The voice of democracy frightens Israel

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.

One way of interpreting Israel’s strikes on Gaza is to see them as opportunistic and providing a timely distraction from Israel’s own protest movement.

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.

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2 thoughts on “The voice of democracy frightens Israel

  1. Norman

    Well now, if Egypt, Tunisia and now perhaps Libya become democratic run countries, Israel will no longer be able to say it’s the only democratic country in the M.E. In fact, it will show the world that it’s anything but. The resulting ramifications are mind boggling. Israel is running out of room to remain legitimate in the eyes of the world. They are playing a dangerous game pitting others in their game. It reminds me of what’s taking place in the financial world, the banks put the world on the edge, seemingly getting away with their looting for the moment, but the wolfs are still just outside their doors and as in the three little pigs, Israel could find out that their house may be made of bricks, but their doors are made of straw.

  2. Observer

    Norman, our ‘leader’ know very well that there is almost no chance on earth of Libya becoming ‘democratic’, and they know that there is every chance it will now descend into sectarian murderousness. Our ‘leaders’ intentionally create the chaotic conditions on the ground to prepare for that, by smashing infrastructure, murdering innocent people, desecrating holy places, agent provocateur attacks etc. ‘Our leaders’ know what they are doing, and they know that places like Libya and Iraq are tribal cultures that hold grudges and remember insults, sleights, wounding, inter tribal murder and breaking of inter tribal social taboos — to put it dramatically — for ever.

    I am not being condescending, suggesting that ‘Arabs are too primitive or backward to be democratic’, but I am saying that our version of ‘democracy’ ( beyond its veneer of ‘freedoms’ and the vague possibility to be financially ‘upward mobile’ ) is simply not that attractive to many Arabs. Indeed, traditional Islam considers many of our Western and/or Democratic ‘values’ to be grossly repulsive, anti religious,anti sacred, not respectful, animalistic, and even anti human — in thier eyes then, the complete opposite of sacred and Godly values, and the complete opposite of respectful social values .

    ‘Democracy’ ( our version ) is just not going to happen — and our US/European leaders now that very well. So does Israel.

    Ideal then, for making money and plundering resources , as the chaos is increased to a whirlwind.

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