The creation of a Jewish state, right from the moment of its conception, was never compatible with the development of democracy.
Democracy rests on the recognition of the political rights and power of dēmos, the people, and in as much as it allows for any kind of discrimination it does so by empowering the under-privileged. The idea that there could be such as thing as a Jewish democracy which helps preserve the Jewish character of the state at the expense of the interests of non-Jewish minorities is an insult to the idea of democracy.
Even so, since this is a contradiction that doesn’t seem to trouble most Jewish Israelis the most immediate democratic threat to Israel does not come from inside its borders — it comes from Egypt.
A year ago, if in response to an attack emanating from inside Egypt’s borders Israel had “retaliated” by launching attacks on Gaza, it would have been confident that it’s military action would have received a fairly muted response from the Mubarak regime. Demonstrations on the streets of Cairo would have done little to damage Egypt’s cordial relations with Israel.
Now everything has changed. Thus on Monday, even while rockets were still be fired at Israel from Gaza the Netanyahu cabinet voted to refrain from any action that could lead to an all-out war against Hamas. Gone is some of the hubris that fueled Israel’s 2009 war on Gaza, Operation Cast Lead.
Why? Israel can no longer be guided by its confidence that it can punish the population of Gaza with total impunity. Now its calculus must take into consideration the mood of 80 million Egyptians who can do much more than just shout on the streets — they can influence the policies of their own government. That power is still muted by military rule, but everything Israel does to alienate Egypt now has much greater potential to define and sour future Israeli-Egyptian relations.
After the Eilat attacks last week, Israel was swift to launch what Netanyahu described as retaliatory air strikes against the leaders of the Popular Resistance Committees in Gaza, even though the Israeli Defense Forces’ spokesperson later denied that the IDF believes the PRC was responsible.
At the same time, Netanyahu’s choice to hit Gaza may have had as much to do with Israel’s wariness about challenging Egypt.
One of the assumptions enshrined in the Camp David Accords was that the demilitarization of Sinai was in Israel’s security interests, but that is no longer the case. Since the fall of Mubarak, militants in the peninsula have taken advantage of the security vacuum, launching multiple rocket attacks, and now, evidence suggests, attacking Israelis outside Eilat.
Before he then pointed the finger at Gaza, Israeli minister of defense Ehud Barak last week acknowledged: “The attacks demonstrate the weakening of Egypt’s control over the Sinai peninsula and the expansion of terrorist activity there.”
Even so, Israel’s political leaders share the same fear of acts of terrorism that politicians do everywhere — that such acts risk making the state look impotent. To have responded to the attacks by saying that Israel would engage in intense diplomatic dialogue with Egypt in order to improve security would not have been enough, yet neither could Israel afford to disregard Egyptian sovereignty by pursuing militants across the border.
The only muscle-flexing alternative was to strike Gaza. But even with its show of force, Israel now feels constrained.
What emerged most clearly from Netanyahu’s and Barak’s statements to the cabinet was that Israel lacks the international legitimacy needed for a large-scale operation in Gaza. The diplomatic crisis with Egypt [following the deaths of three Egyptian policemen killed by Israelis during the Eilat attacks] further constrains Israel’s freedom of action.
“The prime minister thinks it would be wrong to race into a total war in Gaza right now,” one of Netanyahu’s advisors said. “We are preparing to respond if the fire continues, but Israel will not be dragged into places it doesn’t want to be.”
Several Netanyahu aides detailed the constraints on Israeli military action, most of which are diplomatic.
“There’s a sensitive situation in the Middle East, which is one big boiling pot; there’s the international arena; there’s the Palestinian move in the Untied Nations in September,” when the Palestinians hope to obtain UN recognition as a state, one advisor enumerated. “We have to pick our way carefully.”
For Israel, the regional expansion of democracy is clearly problematic. No longer can it take comfort in the deals it once made with a small handful of autocratic allies. Arab populations whose views could all too easily be ignored in the past, now have new power to make themselves heard and the voice of democracy frightens Israel.