Editor's Notes: The reversal of a generation’s momentum

For the first time in more than 30 years, we face the specter of our diplomatic achievements being rolled back.

I knew that, sooner or later, somehow or other, it was going to be attributed to us – that Israel was going to get the blame for the protests and the riots and the bids to unseat dictatorial leaderships across the Arab world. I just couldn’t quite figure out which of our perennial critics was going to achieve the feat, and how.
After all, it’s been blindingly obvious that the demonstrations – from Tunisia to Yemen, Algeria to Jordan and, most significantly, across Egypt – began spontaneously, with constructive motivations, and had nothing whatsoever to do with Israel. In fact, they’ve laid bare the risibility of the argument that Israel is at the root of all Middle East tensions – that everything in the region would be rosy if it weren’t for our presence. Far from being enraged by Israel, the protesters, though it’s rather unlikely that they internalized this, are angered and frustrated precisely because their countries are so unlike Israel – so lacking in freedoms, so resistant to genuine public participation in their governance, so short of economic opportunities, so unjust.
Although the last few days have seen some instances of anti-Israel sentiment, it was nowhere in the first few days of the uprising in Egypt. There were very few indications initially of anti-American sentiment there either; indeed, many interviewees on the streets stressed that they didn’t want this to be regarded as an anti-Western uprising. “America, don’t make us heat you,” entreated one endearingly misspelled sign. This was an expression of people power directed at a president widely regarded by his countryfolk as a corrupt tyrant, a despot determined to stay in power regardless of popular sentiment and will.
Nevertheless, sure enough, Syria’s President Bashar Assad quickly found a way to lay at least some of the blame for the chaos at our door. In a Wall Street Journal interview on Monday, he explained with the arrogant superciliousness he has evidently inherited from his late father that his regime was “stable” because it had always been careful to remain “very closely linked to the beliefs of the people. This is the core issue. When there is divergence between your policy and the people's beliefs and interests, you will have this vacuum that creates disturbances.”
His argument, though advanced with characteristic incoherence, was apparently that the benighted leaderships of the likes of Jordan and Egypt, unlike his and his father’s enlightened stewardships, had departed from these “beliefs of the people” in making peace with Israel, and now were paying the price. “People do not only live on interests,” lectured Bashar, great democrat that he isn’t. “They also live on beliefs, especially in very ideological areas.”
Assad comes from a minority sect, has no genuine public support, inherited the presidency solely as a consequence of nepotism (and his older brother’s fatal car accident), claims power on the basis of presidential elections in which there is no other candidate, and retains control only because his opponents fear that, if they dare challenge him, he would resort to the kind of mass killing ordered by his father to douse Islamic opposition in Hama 29 years ago. It is a particularly rich irony to hear a tyrant like him asserting that fellow Arab autocrats have endangered their regimes by failing to heed the sentiments of their people.
It will be richer still if his complacency turns out to be unfounded, and the Facebook-coordinated efforts to engineer popular protests in Syria in the next few days prove significant. It’s not quite so easy, in this age of instant communication, to send your army to gun down tens of thousands of your people in the streets.
For now, it is a grim reflection of the dizzyingly destabilized Middle East reality that, with Egypt in protracted turmoil, Jordan’s king having sacked his cabinet amid escalating protests, Hamas running Gaza and ready to exploit any vacuum in the West Bank, and Iran now controlling Lebanon via Hizbullah, Assad’s thoroughly intolerant regime is apparently the most stable of our neighbors. For now.
FROM AN Israeli perspective, the most depressing and worrying overview of this staggeringly rapid shattering of regional certainties is that it reverses a generation’s momentum. After we made peace with Egypt in 1979, we believed that we had taken the first and most important step toward building a circle of normalization. Though it took a full 15 years for the second step, peace with Jordan in 1994 confirmed the sense of forward movement. Adding impetus was the opening of various levels of relationships with the likes of Morocco and the Gulf principalities.
There was a fleeting moment, too, during the Cedar Revolution that followed the assassination of Rafik Hariri in 2005, when Lebanon appeared poised for democratization, and a reorientation toward the West and perhaps to Israel. We dared hope, briefly, that Iranian people power might unseat the mullahs after the botched elections of 2009. There were times, too, when we felt ourselves to be close to breakthroughs on the Syrian and Palestinian fronts. Now, the flux has shifted with a vengeance.
For a whole generation we looked forward, endlessly agonizing about whether and how we could establish new alliances. Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, we see the specter of our gains being rolled back, of the adjacent countries we thought we had grudgingly won over, slipping away again into hostility.
Now we worry that a parallel post-1979 historical process is prevailing. The process that, even as we were cementing our peace with Anwar Sadat, saw Iran lurch from autocracy to Islamist fundamentalism after the shah was ousted. The process of Islamic emboldenment that saw Sadat assassinated for his sins of peacemaking, the rise of Hamas and the strangling of Lebanon. The process that has seen Turkey drift out of the Western orbit. The process that the Muslim Brotherhood is now seeking to advance in Egypt, subverting the protests in a replay of Iran 32 years ago. The process that would be culminated by Iran getting the bomb.
Practically, the shift means that we already can no longer afford the luxury of assuming that all will stay relatively quiet on the Egyptian and Jordanian fronts. In the case of Egypt, with a potential Islamist component in government, the vast, sophisticated, US-supplied arsenal is a genuine strategic threat. But every border is now “in play” for our stretched military forces.
All assessments and predictions must now be rechecked and reevaluated amid the bitter realization that this potentially seismic shift in regional governance and orientation was not anticipated by our intelligence services. Our most concrete strategic assumptions were liquefied almost overnight.
Practicalities aside – and incidentally, nobody should discount the possibility of major Palestinian street protests too, including in east Jerusalem – there’s a colossal psychological blow. We ought to have seen this coming. And if we missed it, what other potential game-changing shifts are we also failing to identify?
FROM AMERICA in the last few days, there has been a palpable 1979-style sense of a leadership taken by surprise, with no well-formulated idea of how to react to the instantaneous implosion of a long-term ally.
The United States has not wanted to find itself on the wrong side of Egyptian history, nor on the wrong side of heartfelt demands by massed ranks of ordinary Egyptians for the freedoms and democracy that America enjoys, emblemizes and advocates globally. But just last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had noted approvingly that the Mubarak government was “looking for ways to respond to legitimate needs and interests of Egyptian people.”
Whatever the limitations of its power and influence, America should surely know better than to underestimate the danger posed by the Muslim Brotherhood, with its antipathy to the principles of democracy, equality and tolerance, and its track record of vicious anti-Semitism and hostility to Israel. The US should have made plain, and should still, its opposition to the inclusion of the Muslim Brotherhood in any Egyptian government, and – as it failed to do sufficiently when the Iranian people took to the streets – should be doing everything in its power to encourage and help galvanize a new secular leadership. It should be insisting, with the obvious leverage of its vast aid package, that all players in any future Egyptian leadership commit to upholding the peace treaty with Israel and maintaining the effort to combat Hamas. Instead, the White House has chosen to encourage “democratic representation” in the new Egypt “by a whole host of important non-secular actors” – understood as a reference to the Brotherhood.
While America has played catch up, Iran – delightedly anticipating the regional dominoes falling its way – has provided an object lesson in cynical realpolitik. With glorious hypocrisy, Teheran has been hailing the courage, spirit and legitimacy of the Egyptian protesters – less than two years after it mowed down its own post-election protesters in the streets. How, we might usefully consider this week, would a nuclear Iran, a swaggering Iran, have used that power to intimidate and influence and try to shape the unfolding events in Egypt?
AGAIN, FROM an Israeli perspective, the dizzying speed of events serves as a reminder of our constant potential vulnerability. We are territorially and demographically dwarfed by the seething entities arrayed around us. We no longer have any dependable allies in the region. Nor many beyond it.
Europe has largely accepted the Palestinians’ assertion that a return to our pre-1967 lines is the very least we owe them. And while many Americans may in these tumultuous days be appreciating afresh the unique dependability of their sole democratic ally in the region, the confidence is not exactly mutual.
We in Israel will not quickly forget the diplomatic assault to which we were subjected two years ago, on the president’s orders, over a minor housing project in Ramat Shlomo – an east Jerusalem neighborhood that even the unforthcoming Palestinian Authority leadership has long since accepted as part of Israel. Appallingly and unwarrantedly, the administration publicly questioned our very commitment to the bilateral relationship, making all-too plain that, however firm a partner Israel might be to the US, the relationship is not always as “unbreakable” and “unshakeable” as we are routinely told by presidential candidates in the run-ups to US elections.
The issue of Israeli settlement building in the West Bank is complex, nuanced and anything but consensual. What it most certainly is not, however, is the Middle East’s defining irritant. The Arab masses may not like Jewish housing in the West Bank. They may not generally much like Jews. But what they like a great deal less is having their lives run, and ruined, by dictators.
Perhaps if the US and Europe had been a little less settlement-obsessed and more regionally savvy, they might have better read that mood. They might have realized that the peoples of Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan, Egypt and beyond actually had a more personal, more immediate agenda: the desire for greater freedom and opportunity. They might even have seen the danger signs and done more to encourage allied regional autocrats to pre-empt the protests by instituting substantive reforms.
NONE OF this is to say, for an Israel watching Egypt implode, Jordan wobble, Lebanon capitulate and Iran savor the potential pickings, that all hope of retaining the relationships we do have in the region, and of finding new partners in the future, is lost. And Israel’s lack of geostrategic depth, the demographics of our neighborhood, and the moral purpose that underpins our sovereign state, all require us to explore every opportunity that arises to “reach out our hand to neighborly relations,” as our Declaration of Independence made plain.
But in these days and weeks of regional tumult, the risks of making concessions in the hope rather than the certainty of peace, the risks of engaging with regimes that may lack the genuine will and the long-term capacity to honor agreements made with us, have rarely been as self-evident and sobering.
Does the West still believe it ought to be relentlessly pressing Israel – surrounded now by the traditionally malevolent Syrians, the newly Iran-controlled Lebanese, the uncertain regimes of the Hashemites and the Abbasites, Gaza’s Hamastan and an entirely unpredictable Egypt – to return to the pre-1967 lines from which it was attacked for its first two decades of independence? Might not a little more humility be in order among our well-meaning friends? Rather than their patronizing conviction that they must intervene to save us from ourselves, perhaps they might accord a little more deference to the idea that Israel should be granted the leeway to decide for itself where its best interests may lie?
In March 1979, we signed a peace treaty with Egypt, and in April that same year Iran became an Islamic republic. Now, more than at any time since then, Israel is challenged by the concern that it is the latter event, and not the former, that will come to define our era and our region.