WASHINGTON — The Bush administration’s promise three years ago that toppling Saddam Hussein would trigger a chain reaction of democratic reform in the Arab world drew a half-joking reply from an Israeli diplomat in Washington.
“Let’s just hope,” the diplomat then quipped, “that these domino blocks don’t all fall on us.”
Since then, the Bush administration’s idealistic view that democratizing the Arab world would serve as the way to achieve peace, prosperity and stability in the Middle East has been rejected, dismissed and often ridiculed by Israel’s security and political establishment. Still, while Israel begged to differ, its objections were mainly theoretical.
But in recent months, Israeli and American sources said, the differences have become concrete as the Bush administration pushes for political reform and elections in the region — and is reportedly weighing a stepped campaign to bring about regime change in Syria.
“Israel has always been cynical
and skeptical of the prospects of promoting democracy in the region,” said Haim Malka, a fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank. For the most part, Israeli officials doubted that democracy could flourish in societies that are accustomed to authoritarian regimes and were leery of the instability that reform efforts could cause.
Last week, at the semiannual “strategic dialogue” talks between Israeli and American officials in Washington, Israeli participants — senior foreign and defense ministry officials — cautioned their American counterparts against attempting to bring about the collapse of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. Recently some Bush administration officials have indicated America’s intention to put pressure on Assad — not for the purpose of changing his defiant behavior, but to weaken his regime and ultimately make it collapse. Such a policy is irresponsible, Israeli officials argued, as long as you have not settled on an acceptable alternative to Assad. If he falls, Israeli officials reportedly told their American interlocutors, three scenarios could unfold that are all worse than Assad: another Alawi strongman, an Islamic government or a prolonged state of utter chaos.
Israeli officials acknowledge that Assad poses problems for Washington and Jerusalem, with his support for terrorist groups and failure to stop the flow of militants into Iraq. But under his and his father’s rule, Israel has enjoyed three decades of relative quiet on its border with Syria. Toppling him, the thinking in many Israeli circles goes, would solve a problem by potentially creating a much more dangerous one.
Despite the criticisms emanating from Israeli security and diplomatic circles, President Bush and his top aides borrowed much of their democratization rhetoric from a famous Israeli, former government minister and Russian dissident Natan Sharansky. His 2004 book, “The Case for Democracy: The Power of Freedom To Overcome Tyranny and Terror,” reportedly provided Bush with an intellectual blueprint for framing and articulating his belief in democracy and freedom as the ultimate keys for securing peace and prosperity worldwide. Bush invited Sharansky to the White House a year ago to discuss the book and reportedly instructed his senior foreign-policy staffers to read it.
Several months later, in June, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice delivered a speech in Cairo, laying out America’s new approach toward the Middle East.
“For 60 years, my country, the United States, pursued stability at the expense of democracy in this region, here in the Middle East, and we achieved neither,” she said. “Now we are taking a different course.”
While some Jewish organizations and many neoconservative foreign policymakers in Washington’s Republican establishment cheer such declarations, they never have been popular among Israel’s security establishment.
The question of regime change for the purpose of democratizing autocratic Arab societies is not the only thing that America’s policymakers and their Israeli counterparts disagree on. They also interpret developments on the road to democracy in Arab societies very differently, Malka pointed out. For example, the Bush administration sees last month’s elections in Egypt as a historic opening for pro-Western reformists to emerge and establish true political pluralism in the Land of the Nile; Israelis, on the other hand, see the success of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood at the polls. The militant Islamist movement competed for less than one-third of the Egyptian parliament’s 444 seats, but received impressive majorities where it did run candidates.
In Lebanon, American officials were overjoyed by the unfolding of parliamentary elections in the summer and by the popular anti-Syrian “Cedar Revolution.” Israel, however, was more focused on how developments in Lebanon would boost the legitimacy and power of Hezbollah, the anti-Israeli and anti-American terrorist militia.
And in Gaza and the West Bank, the Bush administration sees the January 2006 elections as a chance to strengthen civic society and improve the chances for peace, while Israel is concerned about the participation of the Islamic militant Hamas organization and the possibility of it becoming a legitimized player in the Palestinian political arena.
On one front, Iraq, the underlying ideological disagreement over stability versus democracy has not yet become an issue of contention between Israel and the United States — certainly not in public. But privately, several Israeli former security officials complained recently that Israel is beginning to suffer the consequences of what they depicted as an irresponsible, adventurous American policy.