute monarchy, so it’s unclear how that proved his point, but he seemed pretty sure of himself. In any case, he went on to say that Israelis should approach the Egyptian revolution cautiously, since it could turn sour if Iran managed to control it.

He was sounding a good deal more upbeat in an online town hall in July. “If the Arab spring materializes into real democracy the problem of peace will be resolved,” he cheerily told a questioner.

That didn’t last. In late November, as it became clear that the Muslim Brotherhood was poised to win the upcoming elections, Netanyahu addressed the Knesset again and slammed “naïve” Western leaders, especially President Obama, who had pushed Mubarak to resign. They hadn’t listened, he said, when he warned that the Arab Spring would turn “Islamic, anti-Western, anti-liberal, anti-Israeli and anti-democratic.”

“I ask today,” he said, “who here didn’t understand reality? Who here didn’t understand history?”

History is a funny thing. It was Netanyahu more than anyone who put Arab democracy on the international agenda with his acclaimed 1993 book, “A Place Among the Nations.” Perhaps his most influential point was identifying “the main problem of achieving peace in the Middle East”: that “except for Israel, there are no democracies.” (Accent in the original.) The idea is drawn from Immanuel Kant, who wrote that democracies don’t make war against each other in 1795, just before France and England went to war.

Netanyahu has made the point repeatedly over the years, with varying results. His close ally Natan Sharansky elaborated on it in his 2004 “The Case for Democracy,” which George W. Bush called “a great book” and a personal inspiration.

It was Bush, of course, who decided to put the theory into action, first democratizing Iraq at gunpoint in 2003, then forcing Israel to permit elections in the West Bank and Gaza in 2006. I’m betting Netanyahu advanced the theory as a debating point. He probably never expected that anyone would be crazy to try it. Maybe that’s what he meant about the West not learning from history.

Well, the Netanyahu-Sharansky-Bush democracy bug has spread. Now Israelis have a genuine, multi-party parliamentary democracy next door, and they’re terrified. Fortunately, the army is still in control, and it’s committed to maintaining the peace treaty with Israel despite the Islamist surge. All the leading candidates in next June’s presidential election have said the same. So has the second-largest party in parliament, the ultra-radical Salafi Islamist Al-Nour party.

The other day, though, a deputy leader of the largest party, the Muslim Brotherhood, said the treaty might be put to a referendum and that the Brotherhood would “never” recognize Israel. The consensus in Israel is that he is the true face of the new Egypt. It seems peace was secure while Egypt was a dictatorship, but democracy is fickle — just as Netanyahu warned (after he was done warning the opposite).

In any case, it’s enlightening after all the soothing words from other Egyptian leaders to hear what’s-his-name from the Brotherhood tell us the truth.

Again, compare this with Israeli democracy. In September 2010, Israel’s foreign minister, Avigdor Lieberman, told the United Nations General Assembly there was no chance of Israeli-Palestinian peace in this generation. Netanyahu’s policy, of course, is that peace is possible if only the Palestinians will sit down and talk, but his aides dismissed Lieberman’s speech as “not coordinated” with the prime minister. Apparently he was addressing the U.N. in his personal capacity, not as an Israeli official. That’s the glory of Israeli democracy. Everyone can speak his mind.

Contact J.J. Goldberg at goldberg@forward.com


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