The Jerusalem Post columnist Shmuel Rosner has written a revealing column: "Why Israel Hates the Egyptian Uprising." His conclusion: "when Israel looks at the revolutionary forces in Egypt, it doesn't see "change," or "hope," or "democracy," or the "end of oppression." It doesn't see Egyptians rejoicing in anticipation of their new beginning. All Israel sees is trouble."
But where Rosner is most interesting from an American perspective is in his description of the Israeli views of U.S. policy towards Egypt and the interaction with Israeli policies. Rosner tells us that Israelis' view of Mideast policy makers is strictly dichotomous. Rosner accurately portrays the Israeli view as reflecting a consensus -- policy views towards Israel's Arab neighbors once held only by Israel's ultra right wing parties now dominate all but its rapidly withering left. One branch of the dichotomy contains the philosophers who worry about democracy. They are fools, "wise-ass[es]." Israelis' hold them in contempt and rightly ignore their consistently bad advice.
The alternative source of policy advice is to "learn from experience." Experience teaches Israelis that everything that changes in the Mideast harms Israel -- except Mubarak's "cold peace." Rosner believes that experience counsels Israelis to fear and reject Arab democracy and peace proposals.
So where do American presidents fit in this dichotomy? Well, the supreme success from this Israeli perspective is -- President Carter. The Camp David Peace Accords with Mubarak's assassinated predecessor Anwar Sadat resulted in the peace treaty with Egypt that Mubarak honored. That peace, even if cold, gave Israel the critical strategic advantage of not having to defend against a major conventional attack from its South (more precisely, it reduced the risk of such an attack and provided time for the IDF to mobilize to halt such an attack). The Israeli opponents of the Camp David Peace Accords were the settlers -- the group that now purportedly exemplifies "learn from experience" under Rosner's dichotomy. The settlers, the leading "pragmatists" (as Rosner terms the Israeli opponents of Arab democracy) sought to block the Camp David Peace Accords that Rosner now concludes were the greatest boon to Israeli security.
Under Rosner's dichotomy, the naïve philosophers obsessed with democracy were George Bush and the U.S. neocons who eagerly launched a voluntary war against Iraq based on lies. Rosner writes to emphasize "that there's no such thing as an Israeli neocon. The Israeli establishment never believed in promoting democracy in the Arab world, and it still doesn't. It never much cared about Arab democracy, period." Rosner thinks that Americans do not understand Israelis; that we had the absurd belief that Israel cared about democracy. Americans have many weaknesses in understanding other nations, but Rosner has picked an area in which Americans largely got it right. As Rosner opines, even among U.S. neocons, the most deluded segment of Americans about the Mideast, "most of them do" know that Israelis do not favor democracy. Quite the opposite -- democracy and demographics are Jewish Israelis' greatest fears because they know that Israeli Jews and Arab Muslims and Christians despise and fear each other. Even Israeli Jews and Arabs have sharply negative views of each other. Jewish demographics push Israel steadily to the right and towards the ultra-religious.
As Rosner pictures the relationship, Israelis originally viewed the neocons and Bush as useful idiots. All the talk of democracy was pure foolishness, but Likud originally believed that having America invade Iraq and provide ever greater military support to the IDF would prove exceptionally useful. Israelis came to doubt how useful the neocons policies were when they observed (1) the voluntary invasion of Iraq made Iran dominant in the region, (2) the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan weakened the U.S. military and greatly reduced its power to credibly project power elsewhere in the Mideast, and (3) the neocons' Arab democracy ideas led to Hamas taking control of Gaza in relatively democratic elections. The neocons proved to be un-useful idiots to Israel under Rosner's dichotomy.
As any reader of the Jerusalem Post would find "completely predictable," the villain of Rosner's piece is not President Bush, but President Obama. President Obama is the villain because he is like President Carter. Rosner cites Binyamin Ben Eliezer's attack on Obama as proof of Obama's pro-democracy folly -- because Obama is purportedly risking the peace treaty that Carter negotiated over the opposition of Israel's leading "pragmatists" -- the settlers. Neither Ben Eliezer nor Rosner feel the need to inform the reader that Carter negotiated the treaty that provided the great strategic advantage to Israel and over 35 years of peace between Israel and Egypt.
[Mubarak] is now in danger of being toppled with the prodding and blessing of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
So, Israelis were stunned to wake up and discover that their American friend had abandoned Mubarak in favor of change. "The Americans brought disaster to the Middle East by calling for [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to leave his country," said Knesset Member Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former defense minister and one of Israel's most establishment-minded politicians. Right and left, coalition and opposition, all but a very few thought poorly of U.S. policy. Everyone felt that the Obama administration had once again been "naive," or "hasty," that it didn't understand the region and didn't understand the Arab mentality. Israelis were stunned--and somewhat frightened. After all, if Washington has dumped Mubarak, maybe peaceful Egypt is gone for good. And if the United States could desert such a valued strategic ally, maybe we're next in line for the boot?
Of course, such fears are nonsense. Israel isn't Egypt, and its ties with the United States run much stronger and deeper. It will not be abandoned with such haste, and anyway, why would anyone want to abandon Israel? Still, there's something to these fears, because the Egyptian unrest emphasizes the extent to which American and Israeli interests in the Middle East can be different. The United States, for all its many faults, is a dreamer; and Israel is a cynical pragmatist.
The difficulty with all this Israeli pragmatism is that it isn't pragmatic and it isn't honest. Israelis demonize Carter because the Shah of Iran "lost" Iran while Carter was President. The Shah was a dying man who had lost the support of "his" people. His military was unwilling to murder thousands of citizen protesters to keep him in power. The U.S., to its credit, was unwilling to urge the Shah to murder thousands of Iranian protesters in the hopes that he could terrorize the population sufficiently to remain in power. Carter did not "lose" Iran, the U.S. did not lose Iran -- the Shah lost Iran. The U.S. was not eager to force the Shah from office. The Carter administration, as with prior administrations, was quite willing to have friendly relationships with the autocratic Shah despite SAVAK's depredations. The U.S.' dealings with the Shah were always based on pragmatism. If he could stay in control without mass murder and remain friendly to the U.S. the U.S. would be happy to be his ally.
Once the Shah lost control of "his" nation the U.S. goals included arranging safe exile for the Shah (which the U.S. did at some substantial cost, including the seizure of our Embassy and staff). U.S. solicitude for the Shah was an act of pragmatism -- we were showing our autocratic allies that even if they lost control and were in danger of being executed the U.S. would be willing to safeguard them and their families even when that would enrage the new government.
It is fantasy, not pragmatism, to believe that Carter had some magic button he could have pressed that would have kept the Shah in power. What was Carter supposed to do? Instruct SAVAK to launch a dirty war of torturing, disappearing, and murdering the Shah's political opponents? Instruct Iran's military to turn automatic weapons on the crowds? Assassinate Khomeini? Fly in the ready brigade of the AirCav? To do what? The Shah was a weak, dying, and hated man. Any of these options were almost certain to fail, they would make us hated with a passion, and they would betray everything that makes America a great nation. Does Israel want the U.S. to adopt Assad's "Hama rules"? (When Haffez al-Assad was faced with revolt in Hama, Syria's fourth largest city, in 1982, he responded by destroying much of the city and murdering thousands of "his" citizens. The terror "worked" -- the revolt was crushed.)
Israel has, for 37 years, had the ability to follow Hama rules because of its decisive military power. It has refused to do so for moral and pragmatic reasons. It should not criticize the U.S. for refusing to descend to a depth of depravity and anti-pragmatic stupidity that Israel wisely refuses to plumb.
The conventional wisdom in Israel about the situation in Egypt today, and the U.S. response to it is fantasy posing as pragmatism. Under the Israeli rewrite of history, the U.S. was eager to push democracy in Egypt and too naïve to understand that the Muslim Brotherhood would come to power and destroy the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel. In the real world, the Obama administration consistently emphasized its support for President Mubarak and refused to criticize him for his consistent denial of democratic rights to the Egyptian people. When the mass protests began recently in Egypt, Obama and Secretary of State Clinton responded by emphasizing their support for him and cautioning against the protests.
What changed the U.S. policy response was that it became clear that Mubarak had lost control of Egypt. The U.S. had no good choices from either the U.S. or the Israeli perspective. Pragmatism means recognizing the limits of one's power and options and not assuming that there is some "silver bullet" solution that makes difficulties disappear.
The U.S. did not urge Mubarak to conduct a peaceful transition of power until it was clear that he had lost control of Egypt. Rosner's language choices are all slanted to make Obama the villain. Consider the sentence he uses to begin the critical discussion.
[Mubarak] is now in danger of being toppled with the prodding and blessing of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
The sentence may be literally true, but it is also deliberately misleading. It would be far more accurate to state that Mubarak has lost control of Egypt because Egyptians no longer respect or fear him. President Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, after supporting Mubarak for their entire terms in office, finally decided (pragmatically) that even with their continued support Mubarak could not regain control of Egypt without engaging in a campaign of terror against Egyptians. That option was unacceptable to the U.S. on pragmatic and moral grounds. (It may have been unacceptable to Mubarak and the Egyptian Army on the same grounds.)
The U.S. was pragmatic, not naïve, in deciding that it could not keep Mubarak in power. Obama's dominant policy goal was to attempt to influence the transition in order to maximize the chances that the successor government would continue to honor the Camp David Peace Accords with Israel. No good deed goes unpunished.
Consider also Rosner's subtle slanting of this passage.
[I]f Washington has dumped Mubarak, maybe peaceful Egypt is gone for good. And if the United States could desert such a valued strategic ally, maybe we're next in line for the boot?
Rosner conflates the head of state with the nation. The U.S. did not "desert" anyone, and it certainly did not desert Egypt. Our alliance is with Egypt. We never allied with Mubarak against the Egyptian people. We never promised to keep Mubarak in power regardless of the will of Egyptians.
The U.S. remains Egypt's closest ally. That alliance is not hostile to Israel, indeed, it was essential to attain Egypt's willingness to enter into the peace accords with Israel -- which Rosner and Ben Eliezer agree is the most favorable event for Israel in over 30 years. U.S. taxpayers have provided tens of billions of dollars in aid to Egypt and Israel as part of our broader agreements to support the Camp David accords. Even in the Great Recession the American people have continued this aid without complaint.
The Egyptian people "dumped Mubarak." If, and only if, Mubarak's successor repudiates the Camp David Peace Accords, the U.S. will cease its aid to Egypt. Rosner is even more disingenuous in his claims that Israelis are worried that because we have not urged Mubarak to respond to the protestors with terror, Israel may be "next in line for the boot."
Rosner then adds this bit of faux reassurance to Israelis.
Of course, such fears are nonsense. Israel isn't Egypt, and its ties with the United States run much stronger and deeper. It will not be abandoned with such haste, and anyway, why would anyone want to abandon Israel? Still, there's something to these fears....
Because U.S. ties with Israel are "stronger and deeper" than our ties with Egypt we will not "abandon" Israel "with such haste." The fears he first describes as "nonsense" end up being somehow sensible. Again, he implicitly conflates the head of state with the nation. Consider a hypothetical that makes clear the absurdity of this reasoning. Assume that a future Israeli Prime Minister has a strong majority in the Knesset. The PM has been a good friend of the U.S. and our President and Secretary of State have strongly supported him for years. The PM is indicted because there is compelling evidence that he extorted kickbacks from contractors, but the MKs continue to support his government. Seven hundred thousand Israelis protest in Tel Aviv demanding that the PM resign and that new elections be held. The protests continue and lead to general strike that paralyzes the Israeli economy and endangers the IDF's ability to mobilize reserves. The U.S. President states that he believes that the PM should call new elections within the month and, for the good of Israel, resign. Israelis might criticize the U.S. President's comments as an interference in Israeli internal affairs, but it would be insane to claim that the President was "abandon[ing]" either the Israeli PM or Israel. The U.S. never promises to keep a particular Israeli PM in power against the will of the Israeli people. The U.S. alliance is with Israel and it is not dependent on the identity of Israel's PM.
Bill Black is an associate professor of economics and law at the University of Missouri - Kansas City and the author of The Best Way to Rob a Bank is to Own One.