By Yakov M. Rabkin
The uprising in Egypt has sent shock waves throughout Israel. Egypt is Israel’s most powerful neighbour and an ally not only in the siege of Gaza but on a wide range of regional issues, including Lebanon, Iran and Iraq. Both Israel and Egypt are recipients of billions in U.S. aid and have followed the neo-liberal path that strengthened the welfare of the respective elites. Finally, under President Mubarak Egypt shared Israel’s burden of being the main promoter of Western interests in the region. While reactions from Israel have widely varied, its gamut has been consistent with the fault lines in Israeli society.
Quite a few people believe that “a good Arab is a dead Arab”, the slogan that an Israeli high school teacher recently found in lieu of an answer in a civics course test. Many more in the Israeli mainstream relate to Arabs, including Arab Jews, in a condescendingly colonial manner. And, finally, there are Israelis who see Arabs as equals, humans who deserve the same respect and dignity as anyone else.
Contrary to common perceptions, there is a significant body of political opinion to the right of the current Israeli government. On web sites run by and for the West Bank settlers, one reads suggestions for the Israeli army to reoccupy parts of the Sinai, namely the Mitla and Jiddi passes. According to this logic, Israel must act unilaterally to prevent any attempt on the part of Egypt to pose a land-based threat to Israeli territory. The rhetoric in these circles is patronizing and essentialist: Egypt will go Islamist (and therefore anti-Israel) if only its people have a voice in the choice of their government. Nothing better can be expected of them.
Fears of an Islamist takeover are rife: “even if the crowds on Tahrir Square appeared civilized and educated, the majority of Egyptians are nothing of the sort”. By invoking Enlightenment values these commentators argue that Arabs are not sufficiently modernized to be accorded democratic rights. This was the dominant opinion among the participants in the Herzliya conference, the “Israeli Davos” or “Neo-con Woodstock”, taking place under the spectre of the Tahrir Square. “In the Arab world, there is no room for democracy,” affirmed Israeli Major General Amos Gilead before an approving audience. This rather influential sector of Israeli elites articulates attitudes and fears that Israelis, and therefore their government, largely share.
Israel’s official reactions have shown consistency in its reactions to the turmoil in Egypt. While the discourse of the Israeli government evolved as the crisis unfolded, it reflected preference to rely on authoritarian leaders while dismissing local population. This is why the first Israeli response to the televised images of crowds in Tahrir Square was a natural one: an appeal to Western capitals to prop up Mubarak. Israeli blogs were full of bitter words of criticism of President Obama, accused on abandoning loyal allies and “Western values”. His support, however fickle, for the uprising shook many Israelis, for whom America is the principal guarantor of Israel’s future.
Reliance on imperial support is a congenital trait of Zionism. From the end of the 19th century, Theodore Herzl systematically approached Berlin, London, Saint Petersburg and Istanbul in his efforts to create a Zionist colony in Palestine. The idea of dealing with indigenous inhabitants of the country would be utterly alien to the founder of Zionism and his disciples, and, indeed, a bizarre notion in the epoch of triumphant European colonialism. Herzl wrote that he wanted the future Jewish State to become “a part of the wall of civilization” against Asiatic barbarism.
When Britain assumed control of Palestine, the Zionists came to rely on Britain to pursue a path of separate development: establishing settler colonies instead of joining the then existing pluralistic society, a true mosaic of dozens of ethnic and religious groups. This settler project received a decisive boost in 1947, when, under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union, the United Nations General Assembly decided to partition Palestine, allocating 55% of it to the Zionists, who then constituted about a third of the population of Palestine and owned but 7% of the land. More significantly, this decision was made in spite of the opposition of the majority of the country’s population and of all the surrounding nations. In this sense, the United Nations embraced the dismissive attitude expressed by Lord Balfour in 1919: “Zionism, be it right or wrong, good or bad, is rooted in age-long traditions, in present needs, and future hopes, of far profounder import than the desires and prejudices of the 700,000 Arabs who now inhabit that ancient land.”
The humiliation of six decades of denial of justice to Palestinian refugees dispossessed and displaced since 1948 remains a festering wound in the body politic of Egypt and most other Arab countries. President Mubarak, just as other “moderate” Arab leaders, knows how to pay lip service to the Palestinian cause while fully cooperating with Israel on a range of security issues. Needless to say, the siege of Gaza has been a joint effort of Israel and Egypt, and Wikileaks revealed that President Mubarak encouraged Israel to attack Gaza in the winter of 2009-10. But, whatever his past usefulness, photos of Israeli leaders with their Arab counterparts hanging in the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem were, according to The Nation, promptly doctored to remove any trace of “the old friend Mubarak”.
His departure may signal that “desires and prejudices” of Arabs will finally come to matter. This worries Israeli leaders habitually dismissive of “the Arab street”. The concern is not so much about the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt as about the looming end of impunity in Israel’s actions with respect to the West Bank, Gaza, Lebanon, international solidarity activists or UN human rights experts. The desperate fate of the Palestinians, experiencing unremitting encroachment of Zionist settler colonies, is likely to become a serious concern of the Egyptian democracy if it is ever allowed to emerge. This is why the majority opinion in Israel overtly prefers stability to democracy. And this may apply not only to Egypt, but also to Israel itself, ominously warned liberal commentators concerned about the growing intolerance of political dissidence in “the only democracy in the Middle East”.
It is the more cosmopolitan and liberal Israelis, who call themselves leftists, who warmly welcomed the uprising in Egypt. The veteran gadfly of Israeli politics Uri Avnery reminded his readers that he had welcomed the first Egyptian revolution in 1952 when Gamal Abdel Nasser assumed power and eventually became a hero of the Arab masses. These Israelis argue that their country should finally acknowledge and address the plight of the Palestinians, stop the occupation and learn to treat Palestinians as equal human beings. This is how Israel should strive to establish its legitimacy among the people in the region, rather than cling to alliances with the remaining “moderate Arab leaders” widely perceived as U.S. puppets and quislings. The events in Egypt may, indeed, encourage this kind of openness on the part of Israel, but this will require a momentous change in the country’s public opinion. Avnery believes that “when entire peoples rise up and revolution upsets all entrenched attitudes, there is the possibility of changing old ideas. If Israeli political and intellectual leaders were to stand up today and openly declare their solidarity with the Arab masses in their struggle for freedom, justice and dignity, they could plant a seed that would bear fruit in coming years.”
In the meantime, one hears more “realistic” calls for strengthening the military. Armed with conventional and nuclear weapons, the army should continue to keep Israel as “a villa in the jungle”, a phrase used by the current Minister of Defense Ehud Barak and graphically evocative of European colonialism. The turmoil in Egypt may help Israel shed this self-defeating self-image and embark on the course spurned by the founding fathers of Zionism: join with the diverse and multi-faceted ethnic and religious groups in the Middle East and become an integral part of the region.
The author is Professor of History at the University of Montreal and author of A Threat from within: a Century of Jewish Opposition to Zionism (Zedbooks/Palgrave-Macmillan).