WASHINGTON (JTA) — There is the old joke that “denial is not just a river in Egypt.” And indeed it is true.
The Nile is the longest river in the world, along whose shores the Egyptian people continue their unprecedented protests, demanding an end to the Mubarak era. But denial also is the increasingly discordant notes sounded by some elements in the American Jewish community and in Israel seeking to attack and discredit the protests and lobby for a return to the pre-Jan. 25 status quo in Egypt.
On Sunday, for example, Malcolm Honlein, the executive vice president of the Conference of Presidents of Major Jewish Organizations, blasted Mohammed ElBaradei — one of the few faces to emerge as a “leader” in Egypt’s ongoing protests — as a “stooge for Iran.” The same day, Haaretz carried an article headlined “Israel urges world to curb criticism of Egypt’s Mubarak.”
Panic at change in Egypt and what its impact will be on Israel simply cannot justify this kind of response.
Yes, everyone who cares about Israel is concerned about what change will mean for security and stability in the region, especially for Israel. But only a fool could look at the ongoing developments and draw the conclusion that the best thing for Israel and friends of Israel to do is bash the protesters or stump for Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who has been in power for three decades.
Make no mistake, change is coming in Egypt — indeed, it has come already. Few serious observers believe there is even the remote possibility that Mubarak can hold on to power much longer. The longer he tries to hang on, the greater the likelihood that he will have to resort to more repressive (violent) measures to do so. Many fear a Tiananmen Square-style showdown in Cairo’s Tahrir Square.
Egypt, however, is not China, and such a horrific event would not save Mubarak. Rather it would only cement his regime’s total loss of legitimacy domestically and make it impossible for even old friends like the U.S. government to continue speaking of the current situation — and what must come next — in diplomatic, measured tones.
Denying the reality of change in Egypt does not help Israel; it only guarantees that Israel’s future relationship with Egypt will be more difficult. It sends a message that Israel wants to hold on to the title of “the only real democracy in the Middle East” in perpetuity, even if this means directly engaging to frustrate the will of Arab peoples for democracy.
From a purely strategic, cynical, self-interested perspective, this is not a message that Israel or friends of Israel want to be sending to the people of a nation that when the dust settles will still be Israel’s most important neighbor and almost certainly will have a government that will be more populist in its approach.
Since Israel’s birth as a state, regimes throughout the region have been nondemocratic. This is not Israel’s fault. Nor can anyone fault Israel for developing security and foreign strategies that capitalized on the overwhelming authority of these regimes — whether with respect to Israel’s peace treaties with Egypt or Jordan, or its de facto detente with the Arab world at large. But the Middle East is changing, and the attitudes and approaches of Israel and friends of Israel must change, too — even if in their hearts many still believe that for Israel’s sake, an autocratic but reliable Arab neighbor is preferable to a democratic but potentially unreliable one.
According to reports from the ground, the protests in Egypt in the past week have been mostly bereft of anti-Israel sentiment. The protests are genuinely about domestic politics — against poor governance, corruption, lack of democracy, etc. They are not about Egypt’s foreign policy or Egypt’s peace treaty with Israel. This should be taken as a promising sign for the future, but it should not be taken for granted.
If Israel and friends of Israel unwisely insist on making what is happening in Egypt about Israel, this could change. They may get their wish and see Egyptians begin protesting against Israel, too.
Fears that a post-Mubarak regime will be less friendly to Israel are understandable, but some of the people speaking out now from Israel and the U.S. Jewish community need to be aware of self-fulfilling prophecies. Their fears are only more likely to materialize if Israel and friends of Israel act foolishly during this transition period.
For Israel and friends of Israel, there are two smart choices: Either embrace the change that is happening with the same good will that is being shown by the rest of the world, or keep quiet.
(Lara Friedman is the director of policy and government relations for Americans for Peace Now.)