Washington Watch: A cautionary tale

The seismic shift under way in the Middle East will require fundamental changes in American and Israeli policy.

The Obama administration seems to be having trouble letting go of Hosni Mubarak. It can’t decide whether it wants the Egyptian president to leave now or just begin packing.
A defiant Mubarak, picking up on Washington’s confusion, is digging in his heels. He insists that if he leaves before he is ready, chaos will ensue – and as if to prove it, he sent his goon squads to beat up demonstrators in Tahrir Square.
In a familiar tactic of trying to deflect blame for its problems onto Israel, Mubarak’s government is spreading the word that “Israeli spies” disguised as journalists are “foreign provocateurs” behind “elaborate foreign plots to destabilize Egypt,” according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.
It’s an old story with Mubarak, Israel’s most valued Arab ally: stirring up anti- Israel rage as an outlet for popular anger against his own repressive and corrupt government. I was at a meeting with him when he was asked about that; he shrugged it off by lying that Egypt has a free press and, besides, the people need to “let off steam.” Translation: Better they go after Israel than me.
As the Egyptian demonstrators demand democracy, few seem more worried that they might succeed than the Israeli government. Jerusalem’s greatest fear is that a new Egyptian government could make Mubarak’s cold peace look warm, especially if the Muslim Brotherhood has an influential role.
The Islamist group which spawned Hamas says it has abandoned violence, but that this doesn’t apply to Israel. It has repeatedly called for abrogating the 1979 peace treaty, and told Palestinians they should ditch negotiations because, in the words of its supreme guide, Muhammad Badi, “resistance is the solution.”
ISRAEL HAS good reason to be fearful. If the peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan were put to a popular vote, there’s a very good chance they’d be dissolved, with or without the Islamists. Not only because Mubarak has deflected criticism onto Israel and the US, but also because America is seen as an enabler of tyrants, propping up repressive regimes with economic and military aid.
Israel’s complaint that Washington has been too quick to abandon Mubarak – something disputed on the Egyptian street – has a heavy tinge of hypocrisy.
For years, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu – along with Natan Sharansky – has been preaching about the need for democracy in the Middle East, and blaming its absence for the lack of peace.
But suddenly faced with the real possibility of democracy breaking out in Egypt, he is whistling a different tune: Democracy is good for us, but I’m not so sure you can handle it.
His new message is that democracy could lead to an Islamic takeover, so Israel must beef up its defenses along the Egyptian border and move even more cautiously on all peace fronts.
Bibi’s hypocrisy aside, Israel has reason to be cautious.
American calls for democracy in the Middle East may have been well intentioned on the part of the Bush and Obama administrations, but have produced mixed results at best – especially for the Lebanese, Palestinians and Israelis.
Insistence that terror groups Hizbullah and Hamas be allowed to field candidates in the 2005 and 2006 elections resulted in near-fatal setbacks to Washington’s goal of fostering democracy and peace. Hizbullah today dominates Lebanon’s government, and Hamas controls Gaza and is challenging Fatah in the West Bank.
Premature elections in Egypt could undermine, not nurture democracy. As President Barack Obama said in his 2009 Cairo speech: “Elections alone do not make true democracy.”
Egyptian elections can still be held as scheduled in September, but a transitional government must be formed promptly to allow time for reforms to take root and democratic opposition groups to form, so voters can have real choices. If not, the only organized opposition party – the Muslim Brotherhood – will have an unfair advantage.
Mubarak angrily brushed off calls for democratic reform from the Bush and Obama administrations, and they let the matter fade – mistakes that might have averted the present crisis.

America sees itself as the symbol and voice of democracy, but in Egypt and other countries it is seen as the protector and defender of corrupt regimes. We chose to support stability over democracy, and now we are seeing enraged citizens turning against the dictators we backed.
There is a democracy bandwagon rolling in Egypt, and we’re trying to jump aboard without causing too much angst for our other autocratic allies still in power. We must avoid undermining them, while not getting trampled when their people rush to freedom.
The seismic shift under way in the Middle East will require fundamental changes in American and Israeli policy.
The challenge for Washington will be to press for political reforms to take hold so that elections will be truly free and fair, and for Jerusalem to find opportunities to make peace, not excuses to avoid it.
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