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February 7, 2011 5:14 pm

Israel’s Missed Opportunity to Support Arab Freedom

avatar by Shmuley Boteach

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The Near East area as seen from space. Photo: NASA.

I believe to my core that Israel is making a huge mistake by not supporting the democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. All over the internet we’re reading of Israel’s apprehension at the fall of Mubarak. Yes, I know. The Egyptian dictator kept the peace for thirty years. But it was a mighty cold peace, and he had more to gain by keeping it than Israel.

But that’s all beside the point.

Israel is the only democracy in the Middle East and it ought to be the region’s champion of human rights. It’s also the homeland of a people who gave the world the earliest foundation of democracy with the Bible’s incomparable declaration that every human is created equally in the image of G-d. 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. To now see Israel squander a historic opportunity to publicly champion Arab freedom out of fear of radicals like the Muslim Brotherhood or a repeat of what happened in Gaza with Hamas’ election is deeply regrettable and counterproductive. The Arabs will hold Israel accountable for betraying its own message of democracy.

With its essential neutrality on the question of Arab freedom Israel now has the same problem as Barack Obama of not being on the side of human liberty. Obama earned international ridicule for sitting around as events overtook him, only offering his support for the Egyptian protesters once their ultimate triumph was a fate accopli thereby demonstrating that the leader of the free world is neither a leader nor a champion of the free.

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 Binyamin Netanyahu at the University of Oxford 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 him 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 choose war only after every other option has been exhausted.

It’s easy to see the truth of this argument every day in the Middle East. Demagogues call for Arabs low on their food chain 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 eight-year Iran-Iraq was were sent by tyrants and fanatics on both sides, utterly unaccountable to the people they sent to die. The absence of democracy in the Arab world is the source of its major conflicts with thugs like Kaddafi, Assad, and the brutal House of Saud suppressing their people’s most basic rights and then using the Jews as scapegoats to explain their subjects’ miserable lives.

So why would Israel now retreat from this most basic truth?

Yes, I know. Better the enemy you know than the enemy you don’t. Democratic elections in Gaza brought Hamas terrorists to power. 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, namely, a constitutional democracy, one that enshrines protections of minorities and guarantees fundamental human rights. 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, for obvious reasons.

In the essential question of why the world is so hostile to Israel there are two camps. One says the world is hopelessly anti-Semitic. I do not subscribe to this camp. The other says that Israel has done a poor job of explaining itself, coming across as focused solely on its survival, whatever the suffering caused to the Palestinians. Because Jews died in the holocaust – so the thinking goes – Israel feels it can do anything to prevent a further holocaust, including inflict endless suffering on the Palestinians whom they displaced. Of course, nothing can be further from the truth. The Jews built Israel rather than colonized it. They gave equal rights to the Arab citizen population and more rights to the Palestinians in the West Bank than they enjoy in any Arab land.

But Israel’s image will not change until it lives up to its Biblical mandate of being a light unto the nations. It has to stand for something big. The world consistently supports the Dalai Lama’s struggle against the Chinese because they believe Tibet’s survival is fundamental to Western spirituality. Westerners look to Buddhism for guidance.

The same should be true of Israel and Judaism. Israel should promote what it truly is, a beacon to Arab nations of the possibility of freedom, human dignity, and religious pluralism in the Middle East. Yes, I believe Israel should preach these values. We should be speaking not only about an existential threat from Iran, but the threat to human dignity wherever there are honor killings, where women are subordinated to men, and where gays are killed in the streets.

And it should begin with Israel being the foremost champion of Arab liberty in the region.

The real story behind the Arab uprisings is Israel. Arabs who see Israelis living free lives with financial prosperity and religious autonomy just across the border from them are wondering why they don’t have the same. Had Israel not existed Arab dictators could pass the specious argument that freedom can’t exist in the volatile region and foreign policy experts would continue to offer the condescending argument that Arabs are too politically juvenile to be free.

Netanyahu can give a speech tomorrow that says, “Israel is profoundly grateful to Hosni Mubarak for keeping the peace for three decades. We owe him much. But as a freedom-loving democracy Israel’s heart is with the people everywhere, especially the Middle East, who yearn for a free society

It’s time for Israel to go to stage two of its development. Stage one was a homeland for Jews. Stage two is a light unto the nations. A beacon of human liberty and freedom, a nation in which not only are there no honor killings of young women with boyfriends but where women can be Prime Ministers and Judges, a  nation where every person has no fear of persecution or intimidation. A nation governed by the rule of law. And a nation that supports the democratic aspirations of people everywhere.

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