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Seizing New Middle East Opportunities

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).

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