How Israel is missing the Arab spring

Those who sympathize with Mubarak are misplacing their compassion.

I am currently in Israel leading a birthright trip, during which the consumption of alcohol is largely discouraged.
It’s a policy that the country should perhaps enforce among its MKs, because whatever Labor MK Binyamin Ben-Eliezer has been drinking lately, it’s got to be some pretty powerful stuff.
As the Arab world applauds the spectacle of Egyptian tyrant Hosni Mubarak being tried for crimes against his people, including mowing down peaceful demonstrators, Ben-Eliezer seems to be shedding tears for his buddy Hosni.

In a bizarre interview with The Jerusalem Post, Ben-Eliezer said: “It really pained me to see him the way he was today. He was the leader of the Arab world. The Middle East after Mubarak is a different Middle East, a worse region. His people, who he fought for, showed him their back. He loves his people. I think he is a great Egyptian patriot. I hope he comes out of the trial alive. He is facing the pressure of the masses seeking revenge. But such a great leader deserves to be treated respectfully, and not as the lowest criminal in a cage.”
Are we talking about the same guy who ruled Egypt with an iron fist, using secret police and the military to quash all democratic movements and stay in power for four decades? When Ben-Eliezer calls Mubarak a great patriot, is he perhaps conflating the term with “despot”? We invite Mr. Ben-Eliezer to please explain how he, as an elected representative of a flourishing democracy, committed to the highest ideals of human rights, can praise a man who brutalized his people and robbed them of their freedom – not to mention their money – for four decades.
A short history lesson for Mr. Ben Eliezer’s edification: is in order.
It was George Washington who was the patriot and George III who was the tyrant.
It was Martin Luther King, Jr., who was the patriot and Bull Connor who was the persecutor.
It was Nelson Mandela who was the patriot and P. W. Botha, “the big crocodile,” who was the oppressor.
What Ben-Eliezer and other misguided Israelis who are lamenting the fall of Mubarak misunderstand is that the Egyptian leader loved power rather than his people. Washington, who in 1783 resigned as the most powerful man in the newly formed United States, was motivated by principle rather than ego. Mandela, who refused to run for reelection as South Africa’s president and risk becoming another Robert Mugabe, loved his people more than power. But Mubarak took his people to the cleaners to make himself and his children rich.
THAT A former deputy prime minister of Israel can praise a tyrant like Mubarak is embarrassing, and points to the incredible error that Israel is currently making in these unprecedented Arab uprisings.
Israel’s voice has largely failed to be heard during the ‘Arab spring.’ As Mubarak shot protesters, Muammar Gaddafi bombed cities, and Bashar Assad flattened his people with tanks, Israel’s protests have been missing. Like US President Barack Obama, who has a curious relationship with other people’s freedom, Israel has kept a low profile throughout the Arab protests.
It’s no secret why. Israel is banking on the belief that the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t. And this fear that something worse, like the Muslim Brotherhood, is going to come after Mubarak or Assad is causing Israel to violate all its most deeply cherished beliefs.
For decades, its argument has been that it is the sole democracy in a sea of Arab tyranny.
It claimed the principal cause of Middle East war is that tyrants scapegoat Israel in order to distract people from their ongoing suppression, of their citizens’ rights and that good times would come to all parties if these countries finally became democratized.
I heard Binyamin Netanyahu make this argument passionately and eloquently when he delivered a lecture at Oxford University in 1992, while he was serving as deputy foreign minister. Bibi argued that in the history of the world, no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other, and he challenged his audience to name a single instance. The Arabs have to taste the economic and political benefits of freedom if there is to be peace.
Yet now, as prime minister, Netanyahu, the country’s most persuasive spokesman, has seemingly chosen not to openly champion Arab freedom, partly out of fear of what comes next and partly out of trepidation that he will just give credibility to those Arab enemies of Israel who argue that the Jewish state is the secret instigator of the unrest.
But there is an equal fear that Israel, in its silence – or worse, in the open encouragement given to Arab autocrats by people like Ben-Eliezer – will be seen as sympathizing with dictators.
Indeed, few if any of these people are friends of Israel, especially Mubarak. It was Anwar Sadat who signed a treaty with Israel, which Mubarak inherited, transforming it into an ice-cold peace. For many years the Egyptian ambassador to the Jewish state remained in Cairo while state-sponsored media became some of the foremost purveyors of anti-Semitic propaganda – including an infamous TV miniseries arguimg for the validity of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion that was broadcast throughout the Arab world.
FOR THOSE who argue that at least Mubarak kept the peace, what choice did he have, dependent as he was on $2.5 billion in annual American aid, and risking losing the Sinai peninsula – with its considerable oil and natural gas fields – had he gone back to war? But regardless, the unseemly spectacle of the Middle East’s sole democracy failing to support a revolutionary freedom movement in Arab countries is a stark omission that the Arabs are not likely to forget.
The ancient Jewish toast of “L’haim,” to life, connotes a universal Jewish commitment to every human life. Rather than elected officials like Ben-Eliezer getting drunk on their own rhetoric, Israel’s voice should be loud and clear in denouncing tyranny in every form.
The writer, founder of This World: The Values Network, will be publishing his newest books, Ten Conversations You Need to Have with Yourself and Kosher Jesus in October and December respectively. On Twitter: @RabbiShmuley.