Rattling the Cage: Israel and dictators, besides Mubarak

This country has had ‘special relationships’ with tyrants more infamous than the Egyptian president in countries far from the Middle East.

netanyahu and mubarak 311 (photo credit: GPO)
netanyahu and mubarak 311
(photo credit: GPO)
It’s not that we’re against democracy, goes the Israeli line on Egypt, it’s that we’re afraid of the Islamists and radical Arab nationalists taking over. We’re afraid to lose the peace. We’re right on Egypt’s border – the front line. We love democracy, we want democracy for everyone, certainly for our Arab neighbors, and we hate dictatorship, of course – we’re just very worried about our security, and we have a right to be.
That’s Israel’s message to the world these days, and half of it is true – we do have legitimate worries for our security with what‘s going on in Egypt. The part that isn’t true is that Israel stands for democracy and against dictatorship in the world. Within the Green Line, yes, but anywhere beyond – not only in the Middle East, but throughout black Africa, Asia and Latin America – democracy has been absolutely irrelevant for Israeli foreign policy since the 1970s, and so has dictatorship. Throughout the Third World, for 40 years, the only question our political and military leadership – together with our private arms dealers and “security advisers” – have asked is this: In terms of political and economic profit, what’s in it for us? The proof of this is that Israel has had “special relationships” with dictators much, much more infamous than Hosni Mubarak, in countries far from the Middle East, which knew nothing of Islamic fundamentalism.
What’s more, we’ve taken sides against popular revolts that could hardly have cared less about the Israeli-Arab conflict, and that were thoroughly democratic. We armed and trained troops that protected Philippine dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos against the original “people power” movement – the one led by Corazon Aquino, widow of one of Marcos’s victims, that brought democracy to the country in 1986.
The most recent – and glaring – example of Israel’s indifference to democracy abroad, its complete readiness to forge the closest political, military and economic relations with tyrants, was in apartheid South Africa. When the whole world, even the US, turned against the white regime, Israel hung on. Over two decades, we sold billions of dollars in military goods and services to apartheid South Africa – even after we supposedly went along with the international sanctions campaign for fear of losing American foreign aid, wrote Foreign Affairs senior editor Sasha Polakow- Suransky, author of last year’s The Unspoken Alliance – Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.
Besides Marcos, besides the apartheid rulers, Israel carried on close, lucrative political/military/economic relationships with out-and-out monsters such as Zaire’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Haiti’s Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, Uganda’s Idi Amin (briefly, before he threw us over for Muammar Gaddafi), Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and a host of other dirty warriors and death squad leaders.
In many if not most cases, we weren’t just one on a long list of countries grabbing the spoils of war and repression. Instead, we typically played Robin to America’s Batman in the fight against communism – and if the rebels weren’t communists, if they were socialists or liberals or peasants or just the run of poor people fed up with tyranny and poverty, we and our American patrons called them communists (just like we’re tarring the Egyptian masses now as radicals and jihadists.) And when, in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter began cutting off American military aid to tyrants (including the shah of Iran, another Israeli favorite), and in the 1980s, when Congress continued imposing these sanctions against Ronald Reagan’s will, Israel was there to step into the breach.
“The Israelis do not let this human rights thing stand in the way of business," a prominent right-wing Guatemalan politician said in a recent interview. "You pay, they deliver. No questions asked, unlike the gringos,” wrote University of Haifa Prof. Benjamin Beit- Hallahmi, quoting from Reuters in his 1987 book, The Israeli Connection – Who Israel Arms and Why.
There are times when Israel will support the forces of democracy against dictators – such as the Iranian reformers against Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the mullahs and, previously, the Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein, the 1989 uprising against Soviet communism and, in the 1960s, the Southern Sudanese rebels against Sudan. There are probably other cases I don’t know of. But in the ones I do, the dictators being challenged had something in common: They were all enemies of Israel. We have no problem supporting dictators or opposing democrats, all that matters (except for the money, especially for our private mercenaries) is that you be our enemy’s enemy. If you are, whoever you are, we will be your friend. This has been the guiding principle of Israeli policy in the Third World since the 1970s, and it is our guiding principle today in Egypt. Democracy is for speeches.
SINCE THE fall of the Soviet Union, the map of the Third World has changed and it isn’t so easy for Israel to choose sides. Argentina, Chile and other once-friendly military dictatorships in Latin America have gone democratic. (If they’re now recognizing Palestine one after another, maybe it’s partly because they remember Israel’s role in their oppression.) As for Latin American drug lords, I don’t know if Israeli mercenaries are still helping them out, but if they’re not, that would mark a change.
Regarding Africa today, Open University Prof. Benyamin Neuberger wrote in “Israel’s Relations with the Third World (1948-2008),” an October 2009 research paper: “As it now stands, most of the relations between Israel and Africa involve ‘practical’ concerns in the field of private enterprise. Israel’s business people – many of them ex-army officers interested in arms deals – are active in countries such as Kenya, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.”
Makes sense. Israelis have become go-getter capitalists, they like to travel, to take risks, and while communism is gone, war isn’t, and with its hi-tech prowess, this country’s status among the major powers of the international arms trade is only going up.
Some of you reading this, I’m sure, find it to be a very bleak story. There is one ray of light, though, a time of lost innocence – in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Israel was known in black Africa not as a cynical gunrunner but as a model of a post-colonial, egalitarian nation. We had military trainers there, too, but our best-known people in Africa were kibbutz agronomists.
Beit-Hallahmi wrote that nearly 15,000 Third World citizens, half of them black Africans, came here to study at the Foreign Ministry’s International Institute for Development. Wrote Neuberger: “The African nationalist elites of the 1950s and 1960s truly admired Israel... [They] firmly believed that the enemies of the Jews were also the enemies of the blacks.”
Hurts, doesn’t it? This solidarity began to fray in the mid-’60s from the effects of Nasserism and the advent of the PLO, but the outgrowths of the Six Day War – the occupation and, finally, the Yom Kippur War – are what killed it. Israel, for its part, eagerly came under the generous patronage of the US; it found a perfect meeting of the minds with Richard Nixon and Henry Kissinger and we became America’s brash little alter ego to the friendly fascists of the Third World.
We had the military know-how, they had the money and we all had a joint enemy – the have-nots, the weak, the masses and those who led them. Within the Green Line, we remained a democracy, but now we were an American-aligned tyrant in the West Bank and Gaza, so we became the natural allies of American- aligned tyrants everywhere.
THIS IS by no means the whole story of why Israel is siding with Hosni Mubarak today – again, we have legitimate security worries – but it is a part of the story.
Could things have been different? If we’d walked out of the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War, if we’d chosen not to become a dictator over the Palestinians and not to throw in so enthusiastically with dictators abroad, would we be watching the uprising in Egypt today through less fearful eyes? I don’t know. For sure, we would not be having a beautiful friendship with the Arabs; even without the occupation, there would still be Palestinian refugees from 1948, still be Arab radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism; Israel would still be among the haves and the Arabs among the have-nots. The settlements can be blamed for a lot, but there are other problems in the Middle East too.
Still, by becoming the Palestinians’ masters, we had to deaden ourselves. We were doing to other people what we’d always hated other people doing to us, so we had to look away. We made excuses – just like we did in South Africa, Zaire, Chile, Argentina and so on. We looked out for number one to the exclusion of everyone else in the world. We recited over and over the first part of Hillel’s dictum, ”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and completely erased the second part: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?” Who are we? What do we stand for in the world? Since the day after the Six Day War, the day we became tyrants, we stand for nothing but ourselves.
And while we have the right to our worries, while that’s part of the story of why the incredibly brave people in Egypt inspire just about everyone in the world except us, our deadened conscience is also part of the story – a bigger part than we want to admit.