Prominent foreign leaders and statesmen being ushered into Prime Minister
Binyamin Netanyahu’s office over the next few weeks would do well to brush up on
the history of Shapour Bakhtiar.
Because Bakhtiar, a reformist Iranian
politician chosen by the shah in 1978 to help create a civilian government in
the waning days of his regime, is a name Netanyahu is continuously bringing up
in talking about the situation in Egypt.
He often evokes the names of
Bakhtiar as well as Alexander Kerensky, the Russian revolutionary who gave that
country a democratic moment in 1917 before being swept away by the Bolsheviks.
But especially Bakhtiar, because Iran is so much closer to home, and the model
there – especially how the Islamic radicals took over at a time of revolution
against an autocratic leader – is pressing heavy on the minds of leaders
here.NEW YORK TIMES
columnist Thomas Friedman assures us this fear of
the Iranian model need not be so. Writing from Cairo, he says that Egyptian
President Hosni Mubarak “wants everyone to believe this is Iran in 1979 all
over, but it just does not feel that way. This uprising feels
But with all due respect to Friedman’s “feelings,”
what if he has it all wrong? Or what if the upheaval in Egypt might indeed be
post-ideological, but is usurped by the ideologues, the best organized of a
badly organized Egyptian opposition? Friedman may then be able to write an
“oops, my bad” column, but Egypt would be thrust backward in time, and this
country would be stuck with a colossal mess on its doorstep.
Which is why
Netanyahu is stressing Bakhtiar.
Bakhtiar, a political scientist, was a
critic of the shah’s regime who, despite his relative moderation – he called for
peaceful protest and democracy within the framework of the monarchy – spent six
years in jail for his troubles. By 1977 he had become a leading figure in the
illegal National Front opposition, and toward the end of the 1978, the shah –
who saw his power slipping away – called on him to lead the transition from a
military to a civilian government.
Bakhtiar’s term as prime minister
lasted all of 36 days, during which he allowed Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini back
into the country, a move that did not prove to be too politically astute.
Khomeini refused to work with Bakhtiar, characterizing him a traitor for working
with the shah. The shah fled in January 1979, and Bakhtiar was forced to leave
for France four months later.
The rest, of course, is history – a
footnote being that Bakhtiar was assassinated in Paris in
NETANYAHU’S MESSAGE over the last two weeks in a few public
statements, and numerous private ones, is that everyone wants freedom, everyone
wants democracy. It’s just that it has to come slowly, because if the
institutions are not prepared to receive it, Egypt might have its own version of
Bakhtiar overthrown by its own version of the ayatollah.
Netanyahu’s consistent message since the crisis started, a
message delivered alongside visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel and to the
Knesset plenum last week in Hebrew, and in English this week to a group of
friendly European parliamentarians visiting the Knesset, was that the transition
in Egypt needs to be slow and gradual: evolution, not revolution. Or, as a
senior diplomatic official put it, you don’t go from zero to 100 kilometers per
hour in no time at all.
Netanyahu was one of the only world leaders
publicly articulating this message. In so doing, he has bucked the tide of
popular Western opinion which, understandably, is excited by a rising thirst for
freedom in Egypt.
While Netanyahu spoke out publicly, other leaders were
privately articulating similar sentiments directly to the US administration.
According to a New York Times report, these messages were coming from the
leaders of Saudi Arabia, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates (none of them, by
the way, bastions of freedom and liberty).
A Times of London report on
Thursday said Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah even threatened US President Barack
Obama that he would bankroll Egypt if the US withdrew its $1.5 billion in
Mubarak, Abdullah said according to the report, must be allowed to
shepherd Egypt’s transition process and leave power with “dignity.”
that conversation, or Netanyahu’s messages, or the appeals from the Jordanian
king or the UAE have an influence on Washington? Hard to tell. But one thing
that is clear is that there has been a dizzying flip-flop in American policy, a
flip-flop as worrisome to some officials in Jerusalem as the initial speed in
which Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton unceremoniously dumped
Mubarak when the press reported breathlessly from Tahrir Square that the rivers
of freedom – like the Nile itself – were flowing through the
Just a week after Obama called for a transition “now,”
translated by White House press secretary Robert Gibbs to mean “yesterday,” the
message this week was that a quick exit by Mubarak could lead to further
confusion and turmoil, not necessarily to the creation of a truly democratic
While this more gradual approach to change was welcomed in
Jerusalem, the rapid lurch in US policy left some shaking their heads, with one
government official saying it simply seemed the US administration had no clear
Mideast policy and no idea what it was doing.
The danger in that
conclusion is manifold, the official said. First, it sent a bad message to other
US allies looking for a degree of constancy in policy.
Second, it sent
shivers down the spines of those who look to the US for guidance in the Mideast,
for a sense that there is someone in charge, someone who sees things clearly and
understands how to get there.
It also reverberates badly on the
diplomatic process, because if the US is clumsy on Egypt – first abandoning
Mubarak, then zigzagging and stepping back – what confidence is there in
Jerusalem that the administration knows what it is doing on the
Israeli-Palestinian track? This sense that the US “just doesn’t get it” was
reinforced for some by the appearance this week at the Herzliya Conference of
James Jones, the retired marine general who, until his departure in October as
Obama’s national security adviser, was a key formulator of US Mideast policy for
the last four years – first for the Bush administration, and then even more as a
key part of Obama’s team.
Locked into a preconceived idea that the last
couple weeks of regional reality has not jolted, Jones said that even with the
Mideast in upheaval, the Israeli- Palestinian conflict remains the core problem
– not only for the two principals, but for humanity itself.
“I’m of the
belief that had God appeared in front of President Obama in 2009 and said if he
could do one thing on the face of the planet, and one thing only, to make the
world a better place and give people more hope and opportunity for the future, I
would venture that it would have something to do with finding the two-state
solution to the Middle East,” Jones told reporters after his speech.
logic he explained in the speech. A failed peace process feeds and drives
“nearly everything, everything else that threatens us, everything that happens
in this region, and which has global ramifications if not
“The failed peace process undermines the Arab moderates,” he
said, not addressing how the abandonment of a “moderate” such as Mubarak by the
US might now be making other moderates feel.
But Jones’s main argument
was that the lack of a peace agreement “strengthens and amplifies” Iran’s
appeal, and the appeal of its message.
Iran, he said, fears a resolution
of the conflict, “and benefits by the divided attention of the global community.
Hamas and Hizbullah draw strength from the Palestinian issue.”
Netanyahu agree Iran is a cardinal issue. But while Netanyahu wants to reduce
its influence by ensuring that Egypt doesn’t fall onto its side of the ledger,
Jones argues that the best way to reduce this influence is with an Israeli-PA
peace agreement, as if once that is taken care of, the Iranian regime will lose
its appeal, the wider Israeli-Arab conflict will disappear and Hamas and
Hizbullah will not find some other perceived Israeli injustice or evil to feed
Granted, Jones is no longer in power, but it is safe to assume what
he says reflects a strong strain of thought within the administration.
such, his words this week went a long way toward explaining the huge conceptual
gaps separating Washington and Jerusalem, gaps that the current crisis is not