Israel is out of touch

The events in Cairo over the past few days should be greeted with a huge sigh of relief.

February 15, 2011 01:26
3 minute read.
Mubarak and Netanyahu meet in Sharm e-Sheikh.

Netanyahu Mubarak 311. (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)


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Less than two hours after toppling their leader of 30 years, the protesters of Tahrir Square had started to tidy up. Barricades were dismantled, the rubbish and debris removed, streets swept. A deliberate choice has been made by protest leaders to resume normal life now that the hated Hosni Mubarak is gone.

Perceived by many Israeli commentators as a movement shifting Egypt toward extremism, the developments of the past few days belie such characterizations of the protesters’ intentions.

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The almost total lack of anti-Israeli and anti-American slogans and placards in the past fortnight has been striking, as has been the lack of Islamic content. Rather than being hijacked by extremists, what we have seen is a popular process characterized by a political maturity and moderation never witnessed before in the Arab world.

The protesters’ immediate, joyful acceptance of an interim army-led caretaker administration only reinforces this reality. Acutely aware of the bloodshed in Iraq when it was “democratized” after 2003, protesters are not pushing for immediate elections, understanding the need for a period of calm political management before elections later in the year.

Meanwhile, the temporary military leadership, in its first statement since the ousting of Mubarak, bent over backward Saturday to emphasize that it’s business as usual. The peace with Israel will be respected and promoted. “Egypt is committed to all regional and international obligations and treaties,” insist the generals.

IN ISRAEL, it has become the norm to view any regional development that it has not preordained with knee-jerk pessimism, if not outright panic, the assumption being that disaster is imminent. Yet the events in Cairo and the statements from the Egyptian military demonstrate something quite different, and should thus be welcomed.

The army will try to move Egypt toward an Arab version of a moderate, secular democracy. The new political framework may include provisions that recognize the importance of Islam – religiously and socially, not politically – to the majority of its 84 million inhabitants, and the new Egypt may take issue with some Israeli policies toward the Palestinians.

This may mean a less intimate and more critical relationship. But if premised on a mutual commitment to regional stability and moderate politics, such a reality can only be preferable to the repression of the past 30 years that helped drive so many Egyptians into the arms of radical Islamists.

Even a minority role for Islamists in the first governments that will follow may be a small price to pay for the benefits of stable relations with a secure, secular, democratic Egypt – however unpalatable such a scenario may seem to many in Israel. Egypt is not Lebanon, and is certainly not Gaza.

It is thus in Israel’s interest to immediately change its rhetoric. Binyamin Netanyahu’s public statements in the days before Mubarak fell were almost as out-of-touch as Mubarak’s own speeches, missing the Cairo mood and even drawing public rebuke from Britain.

Even after Mubarak’s resignation, the language was not adjusted – Netanyahu’s Saturday evening statement said nothing about the historic events, just that the peace treaty “has greatly contributed to both countries and is the cornerstone for peace and stability in the entire Middle East.”

No good can come from Israel – so proud of being the bastion of democracy in the otherwise dictatorial Middle East – reacting to the democratization of Egypt with belligerent rhetoric, military posturing and open expressions of doubt.

It may play well to the fear and pessimism that has become so entrenched in the national mind-set, but can only aid elements like the Muslim Brotherhood, which is trying to push Egypt away from the peace treaty.

Things can of course still go wrong, and in the elections later in the year the Brotherhood could still come to power. But such nightmare scenarios are now far, far less likely.

Many remain so inherently pessimistic, however, that you can expect to hear the exact opposite sentiment from certain politicians and commentators in coming weeks and months. Such statements will not serve the country’s short- or long-term interests.

The writer, an academic and analyst specializing in Middle East affairs and counterterrorism, lectures at New York University in London.

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