Paul Pillar

Why Israelis Fear Arab Democracy

There is no doubt that the upheaval in Egypt has badly shaken Israel, as well as shaking the strongest American backers of Israeli policies. At first glance this may seem logical because of the importance to Israel of the peace with Egypt, which has endured for more than three decades. At second glance a worry about maintaining the peace with Egypt is not so logical. There will be no new Egyptian-Israeli war; every Egyptian leader with at least half a brain knows that if one were to occur, the Israeli Defense Forces would clobber their Egyptian adversaries. Even leaders of Israel's newest bete noire, the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, couple distaste for Israel with a realistic acceptance of the fact of Israeli power. Given that the Egyptian-Israeli peace has always been a cold peace, the advent of a post-Mubarak government will mean little practical difference in the relationship beyond a probable end to collaboration in Israel's effort to strangle the Gaza Strip.

Much of the Israeli discomfort is explicable in terms of emotion more than logic. The discomfort is a function of a general unease with Israel's situation when change in Egypt is coupled with fears directed toward other azimuths. It is a feeling of being beleaguered, felt viscerally more than strategically.

There are other respects, however—not having to do with the policies of a new Egyptian government—in which strategy and logic and not just visceral fear explain the Israeli discomfort. The emergence of popular sovereignty in Arab states can only underscore the lack of sovereignty for Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. In the worst case for Israel, the demonstration effects of uprisings by fellow Arabs would lead to a new uprising by the Palestinians—a third intifada. Even if that does not occur, the expansion of political rights in neighboring states would highlight as all the more objectionable the lack of political rights for Palestinians, including the right of a community to self-determination.

At another level, the emergence of Arab democracy will affect the narrative and argument that Israel presents to the rest of the world as its chief explanation for the persistence of the conflict between itself and its Arab neighbors. According to that narrative, the conflict is due mostly to the shortsightedness and selfishness of Arab leaders who have never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity and who have used the conflict as a distraction from their failed policies and an excuse not to undertake difficult reforms. Much of that part of the narrative has been grounded in historical truth, although it is less true now than in the past and has never been close to being the sole or even the main explanation for persistence of the conflict. That has not stopped apologists for Israeli policies from repeatedly invoking that concept, no matter how far into the past the relevant decisions by Arab leaders have receded—such as by blaming the recent eclipse of Israel's Labor Party on behavior of Palestinian leaders years ago.

This portion of the Israeli narrative will be overturned to the extent that the policies of Arab governments toward Israel are clearly no longer the calculated manipulations of autocratic leaders in unreformed states but instead reflect popular sentiment. The damage to the narrative will be all the greater insofar as an increase in popular sovereignty leads—as it almost certainly would in Egypt—to an even unfriendlier posture (in tone, if not in substance) toward Israel. It would demonstrate that the unfriendliness is not just a product of autocratic manipulation but instead reflects a broad sense of people of the region about the injustice of the indefinite occupation and exploitation of conquered, disputed land.

Perhaps most troubling of all to Israel is what any outbreak of democracy in Arab countries will do to the supposed basis of the bond between Israel and the United States. That bond has long since passed any pretense of being based just on strategic calculation. Many serious discussions of U.S. policy in the Middle East, disregarding Lord Palmerston's dictum about friends and interests, describe Israel itself as a U.S. “interest.” If a more specific elaboration of the reasons for this is called for, the principal elaboration usually offered is that the United States shares with Israel—more than it shares with any other Middle Eastern country—certain important values centered on political rights and liberties. In a regional sea of autocracy, Israel, it is often said, is the only true liberal democracy and for that reason above all others should enjoy special consideration from the United States.

Emergence of a true Arab democracy—especially in the most populous Arab state, Egypt—would overturn that part of the narrative. Israel would no longer be the only democracy in the Middle East. It might even become less democratic than some Arab countries, as an apartheid state in which the subjugation of another people being denied self-determination is inherently undemocratic. Suddenly the single biggest rationale for the exceptional support of Israel by America would be severely weakened.

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