Guest Post by Benjamin Orbach & Samir I Toubassy
It is hard to believe that Israelis are watching the scenes from Cairo with anything but dread. Yet, the Arab Awakening has presented Israelis with an opportunity to secure their place in the Middle East.
The Arab-Israeli conflict has led many Israelis to believe that armed struggle for their existence is an enduring fact of life. Israel’s wars have evolved from existential to territorial over the last sixty years, but competing narratives and the experience of Jewish history have created a siege mindset. Israel’s peace with Egypt has solidified its security and contributed to an economic boon, but it has not relieved that siege mentality. Though dubbed the “cold peace,” peace with Egypt has enabled Israel to face threats to the north and to curtail weapons smuggling into Gaza. The uncertainty in Egypt is bound to send tremors through Israel.
For decades, America has looked at the governments of the Arab World and seen stability. There have been flare-ups in the form of intifadas and bread riots, but the Arab World’s 20th Century dictators have enabled access to oil and passage through Suez. They have spoken of peace and cooperated on terrorism, all the while keeping the lid on tight at home. The 9/11 attack was like the first scents of a gas leak; we saw that regimes’ degradation of citizens’ rights, opportunities, and dignity would eventually lead to an explosion.
That explosion occurred in Tunisia and has turned into a mushroom cloud in Egypt. It is inevitable that the mushroom cloud will drive Mubarak from office if not today, than on a soon to come tomorrow. In Damascus, Sanaa, and Amman, people are watching and waiting – there is no tourniquet for the Internet.
The new order that is being tweeted from North Africa is definitive in what it is against – human rights transgressions, corruption, and dictators’ security forces – but not yet clear on the issues that it will coalesce around. It is easier to oppose something than to build it, and today’s protestors will spend years figuring out how they want to build.
As the Arab World works through these issues, where does that leave Israel, its long time foil?
Israel, too, bought into the logic of a pharaoh and his subjects. Israel has claimed the mantle of the region’s lone democracy for decades, but it has done little to speak for the civic and human rights of its neighbors. Rather, Israel has sought peace agreements with its neighbors’ rulers, rulers who would dictate to their people the terms of an Arab-Israeli co-existence.
As the status quo in the Middle East begins to fracture, there is an opportunity for Israel to change its approach. Certainly peace agreements have not lost their value – if there was ever a region that needed to spend more on education and employment and less on defense, it is the Middle East and North Africa. However, Arab democracies are not going to normalize relations with Israel as long as Israel occupies Palestinian lands, enacts human rights abuses, and in effect, sides with Hosni Mubarak over the Egyptian people.
Israelis should seize upon the potential of democratic systems and aspirations to build peace. They should ask themselves whether the occupation of the West Bank is consistent with the principles of the democratic state they have strived so hard to build. The threat of the future is not a land invasion from Iraq that will be slowed by settlement and military outposts, but the human rights hurricane that will come from within, that has brought together one million Egyptians. Israel will face a Mubarak-like quandary when (not if) Palestinians protest non-violently for their own state or for Israeli citizenship. As long as suicide bombers stay home, who believes that South American and European countries won’t recognize the state of Palestine, and the Netanyahu Government won’t be the casualty of this new order?
This is a watershed democratic moment and the time for Israelis to demonstrate their credentials. With placards that call for human rights in Cairo, Beirut, and Ramallah, they should gather in the hundreds of thousands in Rabin Square. They should advocate for a “just peace,” i.e. a peace that works for both parties and not a signed surrender that legitimizes the largest land grab.
Israelis should understand, that as citizens of a democracy, their place in the Middle East is with the demonstrators in Cairo, not the crumbling authoritarian order. Those Egyptians aren’t killers who want to throw them into the Mediterranean. They are oppressed citizens. They want the kind of dignity and a relationship of equals that Israelis expect from their government.
A month ago, Hosni Mubarak was securing his son’s succession. Today, he is figuring out how to live out his last years, in freedom, in Egypt. Israel is the strongest country in the Middle East. From a position of strength, it can cast its lot with the people of its region and take a significant step towards building peace. Things can change quickly; Israelis shouldn’t miss the Mubarak moment.
Benjamin Orbach is the author of Live from Jordan, and the Director of the America’s Unofficial Ambassadors initiative at Creative Learning. Samir I Toubassy is a 2010 Senior Fellow at the Advanced Leadership Initiative at Harvard University.