Paul Pillar

The Kind of Israel the Middle East Needs More Of

The continued demand in Middle Eastern streets for greater political rights is leading to ever more rhetorical scrambling by Israel, and by those in this country eager to come to Israel’s ostensible defense (but who really are defending a certain set of Israeli policies). The backdrop to the scrambling is, as I have described before, a threefold Israeli worry about the regional political upheaval. First, increased popular sovereignty in Arab states gives heightened attention to the lack of popular sovereignty for Palestinian Arabs living under Israeli occupation. Second, continued (and even intensified) criticism of Israel from Arab states that are more responsive than before to popular sentiment belies the Israeli contention that animosity toward Israel is chiefly a device used by authoritarian rulers to distract attention from their own shortcomings. Third, the emergence of new Arab democracies in the Middle East will remove the single biggest rationale—that Israel is the only democracy in the region—for the extraordinary special relationship that Israel enjoys with the United States.

The current rhetoric on behalf of Israel repeats most of the themes that have been heard for years—including the themes about criticism of Israel being a creature of Arab authoritarianism and about how the United States must embrace the only democratic ally it has in the Middle East. But there is a sense of greater urgency in the rhetoric. The articulate Israeli ambassador to the United States, Michael Oren, recently contributed an argument as an article titled “The Ultimate Ally.” It was a game effort to do part of what ambassadors are supposed to do. But to understand what Oren was talking about, see Stephen Walt’s powerfully argued and thoroughly supported demolition of Oren’s piece. In addition to refutation of the ambassador’s points, Walt reviews some of the high (or low) points in the history of Israeli actions (especially military actions) in the region that, mainly because of the special relationship that necessarily associates the United States with most things Israel does, have heavily damaged U.S. interests.

Robert Satloff of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy weighs in with a shorter but just as pretentiously argued article titled “The Long View: The Middle East Needs More Israels.” The article illustrates several of the traits that the argumentative line of which it is a part have long demonstrated. One is a failure to take the long (or broad) view of the consequences of Israeli policies and actions. In bestowing praise on Oren’s piece, for example, Satloff says the ambassador “understates the case for Israel’s value as a strategic asset to America” by not discussing at length “the unique contribution Israel has made to counterproliferation” with actions such as the attack on an Iraqi reactor in 1981. Left unsaid by Satloff was that the Iraqi response to that attack was to speed up Iraqi work on nuclear weapons, while switching to a different and more secretive method for producing fissile material.

Another trait in the argumentation is to knock down straw men. The usual straw man is the imaginary contention that Israel is responsible for all the ills in the Middle East. A newer, narrower straw man that Satloff knocks down is that U.S. ties with Israel are the cause of the current uprisings in Arab countries. (I don’t know of anyone who has contended that.) Yet another trait is to conflate Israel itself, and all that is good about it and even its very right to exist, with certain Israeli policies and practices that are the real causes of criticism and controversy.

The huge, elephant-in-the-room reality ignored by both Oren and Satloff is the voluminous evidence (a sample of which Walt reviews) that anger and resentment over those policies and practices have long shaped the views—including strongly held views of the United States—of ordinary Middle Easterners in the streets, the same streets that have been erupting over the past four months. Views of U.S.-Israeli relations did not cause the eruptions, but the views are those of the same people who are participating in the revolts. The anger and resentment are not merely artifacts—as Satloff puts it in evoking this old chestnut—of “the corruption, venality, torture, and inequality of Arab governments.”

One new data point about this is in polling results from Egypt released this week by the Pew Global Attitudes Project. By a margin of 54% to 36%, Egyptians believe that Egypt’s treaty with Israel should be annulled. This does not foretell any move toward an Egyptian-Israeli war; universal recognition of Israel’s overwhelming military superiority would see to that. The question was the only one about Israel in the survey, and as such probably indicated less about the treaty itself than as a barometer of popular sentiment toward Israel or Israeli policies. The point is that these are ordinary Egyptians speaking, not one of those corrupt and venal regimes. The same survey sample that gave this answer also said, by 77% to 13%, that Hosni Mubarak’s departure from power was a good thing.

Satloff is right about the Middle East needing more Israels if this means all the good things about Israel: the prosperity, the make-the-desert-bloom ingenuity, and support for liberal democratic values for at least a portion of the population. He is wrong if this means continuation of the 44-year-old occupation and the highly destructive actions that reflect a futile quest for absolute security even when it means absolute insecurity for others. It is the latter Israel that is the source of all that anger and resentment, and that also is the object of the criticism that Satloff, Oren, and others try so hard—harder now more than ever, as the Middle Eastern unrest has put them in a defensive crouch—to discredit or dismiss.