Anything could happen in the Middle East, and the Israelis know it
Jerusalem — Israel today is outwardly a model of business as usual. The cafés are crowded, buses inch nose-to-tail towards the tourist sites, GDP rose 7.8 percent in the last quarter of last year, the Italian writer Umberto Eco is the star at the Jerusalem Book Fair. This determination to be normal is all the more striking now that revolution is spreading throughout the Arab and Muslim world, and the Middle East of the past century appears to be vanishing. The sense of being on one’s own is part and parcel of the Israeli national psyche. The daily news indicates emerging forces, a new balance of power, but nobody can be sure where, or even whether, Israel fits in. Anything is possible.
Like everybody else, the Israelis have been surprised by the suddenness and extent of this revolution, and the immediate response is to welcome it. The Arab masses — or at least enough of them to fill central city squares — are rebelling against conscienceless dictators who have ignored the interests of everyone except themselves, their families, and those whose loyalties they rely on. The people can be heard calling for freedom and democracy. For a long time, the general consensus has been that peace will be possible only when the Arabs rid themselves of authoritarian rule and Arab states are able to meet Israel on equal terms as democracies. Some Israelis take what is happening at face value, as though the French Revolution of 1789 were dawning all over again and a Golden Age were about to usher in progress and liberation for all.
A more realistic view is breaking through. More than any Western country, Israel has specialists with language skills and first-hand experience of the Arab and Muslim world, and they are almost unanimously wary. Ari Shavit, one of the most thoughtful Israeli commentators, accepts the 1789 analogy but points out that the French Revolution led to a succession of bloody wars. For him and informed opinion in general, this Arab revolution is overturning the settled order, and that may be admirable but it is also dangerous.
From Israel’s point of view, the peace treaty with Egypt has been the central political feature of the past 30 years. Both countries, and therefore the wider region, have prospered from it. Peace further testified to the power of the United States and its intention to do what good it could. But now the increasing reach of Iran has become the central political feature of the Middle East. The editorial board of the Israeli newspaper Haaretz has summarized very well the various pulls and pushes that have brought about this predicament: “In the past decade, the United States dismantled Iraq, took Egypt apart and lost Turkey. In doing so, it broke down the Sunni buffer against Iran. These days Washington is dismantling Bahrain, undermining Jordan and endangering Saudi Arabia — thereby turning Iran into the leading regional power. Unless the American policy changes, the result could be a geostrategic disaster.” Several bloody wars are sketched here in embryo. Egypt is perhaps the immediate test case. With few exceptions, the Egyptian elite feel contempt and even hatred for Israel. The Muslim Brothers, the country’s sole mass movement, opposed Mubarak, and tried to assassinate him for standing in their way by upholding the peace treaty when they were pressing for war with Israel. More than most, Benjamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, must be regretting the loss of his reliable counterpart when he says truthfully but wistfully, “No one knows what the future in Egypt will bring.”
Other opinion-makers argue that nothing much will change, which is a plausible though almost equally glum alternative. Authoritarian rule has an inbuilt capacity for survival and renewal, as there is never a shortage of ambitious and ruthless men willing to try their hand at it. Moammar Qaddafi is an outstanding example of the indiscriminate brutality which comes naturally to a dictator when cornered. The numbers of the dead in Yemen, Bahrain, and Algeria are small only because the rulers believe themselves capable of containing revolution by other means. So intimidating is the regime of Syrian president Bashar Assad that nobody dares assemble for a protest. It is not forgotten that his father, Hafez Assad, ordered the killing of 20,000 (and perhaps more) Muslim Brothers in 1981. In Jordan, Queen Rania, a Palestinian, has aroused popular indignation by arranging the transfer of state property to herself. Her husband, King Abdullah, immediately promoted retired general Marouf Bakhit, a known hardliner, to be prime minister. And it has not been forgotten that King Abdullah’s father, King Hussein, ordered the shooting of thousands of Palestinians in Black September in 1970.
The widespread call for freedom and democracy, moreover, is merely an abstract wish in the absence of the social and political structures indispensable if they are to be realized. In a talk just given in Jerusalem, the eminent scholar Bernard Lewis pointed out that what Arabs have always expected of their rulers is justice. Freedom in Islam is understood as the opposite of slavery, a term with no political connotation and therefore distinct from Western-style freedom. The holding of elections in these societies without the safeguards to make them free and fair is more likely to be an abuse of democracy than a fulfillment of it. The generals who have taken power in Egypt exemplify this flawed democracy. They are Mubarak’s colleagues, military men like himself. In their circle, they objected to Mubarak’s attempt to have his son succeed him as president. When protest erupted, they deployed the army ostensibly in support of but more purposefully to replace Mubarak father and son. Establishing themselves as the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, these generals have suspended the constitution and dissolved parliament, and now rule by decree, exactly as Mubarak used to do. The Supreme Council is set to organize the election in September, presumably to obtain the result it wants, again as Mubarak would have done. Should demonstrators then return to the streets, so would the tanks. An appearance of democracy conceals the reality of a palace coup.
The generals have also declared that they will be maintaining the peace treaty with Israel. Gaza is the arena for the showdown with Iran implicit in such a statement. Hamas in Gaza is an offshoot of the Muslim Brothers, and the ayatollahs in Tehran arm and finance the movement as they extend their reach. To limit its power and prevent the smuggling of weaponry and other cooperation with the Muslim Brothers in Egypt, Mubarak had a wall and fortifications built along the 14 kilometers of the border with Gaza. This complemented the Israeli blockade. A strange unavowed combination of Sunni Egypt and Jewish Israel therefore came to oppose Shiite Iran.
According to a fairly recent Pew poll, 49 percent of Egyptian Muslims support Hamas. In the midst of the revolution, some dozens of Muslim Brothers and Hamas terrorists escaped from prison in Egypt, or more likely were released. One received an official welcome in Gaza, and on public platforms proclaim their eagerness to start fighting Israel again. The spokesman of the Muslim Brothers, the 84-year-old Sheikh Qaradawi, is one of the most influential and popular figures in the Muslim world. Originally Egyptian, he has long been in exile in Qatar, where he broadcasts on Al Jazeera. He advises Muslims not to make friends with Jews as this might diminish their desire to wage jihad against them. “O Allah, take this oppressive Jewish Zionist band of people,” he preaches, “kill them down to the very last one.”
Returning in haste to Egypt, he addressed a crowd in Cairo estimated to be over a million. Mohammed Badie, head of the Muslim Brothers, is already demanding a revision of the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty on the grounds of his eagerness to start war against Israel. Should the Supreme Council or whoever rules Egypt ever consent to an open border with Gaza in order to propitiate the Muslim Brothers, Iran will be enabled to equip Hamas with more advanced and heavier weaponry. To that extent, Hamas becomes the arbiter of peace and war. The downfall of Mubarak seems to the ayatollahs a moment of pure triumphalism and they sent two warships through the Suez Canal to show themselves already a Mediterranean power.
The United States has no purchase on the crises in prospect. The current administration responds whimsically to the news, as if it has no considered moral or political aim but wishes that these tiresome people would simply go away, or maybe hopes that Iran will overplay its hand unprompted. American assets diminish as friends and allies are dropped or treated in a way that destroys trust while enemies endure. Israeli housing on the West Bank appears to be the one issue that engages, indeed obsesses, President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Almost alone among Arabs, Palestinians so far show no sign of revolution. The peace process is in abeyance, and in accordance with the law of unintended consequences, they are all the better off for it. Even with those the administration particularly chooses to help, it achieves nothing. The evaporation of American power is mystifying and the consequences unpredictable. Which is why anything is possible.