Israel and Arab Democracy

Israel and Arab Democracy

Mini Teaser: George W. Bush believes that democracy in the Arab world is the key to security. All in due time, says Ariel Sharon.

by Author(s): Aluf Benn

A common criticism of President George W. Bush is portraying him as a patsy of Israel's prime minister, Ariel Sharon. The Bush Administration, so the theory goes, has allowed Israel to dictate its whole range of Middle East policies, be it invading Iraq, threatening Iran or withdrawing from active Arab-Israeli peacemaking. In all these issues, Bush is accused of subordinating America's interests to Israel's. This is highly debatable. Bush has sanctioned Sharon's aggressive counter-terrorism methods against the Palestinians, but he was also the first president to extract an Israeli commitment to Palestinian statehood and settlement removal. The Iraq War improved Israel's strategic position by removing a fierce enemy, but it also put Israel under stronger pressure to leave the West Bank and Gaza. What is clear, however, is that Sharon and Bush disagree over the president's recipe for regional peace and stability, namely the rapid democratization of the Arab world.

In April, President Bush hosted Prime Minister Sharon at his Texas ranch. As they discussed the future of the Middle East, the president stressed the significance of democratization in the region. "It is a precondition for security, stability and prosperity", said Bush, according to the Israeli participants, "since only a democracy would want to halt terrorism and promise a better life for its citizens."

The Israeli leader responded: "I have no doubt that if the Arab world surrounding us would be a true democracy, Israel could take far greater risks than today." This was music to Bush's ears, but Sharon also asked the president not to overlook Israel's interests in the process. The greatest obstacle for peace, he said, "is the Arabs' reluctance to acknowledge the birthright of the Jewish people to establish a Jewish state in their historic cradle."

Bush's doctrine of promoting democracy in the Arab world could indeed end up being at odds with his "strong commitment to Israel's security as a vibrant Jewish state." It seems that Washington and Jerusalem are beginning to differ as to whether security should be linked with political freedom. While the United States increasingly identifies its security with the spread of democracy in the Arab world, the Israeli establishment views stability as paramount and reacts anxiously to any shakeup of the regional status quo. Israelis fear that Bush's experiment might bring to power hostile, rejectionist elements (like Islamist parties) who would pose a serious threat to Israel's security once in power. The implementation of the Bush Doctrine should therefore take into account not only the needs, capabilities and limits of the Arabs, but also those of their Israeli neighbors.

Interestingly, as the debate over Arab democracy, its virtues and perils, gears up in distant America, it raises only little interest in Israel. Most Israeli politicians, from Sharon downwards, rarely discuss it, treating the whole thing as an unrealistic adventure of naive Americans who fail to understand regional realities. This attitude is troubling, given the enormous impact that regional regime changes could have on Israel. But first, Israelis must re-educate themselves to consider it possible at all.

Israel's foreign policy establishment treats the idea of Arab democracy with a mixture of scorn, disbelief and fear. Surrounded for so many decades on all sides by monolithic autocracies, Israelis grew to accept the current Arab governance as an unchanging force of nature. Israeli leaders have always preferred to deal with "strong men" in the neighborhood, viewing them as pillars of stability, rather than taking unnecessary risks. Israel's foreign policy is aimed at survival in a hostile environment, not at spreading Western values and democratic ideas. Few Israelis care about the plight of the Arab masses, who are deprived of political expression and basic human and civil rights.

This approach stems from two sources. One is plain arrogance towards the less developed Arabs who, many Israelis believe, are simply "not built" culturally for Western-style democracy. The other is bitter experience. When the Carter Administration assisted in the ouster of the Iranian shah in 1979 because of his bad human rights record, the ensuing revolution brought the ayatollahs to power in Tehran. This was a strategic catastrophe for Israel, which not only lost a crucial regional ally, but has since had to contend with an extremely hostile, nuclear-ambitious and terror-sponsoring regime. Israelis later noted the Islamist victory in the ill-fated Algerian election in the early 1990s. Turkey's secular generals were Israel's closest regional allies throughout the 1990s, while the rise of the more democratic but also more Islamic and EU-leaning AKP government led to a cooling of relations. More recently, and much closer to home, they have watched the rise of Lebanese Hizballah and Palestinian Hamas--two of Israel's bitterest adversaries--as legitimate political players in their respective societies. The recent Iraqi election passed with little notice among most Israelis, but Sharon, for one, noticed that Shi'a religious parties had fared well, and he warned visiting U.S. congressmen of the risk of an Islamist Iraq to Israel's security. Finally, if Bush's desire for Arab democracy is realized in Jordan, it will spell the end of Hashemite control there and lead to its replacement by what would effectively be a Palestinian state. Given that the Hashemite dynasty has been a reliable partner of Israel for decades, this would hardly be a positive development for Israel.

Yechezkel Dror, Israel's eldest political scientist, expressed the common Israeli wisdom in a recent lecture in Tel Aviv:

"The United States wants to democratize regional states. Ideologically, it's very acceptable to us. But let's assume a quick democratization of Egypt or Jordan. Will it strengthen their peace with Israel? Certainly not. The ruling elites understand the need for peace with Israel. But the public in the streets, the masses in the marketplaces, definitely don't. Opinion polls in Egypt show clearly that the public does not support peace."

Indeed, the intellectual and professional classes in Egypt and Jordan--the supposed bearers of future democracies there--have staunchly opposed their countries' peace treaties with Israel, boycotting any links with their Israeli counterparts. Moreover, the 2004 Arab Human Development Report--written by a group of Arab intellectuals and released in April by the United Nations Development Program--while critical of the current Arab regimes and advocating a democratic substitute, is also ferociously anti-Israel, blaming many of the Arab world's maladies on Israel's occupation of the Palestinians. The report's authors also support "the right of return" of Palestinian refugees, which Israelis view as a politically correct euphemism for their state's destruction. The report made no suggestion of accepting Israel as a legitimate neighbor or of cooperating with it. Its UN sponsor described the document as "an authentic reflection of the views and analysis of many of the most thoughtful, reform-minded intellectual figures in the Arab region."

It is little wonder, then, that Israel prefers to deal with strong Arab leaders who may not like the Jewish state, but nevertheless share Israel's interest in regional stability. Their strong-arm tactics at home are viewed in Israel as a contribution to security, rather than as oppression of their citizens. When King Hussein expelled the Palestine Liberation Organization from Jordan in the "Black September" of 1970, killing thousands of Palestinians, Israel applauded. When Yitzhak Rabin signed the Oslo agreement with Yasir Arafat in 1993, he declared: "Arafat will put Gaza in order without the Supreme Court and B'Tselem" (an Israeli human-rights group). Upon his election as Israel's premier in 1999, Ehud Barak reached out to Syria's Hafez al-Asad, telling the Jerusalem Post:

"The leaders who were there when their states were being established are the ones who can take the big decisions today. [Asad] is the symbol of the revolution [in Syria], he molded the state. Therefore [he] holds the sort of authority and perspective that allows him to make the hard decisions."

As it happened, Barak and Asad failed to reach a peace agreement. But the Israeli craving for the stabilizing presence of Arab autocrats remained unchanged. The Palestinian presidential election in February was seen in Israel as a means to strengthen Arafat's successor, Mahmoud Abbas, and give him legitimacy, rather than as a vehicle for political freedom. The subsequent Hamas victories in several municipal elections in Gaza reminded Israelis of the perils of unchecked political participation on the other side.

The most ardent advocate of Arab political reform in Israel is Natan Sharansky, a former dissident who spent nine years in Soviet prisons and recently resigned as a minister in Sharon's cabinet. Sharansky has argued for years that Israel must link any territorial concession to the Palestinians or the Syrians with their domestic political reforms. He prefers a hostile democratic neighbor to a friendly dictator as the basis for long-term security. Sharansky's recent book, The Case For Democracy (2004), won the public admiration of Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Back home, however, he is viewed as an eccentric figure. "They see me as a lunatic from a Soviet prison, disconnected from the harsh realities of the Middle East", he complained recently.

In his book, Sharansky recollects what happened when he tried to sell his ideas to Sharon during a cabinet meeting last year. "My arguments could not pierce the skepticism. 'I understand that in the Soviet Union your ideas were important, but unfortunately they have no place in the Middle East', Sharon told me, as many of my colleagues nodded in agreement." Sharon was characteristically blunt. But even his vice premier, Shimon Peres, the dovish leader and prophet of the "new Middle East", is highly skeptical about a democratic transformation of the Arab world. "Democracy will not hold without modernization, without changing the economic structure like China and India", he said recently. "They will have no other choice but to move from a feudal, agrarian society to a science-based society. Mere declaration of democracy and even elections are not democracy. Democracy begins in the day after the elections." Sharon's main rival, Finance Minister Benyamin Netanyahu, has long argued that Arab political freedom is crucial for Israel's security, but his argument was seen as an excuse to keep Israel's control over the West Bank and the Golan Heights until a very distant future. Indeed, Netanyahu doubts the feasibility of changing the Arab outlook of Jews. "It's more difficult than even with the Germans or Japanese", he told a right-wing conference in Jerusalem in March.

Essay Types: Essay