Memo To The US: Avoid Extremes While Fighting Islamists

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 9-18-12

With anti-American riots persisting, and the loved ones of the murdered American diplomats and security personnel mourning, the debate about Middle East matters remains polarizing – and depressing.  Two schools of thought dominate, and both are wrong. The first group, the submitters, is too quick to apologize, too quick to appease. The second, even more unappealing group, the bigots, is too quick to demonize, too quick to swagger.   In the long torturous history of the clash between East and West, both extremes err – by negating Western values in a pathetic attempt to woo the East or by perverting Western values in a contemptible expression of contempt for the East.

Unfortunately, too many American diplomats and Obama administration officials are submitters. These are the people who immediately accepted the false rationale blaming the anti-Mohammed video clip as the rationale for the Libyan riots, without noticing that these events were occurring on 9/11 – and that the Libyan “protestors” came well-armed and well-briefed about the Benghazi diplomatic compound.  These Arabist apologists quickly repudiated the now-infamous video, forgetting that citizens in a democracy cannot take responsibility for every ugly way fellow citizens might use freedom of speech – while also forgetting that throughout the Middle East official government organs, especially religious leaders, spew anti-American bigotry.

David Harris, the thoughtful Executive Director of the American Jewish Committee, notes that Palestinians have a culture of blame, Jews have a culture of guilt; his insight applies more broadly too.  Especially since the 1960s, the West is perpetually seen as guilty of many sins, while anti-Americanism has become as ubiquitous in the Middle East, as sand, oil, Islam, kaffiyas, and anti-Zionism.   Too many Americans have internalized this detailed indictment of our culture as imperialist, colonialist, and racist.

As Westerners who talk about diversity and tolerance but are surprisingly limited in their imaginations, the submitters tend to believe that every one around the world thinks and acts as they do.  And as rationalists unable to fathom the Arab street’s twisted illogic, too many assume that if we demonstrate our goodwill, if we behave properly, we will reconcile with our Eastern neighbors.  This thinking prompted Barack Obama’s Cairo speech, and fed elite America’s enthusiasm for the so-called Arab Spring. Seeing Arab protestors as incipient Jeffersonians with laptops – without fathoming that they might become Islamist warriors with RPGs – they waxed poetic about the new democracies aborning, abandoned American allies, and condemned Benjamin Netanyahu and other Israelis for daring to doubt, for worrying before celebrating.

Especially at the start of his administration, Obama frequently telegraphed a sense of American guilt. While anti-Americanism existed long before Obama appeared on the national scene, it is fair to ask whether his apologetics – and general hesitancy in leadership – broadcast a dangerous message of American weakness which emboldened the Islamist attackers.

These submitters frequently apologize for and feel superior to the bigots, who tap into longstanding prejudices against anyone who is different, as well as particular Western condescension toward Muslims and Arabs, as pagans and savages.  The reprehensible video clip; the misinformation that the producers were an Israeli with 100 Jewish donors backing him, reflect the bigots’ simplistic, perverse, dog-eat-dog – or more accurately group-fight-group – worldview – how convenient to scapegoat Israelis and Jews.  Moreover, these people think that patriotism is about bluster, xenophobia, and demonization, when democratic patriotism entails pride, moderation and discernment. Mitt Romney has to be wary of stirring these extremists, either directly or indirectly.

In 1975, when Daniel Patrick Moynihan was American ambassador to the United Nations, he rejected the State Department culture of guilt and appeasement. He found most American diplomats unprepared for the realities of the new world, where the US was in opposition, a world of blaming America as a way of absolving your own country of responsibility.  Moynihan wanted to hold countries accountable for their rhetoric –- and their UN votes — especially if they received American subsidies.

Moynihan took what other countries said and did seriously, and he wanted to end America’s post-Vietnam self-flagellation spree. His approach thrilled the American people. He became an American pop star, cheered for his stand, beloved for his courage, and won four elections to the US Senate over the next quarter-century. But Moynihan’s approach was too countercultural for a State Department that had internalized the Sixties Counterculture’s values.  He only lasted as Ambassador for eight months, resigning after being undermined by Henry Kissinger’s Machiaevellian moves.

Channeling Moynihan’s defiant defense of American democracy, a proper, patriotic defense of America should include Mitt Romney’s refusal to apologize, with Barack Obama’s sharp reminder to Egypt’s president to act like an ally. It should avoid demonization of Islam, Muhammad, or any Arab country, without apologizing for American values and American freedoms. Countries which accept American help should be expected to accept America as a friend, which includes not having official state organs and nationally-subsidized religious leaders rabblerousing against the US.  Americans have every right to be furious – and should attack this anti-Americanism indignantly and aggressively. American diplomats should confront leaders who use anti-Americanism and anti-Zionism as the stimulant of the Arab masses.  Diplomats must remember their primary mission is to defend their country’s interests and dignity, not make friends at any cost.

There is a perverse reversal in the Middle East today.  Americans should be the ones rallying on 9/11 against their enemies—because they were victimized.  Americans should be demonstrating angrily against the outrageous attacks against their representatives in Libya, Egypt, Yemen, and elsewhere. Fortunately, overall the tradition of national self-restraint holds, even as marginal loudmouths like the Reverend Terry Jones spew hatred. Neither submitting meekly nor succumbing to racism, Americans should continue resisting this constant, systematic assault, championing democracy, American values with a proud, constructive, strategic but strong, don’t tread on me approach.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and an Engaging Israel Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight Against Zionism as Racism” will be published this fall.

Israel’s Allergy to the Arab Spring—Justified Again

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 9-13-12

When the Arab Spring erupted in Egypt in January 2011, Israel’s cautious response did not play well. Many Israel critics—always quick to see Israel as abandoning democracy—decided that Israel’s worries were about democracy itself. Rather, the concerns were about how this particular series of popular revolts would play out in the Middle East cauldron. Moreover, most American experts and politicians, ignoring decades of ugly anti-Americanism and Islamism on the proverbial “Arab Street,” viewed the Arab revolutionaries in Egypt, Tunisia, and elsewhere as the best of Thomas Paine, Lech Walesa, Nelson Mandela and their favorite blogger combined.

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

An Egyptian protester waves the black al-Qaeda flag as he stands above the door of the US embassy in Cairo (Khaled Desouki / AFP / GettyImages)

 

Israel’s anxiety then—and today’s unhappily confirmed fears—reflected a closer reading of the dynamics within each Arab country and throughout the Muslim universe. American hopes were rooted in a two-centuries-long American belief that the rest of the world wants to replicate their revolution, spiced up with a longstanding romantic view of the Arab world, especially among elites. This came even after the decades-long phenomenon of Arafatian terrorism, Islamist fundamentalism, the rise of Hamas, the trauma of 9/11.

Now, nearly two years after that politically correct euphoria, Americans are burying an ambassador to Libya and three colleagues, defending the embassy in Yemen in nearly hand-to-hand combat, and—surprise, surprise—disappointed by the Muslim Brotherhood-dominated Egyptian government’s tepid response to the rabid mobs menacing the U.S. embassy in Cairo. Meanwhile, Israel has a newly unstable border with the Sinai, an even colder peace with Egypt, and an expanded role as the Middle East scapegoat.

One can fear the Muslim Brotherhood, the spread of Islamism, the ugly, ubiquitous, frequently violent, anti-American and anti-Zionist demagoguery poisoning the Arab world without fearing democracy, or pining away for Hosni Mubarak and Muamaar Qaddafi. Change is frequently difficult and by definition unstable. Things can still shift for the better. But to help facilitate a necessary change in the Middle East, to help Egypt, Libya and other countries evolve into more stable, more democratic, more free, more humane entities, Western policymakers need to be clear-eyed and not romantic, tough without being dogmatic, and far-sighted rather than myopic. I, for one, am still waiting for such leaders to emerge, from any country, from anywhere along the political spectrum.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Institute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Boycott Hamas — But Foster Palestinian Moderation

OP-EDS & REVIEWS

By Gil Troy, Open Zion – The Daily Beast, 8-17-12

This is the first in a series of articles that will answer the question of how to deal with Hamas.

“The Islamic Resistance Movement believes that the land of Palestine has been an Islamic Waqf throughout the generations and until the Day of Resurrection, no one can renounce it or part of it, or abandon part of it,” Part III, Article eleven of the Hamas Charter reads. “In order to face the usurpation of Palestine by the Jews, we have no escape from raising the banner of Jihad,” says Article fifteen. And then it goes wacky, invoking the Protocols of Zion, targeting “Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, B’nai B’rith and the like,” making it clear that, as Article twenty-eight teaches “Israel, by virtue of its being Jewish and of having a Jewish population, defies Islam and the Muslims.”

Those who pressure Israel to mollify Hamas want Israel to appease an unrelenting, paranoid, anti-Semitic, Jihadist movement committed to Israel’s destruction and ideologically opposed to compromise. Daniel Patrick Moynihan taught that “words matter.” And the words in founding charters matter the most. They reflect an entity’s character, its highest aspirations, its most cherished self. To ignore those words—and those ideas—is to disrespect the organization, let alone delude oneself.

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Palestinian Hamas premier in the Gaza Strip Ismail Haniya gestures in front of the Egyptian embassy in Gaza City on August 6, 2012 during a protest against five gunmen who killed 16 Egyptian guards. (Said Khatib / AFP / Getty Images)

 

Moreover, Hamas has never renounced, never regretted, never apologized for, the many civilian deaths resulting from its suicide bombing campaign against the Oslo peace process. Moreover, Israel’s disengagement from Gaza resulted in repeated rocket fire from Gaza, an area now controlled by Hamas. Hamas dictates how women should dress and what children should learn yet pretends that its dictatorial rule somehow runs out when it comes to a government’s most basic responsibilities, which include maintaining order internally and determining how it acts externally.

At the same time, Israel must live in the real world, a world in which Hamas controls Gaza, and a world in which Palestinian assaults against Israel are repeatedly ignored or excused away. What to do?

As long as Hamas continues to live by its charter, as long as rocket fire and terrorist incursions continue to come from Gaza, Israel should maintain its policy of isolating Gaza and ignoring Hamas. I would go even farther and let Egypt take responsibility for all deliveries, all electricity, all hospitalizations. If Gaza had no border with Egypt, Israel would have a moral obligation to keep some goods and services flowing. But a country has no moral obligation to a sworn enemy when there is a perfectly acceptable alternative to its south.

At the same time, Israel should acknowledge its own historic failures in building up moderates in the Palestinian camp—and learn how to avoid giving extremist groups like Hamas the oxygen they need to grow. Yes, there are Palestinian moderates. And yes, they are justified in being frustrated that Israel frequently responds to the violent extremists more than the reasonable moderates.

The Gaza disengagement should have been part of an exchange with moderate forces in Fatah, giving them a victory rather than allowing the Hamas murderers to take credit.  Israel should continue building economic, political, and security infrastructure in the West Bank, continue its Benjamin Netanyahu-implemented policy of lifting checkpoints there, continue to make it clear that the Palestinians in the West Bank will be better off if they push their leaders toward more moderation rather than veering toward the extremism imposed on their Gazan cousins.

There is an expression in Arabic and Hebrew—sikin b’sikin—one dagger sharpens the other. That has been the dynamic, in many ways, for the last few decades. Surprisingly, right now, there is a bit of a respite, with moderates like Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad focusing on building their state not targeting their neighbors—and Israel is responding in kind. It is fashionable to complain about the current stalemate without seeing how much better off the region is in 2012 than it was in 2002, when violence reigned.  Heavy-handed moves like boycotts, blockades and bombings are easy to implement; creative diplomacy and visionary statesmanship are harder to pull off—but more necessary than ever.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Intstitute Engaging Israel Research Fellow in Jerusalem. His next book, “Moynihan’s Moment: America’s Fight against Zionism as Racism,” will be published by Oxford University Press this fall.

Purim 2011: Making History Better in a Topsy-Turvy World

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, March 22, 2011

Purim 2011 was a time of Nahafochu, of complete turnarounds, as the world seemed particularly topsy-turvy. In the Arab world, the popular revolts continued to surprise dictators and democrats, as even Syrians started protesting.  In Israel, the parental smiles amid the Purim celebrations masked continuing heartbreak about the Itamar massacre, with the two butchered Fogel parents along with their three martyred children becoming national icons.  And in Japan, a country famed for its earthquake preparation and general efficiency, the unexpected earthquake-Tsumani wallop exposed human sloppiness and nature’s awesome powers.

 

Nahafochu has two meanings, as these events confirm.   As a descriptive term, it teaches that humans occasionally confront dizzying revolutions, sometimes good, sometimes bad, like the happy, sudden switch Jews experienced, flipping from being Haman’s target to the King’s favorites. But as a prescriptive term, Nahafochu teaches not to be passive when history happens to us. We should transform reversals into potential gains as Esther, Mordechai and the Jews’ communal fasting did. 

The Arab upheaval has triggered many transformations. Just weeks ago, Israel advocates’ lamenting about the lack of rights in the Arab world usually were ignored. Back in those days of –another Purim concept  — Ad Lo Yada –inability to distinguish good from bad, Muammar Gaddafi’s Libya helped lead the UN Human Rights community. Hosni Mubarak was a cherished American ally, the keystone to Middle East peace and stability. Many academics, not just the London School of Economics toadies, begged gifts from Libya and other dictatorships.

 

Suddenly, mainstream world opinion started caring about Arab civil liberties. But rather than acknowledging that pro-Israel advocates were right or wondering how so many Western dupes were so numb to Arab rights and dignity for so long, the Ad Lo Yada relativistic crowd bashed Israel as anti-democratic. Yet Israelis’ guilty fears that these popular uprisings might not yield peaceful democracies are justified.  The conventional wisdom ignores how Hamas and Hezbollah are the Arab street’s monstrous spawn,  the Moslem Brotherhood’s popularity in Egypt, and the way some populist Arabs call their perceived enemies “Jew, Jew” or
otherwise link opponents to Israel.

 

At the same time, by focusing on military intervention the West is misguided.  Wherever possible, citizens of a particular country should decide whether and how to remove their dictators.  The world should react when a Muammar Gaddafi starts slaughtering his own people –but only as a last resort, although preferably without dithering for too long.  The best way democratic outsiders can help is by cultivating true democracy inside the Arab world. Cold War programs that nurtured democratic infrastructure in Eastern Europe should be resurrected, expanded, exported, translated into Arabic and applied intelligently. Visionaries like Natan Sharansky, who recently testified before the House Foreign Affairs Committee, understand this as the West’s greatest gift to give.  After decades of enabling Arab autocracy, democrats should enable true Arab democracy, respecting rule of law, mutual rights, basic civil rights, civil society, and a functioning free market, not just votes. That would be a constructive Nahafochu.

 

Many Ad Lo Yada morally-comatose Westerners continue to misread the Israeli-Palestinian conflict too. The Itamar massacre again highlights the cancer of violence corroding the Palestinian national soul – and constituting the greatest obstacle to peace. The civilized world should repudiate the Itamar murder or murderers who stabbed to death the five Fogel family members, including three-month-old Baby Hadas. The world should recoil at the incitement which produced these baby-killers – while also condemning those Palestinians who welcomed home the murderers that night. The pictures of the blood-soaked mattresses suggest that anyone involved in those murders returned drenched in blood and sweat, reeking of death. Welcoming an obvious murderer is a criminal act of collaboration; celebrating homicide with candies is unconscionable.

 

But now too many are accusing Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu of raising the incitement issue to avoid peace talks. In fact, Nahafochu, the opposite is true. If Palestinian political culture cleansed itself of its death cult, if the world restrained expressions of Arab anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and delegitimization of Israel, border questions and other issues could be dispatched quickly. In Israel, those who believe in settling the entire land of Israel at any price are a small, loud, minority. These ideologues find reinforcement in the pragmatic majority which justifiably fears the Palestinian violence, Palestinian demonization, Palestinian incitement that the Oslo peace process unwittingly fed rather than cured by trusting Yasir Arafat. Western leaders combating incitement, Palestinian visionaries taking responsibility to wean their people of violence  – for the sake of their own souls — would transform the Middle East, making peace a procedural question rather than an existential  challenge for most Israelis.

 

Amid this tragedy, all this complexity, it is easy to read the Japanese catastrophe as an invitation for passivity, a prompt to despair. It is easy to feel overwhelmed by Tsunamis, earthquakes, and radioactive releases, this terrifying intersection where acts of God meet the mistakes of man.  But we cannot ignore the acts of godliness among so many people, in the Tsunami of love enveloping the Japanese, and the impressive international efforts to avert the feared nuclear meltdown.

 

A story circulating in Israel this week told of Rami Levy, the little guy from the Mahane Yehudah market who established a supermarket empire, showing up daily at the Fogel shiva, filling the refrigerator in the mourners’ home. At one point, he supposedly told a relative, get used to me, I will do this every week until the youngest surviving Fogel child – a 2-year-old – turns 18.

 

This Purim in particular teaches us that Nahafachu is prescriptive.  We cannot avert every catastrophe.  We can turn any catastrophe – Rami Levy style – into an opportunity to overcome challenges, assert our common humanity, help others, and change history for the better.

Gil Troy is Professor of History at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of “Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today,” and, most recently, “The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction.”giltroy@gmail.com

Cultivating democracy, Reagan- and Sharansky-style

By Gil Troy, Jerusalem Post, 2-8-11

Photo by: Ronald Reagan Library/White House photo
Israelis usually know notFormer US president Ronald Reagan and Sharansky to let fear of the future cloud the present. All peace-loving democrats should celebrate the potential inherent in Egypt’s popular uprising. As the ones who taught the world about going from slavery to freedom by leaving ancient Egypt, Jews would love to see modern Egypt teach the Arab world about going from enslavement under dictators to the freedom that flourishes in peaceful, popular democracies.

Democracy is delicious. Those who enjoy civil rights, live in states that empower the people, see leaders rotated regularly, and have no secret police to fear should never take this miracle for granted. And we should welcome those who try to join our privileged club.

THIS WEEK, two anniversaries remind 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 labeled his 1983 address the worst presidential speech ever. Reagan never understood how people so smart could be so dumb – and arrogant – as to assume that people suffering under communism did not yearn for freedom.

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. 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 mocks him, George W.

Bush and others for demanding that.

Not surprisingly, today, when historical memories get wiped out with a 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 criticize it for making peace with dictators – as if it could choose some democratic Egyptian leader as a peace partner.

Turn back the clock three decades. Had Israel rejected the media darling Anwar Sadat because he was a dictator, the world would have condemned it. Today, these critics want Israel to make peace with Mahmoud Abbas – another aging autocrat – and the deadly dictators of Hamas. Yitzhak Rabin’s realist teaching that you only make peace with your enemies has an unspoken Middle East corollary – where strongmen reign, you can only make peace with dictators, although not with those who promise to obliterate you.

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 reading like Muslim Brotherhood press releases. On February 4, Nicholas Kulish’s Valentine claimed that the Brotherhood’s “actual members… come across as civic-minded people of faith.”

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.”

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

Yes, democracy involves not having dictators. And yes, democracy can arise after 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 an occasional trip to a voting booth.

IN GRADUATE school, we debated whether colonial America’s fluidity, mobility and prosperity – unlike Europe’s feudal rigidity – nurtured its democracy. I learned then – and we learned again from watching disasters in Gaza and elsewhere – that you don’t build democracy from the (headless) top down, you build it from the ground up.

Ronald Reagan understood this when he funded institutions like the Voice of America to cultivate a vibrant political culture of openness, tolerance and dissent in communist lands. Natan Sharansky understood this when he championed building factories and investing in Gaza and the West Bank, even as Palestinian terrorists murdered Israelis. Even many Islamist groups understand this when they woo the masses by feeding, teaching and employing them before recruiting them.

Unfortunately, elite American reporters 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 and grown. In the musical South Pacific, set during World War II, the wise Emile de Becque asks a hotheaded American sailor: “I know what you’re against. What are you for?” We know the Egyptian rebels are against Hosni Mubarak, but what are 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, for listening to their opponents, for resolving conflicts peacefully, for freedom of thought, freedom of speech, freedom of religion? Are they for establishing a prosperous, stable middle-class 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, America and the world should do whatever is possible to plant the necessary democratic seeds, so the answers become “yes,” even “yes we can.”

The writer is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman research fellow in Jerusalem. He is the author of Why I Am A Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity and the Challenges of Today and The Reagan Revolution: A Very Short Introduction. giltroy@gmail.com

NYT Discussion: Mubarak’s Role and Mideast Peace: Anxiety and Skepticism

Mubarak’s Role and Mideast Peace

What does the crisis in Egypt mean for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process?

Mubarak’s Role and Mideast Peace

Introduction

Netanyahu and MubarakReuters Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, left, and President Hosni Mubarak at a meeting in Sharm El Sheikh, Egypt, on Jan. 6.

The uprising in Egypt has created turmoil for Israeli and Palestinian leaders, who have their own complicated relationships with the Mubarak regime.

For Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel, President Hosni Mubarak has been his strongest ally in the region. At the same time, Mr. Mubarak has been a firm ally of the Palestinian Authority and a staunch supporter of the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process. Egypt has also tried to broker reconciliation talks (so far, unsuccessfully) between Fatah, the party governing the West Bank, and Hamas, which controls Gaza.

What does the crisis in Egypt mean for the Israeli-Palestinian negotiations? How crucial is Mr. Mubarak to dialogue between Israel and its neighbors? Will change in the Egyptian regime make progress in Mideast peace talks even less likely?

Read the Discussion »

Anxiety and Skepticism

By Gil Troy, New York Times, 2-1-11

Gil Troy is professor of history at McGill University and a Shalom Hartman Research Fellow in Jerusalem.

Egypt’s uprising has already undermined most Israelis’ sense of security and their willingness to take risks for peace with the Palestinians. Israelis now worry about the biggest risk they ever took for peace: the withdrawal from Sinai in 1982.

Many Israelis wish they could support this popular move against Mubarak, but bitter experience has taught them to be skeptical.

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 have felt since 2000, as the failure of the Oslo peace process triggered a wave of Palestinian terror, the withdrawal from Lebanon boosted Hezbollah, and disengagement from Gaza brought Hamas to power.

Israelis have longed for greater intimacy with the Egyptian people, always speaking of “peace with Egypt” not with Mubarak. Yet this “cold peace” has been government to government not people to people. Israelis have accepted the limits, given their alternatives.

Mubarak’s Egypt has served as an important counterweight to Ahmadinejad’s Iran. The recent Wikileaks documents suggested some of the benefits Israel enjoyed from its alliance with Mubarak, including diplomatic support, intelligence sharing and military cooperation. Most important have been decades of non-belligerency. With the loss of that sense of security on its southern border, Israelis will be much more reluctant to cede control of their eastern border to an independent Palestine.

This week’s hysterical headlines in the Israeli press about the potential loss of Egypt, the dip in Tel Aviv stocks, the debate about whether President Obama can be trusted to support American allies, all suggest that Israel’s strategic doctrine is being hastily rewritten.

The prospects of peace become even more unlikely if Egypt turns Islamist. Israel’s safest border will suddenly look menacing. 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. Moreover, Israeli policymakers will feel caught, doubting Mahmoud Abbas as another unelected autocrat while fearing the popular Palestinian street more than ever.

Israelis find themselves once again in dissonance with the international community. Many Israelis wish they could wholeheartedly support this popular move against an aging dictator. But the bitter experience of the last ten years suggests that skepticism is in order.