As most Western commentators — and leaders — are swept up by the romance of the great Arab revolts sweeping North Africa and the Middle East at the beginning of 2011, waxing poetic about the wave of democracy engulfing the Middle East, Israelis have been cast, once again, as the heavies, collaborators with dictators like Hosni Mubarak who are now universally reviled. It would be fitting to think of Israel as the nerdy guy from a teen movie in love with the cheerleader who is dazzled by the handsome jerk. His worries that she might fall for the wrong guy are not groundless; and he has the most to gain from a truly happy ending.

Israelis would love to see true democracy break out in Egypt and throughout the Arab world. Romantically, as the people who taught the world about going from slavery to freedom by leaving ancient Egypt, Israelis would love to see modern Egypt teach the Arab world about going from the enslavement of dictators to the freedom that flourishes in peaceful, popular, orderly, civil democracies.

Ideologically, as beneficiaries of the rights and the prosperity freedom brings, Israelis have no reason to hoard these commodities and would enjoy seeing all their neighbours delight in democracy too. And practically, the truism that democracies do not fight each other could apply to the Middle East as well — if Egypt, Libya and other countries were true democracies, and if they were focusing on their citizens’ needs rather than blaming the one Jewish state in the world for their troubles, both Arabs and Jews would benefit.

Nevertheless, Israelis have to live in the real world, not the la-la land of the media echo chamber. They know that for decades, as they pointed out that the Arab world was led by dictators, theocrats, kings, and thugs, they were dismissed as spouting propaganda. They know that for years, when they complained about the farce of Libya’s leading role in the UN human rights community, they were ignored. And they know that the salvation that was supposed to come with the deposing of the Shah of Iran, elections in Lebanon and a whole series of difficult sacrifices they made to achieve peace often turned instead into disaster.

Moreover, Israelis see things that democracy-besotted reporters, swept up in the romantic notion that popular uprisings inevitably spawn democratic governments, choose to ignore. Israelis noticed that when an Egyptian crowd swarmed, sexually assaulted and brutalized the CBS reporter Lara Logan, the rapists were heard yelling “Jew, Jew” as they tortured the non-Jewish journalist, although few Western media reports mentioned that fact. Most recently, Israelis noticed the violent brawl between Muslims and Christian Copts that turned deadly — and other signs of Christian nervousness amid the Egyptian rebellion frequently hailed as Gandhi-esque.

So yes, much as they regretted it, for most Israelis, trust in the peace treaty with Egypt was the first casualty of the anti-Mubarak revolt. All of a sudden, one of the strategic givens in the Israeli world view became a question mark. Headlines turned hysterical and the Tel Aviv stock market dipped as dumbfounded ministers, jittery generals, and embarrassed intelligence analysts rushed from meeting to meeting, scrambling to rewrite Israel’s strategic doctrine. As with one of the many improvised, reconstituted arches found in Middle Eastern ruins, for three decades Mubarak’s Egypt served as the keystone to regional stability, a vital but ugly relic. Mubarak’s Egypt served as an important counterweight to Ahmadinejad’s Iran. The recent

Wikileaks releases suggested some of the benefits Israel enjoyed from its alliance with Mubarak, including diplomatic support, intelligence sharing military and cooperation. The most important has been the decades of nonbelligerency.

The outcome in Egypt remains unclear as of this writing, but the worst-case scenario — an Islamist takeover through the Muslim Brotherhood, which has denounced the peace treaty with Israel — is possible. What was Israel’s safest border will look menacing with an anti-Israel government in power in Cairo controlling 650,000 soldiers massed to Israel’s south. Hamas will look stronger in Gaza with an Islamist Egyptian regime not even pretending to try to stop the flow of arms. The Palestinian Authority in the West Bank will look like a less viable peace partner with fundamentalism ascendant and any pro-peace or pro-Western Palestinians demonized as collaborators.

Most dismaying of all, by suddenly having to worry about the biggest risk they ever took for peace — the withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982 — Israelis were reminded yet again of all their failed peace attempts, which outsiders have frequently pushed while leaving Israelis to suffer when things soured. A radical Egypt downgrading or abrogating its peace treaty with Israel would top the litany of failed peace-making attempts and reinforce the argument of right-wing skeptics against trading land for peace with the Palestinians. Moreover, a hostile Egypt would reinforce the sense of betrayal so many Israelis feel since 2000 as the failure of the Oslo peace process triggered a wave of Palestinian terror, withdrawal from Lebanon boosted Hezbollah and disengagement from Gaza brought Hamas to power.

This unhappy recent history constitutes the major obstacle to peace for many Israelis. It is a huge boulder blocking the road forward that most Israelis see but so many others choose to ignore. The conventional wisdom decreed for years that the conflict was all about Israel’s occupation of Palestinian land: that the more land Israel withdrew from the more peace and stability Israel would achieve. And yet, Israeli withdrawals have often brought more instability, not less.

When the Oslo peace process began in the 1990s, the operative Oslo insight focused on maximizing the number of Palestinians under Palestinian rule as quickly as possible. For all its flaws, Oslo gave the Palestinians an opportunity to determine their own destiny, to start shaping a state. Yet the result was Yasser Arafat’s kleptocracy, a tinpot dictatorship run by the godfather of modern terrorism, who, in later life, specialized in securing billions in aid for his people — and stealing much of it for himself and his cronies. In July 2000, Israel under Prime Minister Ehud Barak, coaxed by President Bill Clinton, offered generous, workable compromises at the Camp David summit. Arafat never even responded with a counteroffer — and two months later led his people from negotiations back to terrorism.

Nevertheless, the world blamed Israel. Similarly, in May 2000 Israel withdrew completely from southern Lebanon, but Hezbollah could not give up using hatred of the Jewish state to fuel its operations and redoubled efforts against Israel. And after Israel withdrew from Gaza in 2005, the result was a Hamas takeover and thousands of Kassam rockets terrorizing Israeli citizens.

These three betrayals suggest that the central issue is not about drawing borders but about Israel’s very survival. The continuing attempts to delegitimize Israel; a week on university campuses devoted to libelling the Jewish state as an apartheid state; the Palestinian Wikileaks “scandal,” wherein many Arabs were shocked to see some Palestinian concessions — all feed this sense that Israel is still fighting for its survival. And the fact that oil-rich Iran continues to pursue its nuclear weapons quest, while Mahmoud Ahmadinejad continues with his call to wipe out Israel, only further reinforces this fear. That amid this tale of woe the Egypt front remained quiet for decades made the Israel-Egypt peace treaty the most persuasive piece of evidence the Israeli peace camp had for suggesting a way forward. To lose
that would be devastating; even to lose confidence in it is unnerving.

Not surprisingly, today, when historical memories seem to get wiped out with each click of the refresh button, Israel’s critics are busy rewriting history. The bash-Israel crowd, dismayed that those pesky Arabs again had other concerns beyond the Palestinians, nevertheless used the Egyptian crisis to attack Israel. Now they criticized Israel for making peace with dictators — as if Israel could cherry-pick some democratic leader of Egypt or anywhere else as a peace partner.

Turn back the historical clock three decades. Had Israel rejected the media darling Anwar Sadat because he was a dictator, the world would have condemned Israel. Today, these critics want Israel to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas — another aging autocrat — and the deadly dictators of Hamas. Although Israelis have longed for greater intimacy with the Egyptian people, Egyptian hostility made the peace government to government, not people to people. Left and right, Israelis always speak of “peace with Egypt,” not Mubarak, of “peace with Jordan,” not King Abdullah. Given the alternative, Israelis have accepted what they call “the cold peace” with Egypt, appreciating its advantages without harping on its limitations. Still, former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin’s realist teaching that you make peace only with your enemies has an unspoken Middle East corollary: in a region of strongmen you first make peace with dictators, as long as they do not threaten to obliterate you.

Democracy is delicious. Those of us who enjoy civil rights, who live in states empowering the people, who see leaders rotated regularly, who have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our by-nomeans exclusive, but definitely privileged, club.

And yet, most Israelis also feel guilty that their recent experiences make them pessimistic. As citizens in the Middle East’s only real democracy, most Israelis yearn for new partners. And as a people whose anthem is “Hatikvah,” meaning “hope,” millions of Israelis wish that an Egyptian popular uprising would reinforce the peace with Israel and revive the Palestinian peace process.

Democracy is delicious. Those of us who enjoy civil rights, who live in states empowering the people, who see leaders rotated regularly, who have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our by-no-means exclusive, but definitely privileged, club.

In the early days of the Egyptian rebellion, two anniversaries reminded us of the essential link between freedom and democracy. February 6 marked the 100th anniversary of Ronald Reagan’s birth. When many intellectuals were too dazzled by Communism to recognize its crimes, Reagan called the Soviet Union the Evil Empire. Shocked, one leading American historian labelled Reagan’s 1983 address the worst presidential speech ever. Reagan never understood how people so smart could be so dumb — and arrogant — as to assume that the people suffering under Communism did not yearn for freedom as Americans did.

As president, Reagan helped free another freedom fighter, Natan Sharansky, from the Gulag, 25 years ago, on February 11, 1986. While Reagan faced condescending professors, Sharansky had to resist the KGB, the Soviet secret police. These days, when many criticize Israel for being too worried about its peace with Egypt to cheer the democratic revolution, the world should remember that since 1986, Natan Sharansky has been preaching from Israel that Arabs deserve democracy — defying the conventional wisdom even as it mocked him, George W. Bush and others for demanding that.
The media herd has missed another inconvenient nuance, failing to understand that “popular” is not necessarily democratic. The New York Times ran one article after another that read like Muslim Brotherhood press releases. On February 4, Nicholas Kulish’s Valentine claimed that the Muslim Brotherhood’s “actual members…come across as civic-minded people of faith.” The columnist Roger Cohen gushed that “the Middle East has evolved…Islamic parties can run thriving economies and democracies like Turkey’s,” adding gratuitously and disproportionately, “Democracies can coexist with politically organized religious extremists, as Israel itself demonstrates.”

Even more disturbing, Barack Obama and his administration frequently seemed equally naive. “It is hard, at this point, to point to a specific agenda of the Muslim Brotherhood as a group,” said US Director of National Intelligence James Clapper. “The term ‘Muslim Brotherhood’…is an umbrella term for a variety of movements, in the case of Egypt a very heterogeneous group, largely secular, which has eschewed violence and has decried al Qaeda as a perversion of Islam.”

Apparently, these cheerleaders have never read the Muslim Brotherhood founder Hassan al-Banna’s harsh exhortations to “prepare for jihad and be the lovers of death.” These deluded democrats overlooked the Muslim Brotherhood’s Nazi roots, which produced Hamas terrorists, not Turkish economists. And, perhaps most important of all, these simpletons and others have overlooked democracy’s essential foundations.

Yes, democracy involves not having dictators. And yes, democracy can result from popular revolts. But even orderly elections can spawn dictators and demagogues, violent societies and civil rights violators. Civil society’s gossamer threads must restrain government’s blunt power. Citizens in a democracy need basic rights, essential protections and fundamental dignity, not just occasional trips to the voting booth.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper has been suitably skeptical — but encouraging. “We want to see free and fair elections” in Egypt, he said in mid-February. “We want to see the rule of law and stability. We want to see respect for human rights, including the rights of minorities, including the rights of religious minorities. And we want to see a government that will continue to respect peace treaties and seek peace in the Middle East.”

A hostile Egypt would reinforce the sense of betrayal so many Israelis feel since 2000 as the failure of the Oslo peace process triggered a wave of Palestinian terror, withdrawal from Lebanon boosted Hezbollah and disengagement from Gaza brought Hamas to power.

In graduate school, we debated whether colonial America’s fluidity, mobility and prosperity — unlike Europe’s feudal rigidity — nurtured American democracy. I learned then — and we learned from watching disasters in Gaza and elsewhere — that you don’t build democracy from the top down, you build it from the ground up. Ronald Reagan understood that when he funded institutions like the Voice of America to cultivate a vibrant political culture of openness, tolerance and dissent in Communist lands. Sharansky understood that when he championed the building of factories and investing in Gaza and the West Bank, even as Palestinian terrorists murdered Israelis. Many Islamist groups understand that when they woo the masses by feeding, teaching and employing them before recruiting them. Unfortunately, elite American reporters — and the Harvard-trained American president — do not seem to grasp this concept, with their suddenly impatient calls for immediate change and their inability to see that democracy must be groomed.

Years ago, during the height of Arafat’s renewed terror campaign against Israel, Natan Sharansky advocated building factories in Gaza. He reasoned that helping Palestinians build an economic and civic infrastructure would help facilitate Palestinian democracy and ultimately lead to a true peace. Western leaders have fretted since the start of the Arab revolt, wondering whether to support their long-standing friend the dictator or his fed-up, long-downtrodden people. But that is the wrong question to ask. We in the West should be asking how we help these states build civil society, cultivate mutual respect and instill the understanding that rights are inherent not contingent. In short, we should not be determining the fates of dictators — that is up to the people. We should, however, be thinking boldly, creatively, originally about how we can help sow the seeds of democracy — decades after we should have plunged into this.

In the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musical “South Pacific,” set during the Second World War, the wise Emile de Becque asks a hotheaded American sailor: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” That has been the question since the Arab revolts of 2011 erupted. We know the Egypt protesters who massed in Tahrir Square were against Hosni Mubarak, but what were they for? Are they for women’s rights, gay rights, Jews’ rights, Coptic Christians’ rights, human rights? Are they for allowing different ideas to flourish, listening to their opponents, resolving conflicts peacefully, freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are they for establishing a prosperous, stable middle-class base so democracy can flourish? Are they for a new democracy built citizen by citizen, institution by institution, social good by social good?

Rather than being paralyzed by fear or naively deluded, Israel, the United States, Canada and the world should do whatever possible to plant the necessary democratic seeds, so the answers become “Yes,” even “Yes we can. »

Photo: Shutterstock

Gil Troy
Contributing Writer Gil Troy is a professor of history at McGill University and visiting scholar at the Bipartisan Policy Center in Washington, DC. He is the author of, among other books, Morning in America: How Ronald Reagan Invented the 1980s.

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