Israel is missing a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to support Arab freedom. While others cheer Mubarak’s fall, Israel grows apprehensive. Yes, I know. The Egyptian dictator kept the peace for 30 years. But it was a mighty cold peace.
But that’s all beside the point.
Truth regardless of consequences Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it ought be the region’s foremost champion of human rights. It’s also the homeland of a people who gave the world the earliest foundation of democracy, namely, the Bible’s declaration that every human is equally created in the image of God. The Hebrew Bible also gave the world the first story of a nation challenging an autocrat and being set free from bondage, a story set in Egypt. For Israel to squander a historic opportunity to publicly champion Arab freedom out of fear for radicals like the Muslim Brotherhood or a repeat of Hamas election in Gaza is deeply regrettable and counterproductive.
With its essential neutrality on the question of Arab freedom, Israel risks the moral neutrality that has characterized the presidency of Barack Obama, a man who is ostensibly the leader of the free world but refuses to lead those wish to be free. When the people of Iran rose against its president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and the people of Egypt rose against Mubarak, Obama offered inanities until events overtook him and then he was suddenly a great champion of freedom.
But for Israel the stakes are much higher.
For five decades Israel has argued that the real problem in the Middle East is not the Israeli-Palestinian conflict but the absence of democracy in Arab lands. In 1992 I hosted Benjamin Netanyahu at Oxford University, where he gave a mesmerizing speech arguing that in the history of the world no two democracies had ever gone to war against each other. The students attempted to refute this but could not. He explained that in a tyranny a dictator sends other people’s sons to die in his wars. But in a democracy it is the people themselves who make the decision to go to war, and they therefore pressure their leaders to exhaust every possibility before resorting to armed conflict. Democracies prevent senseless slaughter.
It’s easy to see the truth of this argument in today’s Middle East. Islamist demagogues call for Arabs low on their food chain to blow themselves up while sparing their own children. There was no one named Bin Laden on United Flight 93. The million people who died in the Iran-Iraq conflict of 1980-1988 were sent by tyrants and mullahs, while the upper crust watched safely from the sidelines. The absence of democracy in the Arab world is the source of its major conflicts with thugs like Gaddafi, Assad, and the brutal House of Saud suppressing their people’s most basic rights and then using the Jews as scapegoats for their subjects’ miserable lives.
So why would Israel now retreat from this most basic truth by refusing to support the legitimate rights of the Egyptian people to be free?
Yes, I know. Better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t. Democratic elections in Gaza brought Hamas terrorists to power, and even Hitler was ultimately elected by democratic means. But the argument is illusory. Insisting on democracy doesn’t mean sanctioning a mob to run a nation. Rather, Israel, the United States, and the Western powers should support what President Bush created in Iraq, a constitutional democracy, one that enshrines protections of minorities and guarantees of fundamental human rights into its basic charter of existence. In the case of Egypt, I even believe that the United States ought to insist that a constitutional clause guaranteeing the peace treaty with Israel be inserted, not unlike how in Germany today Holocaust denial is a crime.
But Israel championing Arab aspirations to democracy, though a must in its own right, is vital to Israel’s image and ancient biblical mandate. Israel is not just another country but one built on the dream of an ancient people being allowed to live freely in its land. It must therefore speak out for those who yearn for the same.
The international community supports the Dalai Lama’s struggle against the Chinese, even though the Chinese are the world’s second-largest economy, because they see Tibet’s survival as fundamental to their own spiritual well-being. The Dalai Lama is revered in the West as a great teacher who helps free Westerners from corrosive materialism.
A similar act of world illumination should be central to the Jewish people and the Jewish state. We should be the world’s foremost spokespeople for human dignity in general, and Israel should champion Arab dignity in particular. Arabs deserve the same standard of living as Israelis. They deserve to read the truth in a newspaper. They deserve to choose their own leaders. Their daughters deserve to live to a ripe old age without being cut down in honor killings. An Arab gay man or woman deserves to walk the streets safely without fear of being brutally murdered. And Christian Arabs deserve to live safely in governments that guarantee religious pluralism. And what country has more credibility in the Middle East on all the issues than the sole government that practices it?
The real story behind the Arab uprisings is Israel. Arabs who see Israelis living in freedom wonder why they don’t. They see Israelis becoming doctors and Internet entrepreneurs and wonder why they can’t. Had Israel not existed, Arab dictators could simply say that an open society simply can’t work in their neighborhood. And that’s the principal reason they hate Israel – because it takes away the facile excuses they continue to use to brutally suppress any legitimate opposition.