When the tumult in Tunisia and Egypt shattered the deep freeze that has afflicted Arabs for almost four decades, countries fond of touting democracy should have been leading the celebrations. Instead, the reigning mood among elites in the United States, and especially in Israel, was one of fear and trepidation.
Though the Obama administration sounded a supportive note for the popular rebellion near its beginning — and later, when Mubarak’s ouster was a foregone conclusion — it has also issued nervous caveats, citing the dangers of rapid change and the merits of Mubarak’s intelligence chief, torturer Omar Suleiman. The reversal came on the back of pressure exerted by America’s other clients in the Arab world and Israeli leaders, who both dread the prospect of region-wide revolt.
Accompanied by a chorus of spineless pundits, America and its allies began mouthing the rationales of the dictator himself: stability is good; change is bad; horrors will befall us if the Muslim Brotherhood wins a share of power.
The hand-wringing of other Arab autocrats should not be discounted, but it is the potential disruption to the Egypt-Israel relationship that animates American concern. The Israelis have made known their fear that change in Egypt will leave them bereft of friends "in the neighborhood" — a serious predicament for a state founded, through ethnic cleansing, on top of the neighborhood.
Israel’s security, its leaders and American allies insist, thus depends on its longstanding "peace" treaty with Egypt, signed after the 1978 Camp David Accords. American media outlets, politicians, and pundits have slavishly echoed this line, warning that a successful revolution may end this much-coveted "peace", which, we are told, is vital for both Israel and America.
What is it about this "peace" that is so vital that it trumps democracy among avowed democrats?
Turning to the dictionary, we find that peace is: "a state of harmony between people or groups; freedom from strife; reconciliation; the state existing during the absence of war." While scant harmony exists between Egyptians and Israelis, one might think that the minimum definition — "the state existing during the absence of war" — accurately describes what the treaty represents.
The treaty, however, was like a tiger’s smile: an invitation not to dine but to become dinner. It produced no rollback of Israeli expansion. It signified abandonment of the Palestinians, who remained stateless. It demoralized the public, whose government prevented them from helping fellow Arabs. It engendered pointless hatred, as the regime encouraged anti-Israel angst to curtail anti-regime action. And it paralyzed progress, as unpopular leaders eviscerated civil society to maintain their foreign alliances and bribes.
Thus the "peace" between Egypt and Israel has spawned not an "absence of war" but wars of absence: absent meaningful support for Palestinians, terrorist and Islamist groups filled the void through violence; absent a functional society, millions of youth are unemployed; absent representative leadership, these youth and others are now revolting across the nation; absent American support for democracy, the people are increasingly disillusioned with America.
What, then, is the value of a "peace" overlaid with conflict after conflict? The answer is simple: a tiger never declines a free meal.
For Israel, unlike Egypt, benefited greatly from the treaty, preying and killing at will in Lebanon and (what remains of) Palestinian territories, now under the cover of "peace." True, the Jewish state could have struck a genuine regional peace deal years ago — but why bother when the neighbors can be devoured so easily? Israeli leaders have long adhered to the judgment of early Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann: "The Arabs will be our problem for a long time…They’re ten to one, but don’t we Jews have ten times their intelligence?" Egypt’s jaunt into Israel’s open jaws in 1978 only encouraged that view.
But now, with Egypt’s commitment to surrender in doubt, Israel is desperate to retain its advantage.
Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former Israeli trade minister and friend of Mubarak, opined that the revolt was "a big blow" in an interview with Israeli Army radio. The Israelis have doubtless lobbied on behalf of America’s newfound darling, Suleiman, whom Israel has anointed its preferred successor to Mubarak since at least 2008. Eli Shaked, Israel’s former ambassador to Egypt, coyly described the American-backed empowerment of Suleiman as "the positive scenario" for his country. And to make sure this non-transition transition goes smoothly, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak has rushed to schedule a meeting with Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Barak’s likely message — dark warnings about an Islamist Egypt seeking Israel’s destruction — remains a figment of Israel’s victimhood complex. But it is true that an Egypt and an Arab world freed of quislings would not collaborate in the politicide of the Palestinians — and why should we object?
Is it in America’s best interests to tether itself to Israel’s delusions of racial-religious supremacy? Should we expend endless treasure to preserve an Israel-first regional order and suppress the Arabs until the end of time? A freer Arab world and meaningful assistance to isolated Palestinians would lift millions out of frustration and despair, slicing the lifeline to the same extremism that flourishes today thanks in large part to America’s Israel-first foreign policy.
For Egyptians, the revolt is their first chance in decades to reverse course and retrieve dignity and independence. Our foreign policy could benefit from their example.