The NY Times published a strange story today. It recounts that Israel expressed dismay at Obama’s cut-off of military aid to Egypt in light of the military junta’s massacre of hundreds of unarmed Muslim Brotherhood protesters over the past month, including 55 in the past few days. The U.S. move was long overdue and a further indication of the temporizing that characterizes U.S. relations with some of the world’s worst thugs. But what few expected was the Israeli protest.
So why would Israel care whether the U.S. gives Egypt its annual $3-billion infusion or nothing? The answer to this question raises many interesting issue about the developing collusion between Israel’s far-rightist government and Egypt’s far-rightist military junta. The interests of both mesh nicely. Israel faces an Islamist threat on many fronts: Gaza from Hamas; Lebanon from Hezbollah; Sinai from Bedouin Islamists. The military junta’s biggest enemy is the Muslim Brotherhood, from whom they stole the last democratic government. There is also a rising Sinai Islamist threat targeting both the Egyptian army and Israel. Bedouin militants perpetrate virtual daily terror attacks on Egyptian police and military forces. The same fighters also launch rockets at Israeli targets like Eilat.
Israel and Egypt’s ruling elites increasingly see their interests and fates intertwined. That’s why Israel wants Egypt to continue receiving U.S. funding so it can buy all the military gear and weapons that largess provides.
This brings up an important related observation: Israel (with only a few exceptions) increasingly sees its allies in the Arab world as autocrats and brutal dictators. It stuck with Hosni Mubarak to the bitter end and resented Obama for dumping him unceremoniously. Until his country self-combusted, Israel co-existed quite comfortably with the al-Assad regime in Syria. Israel loves the fatcat sheikhs of the Gulf including Saudi Arabia, because both share a deep mistrust of truly democratic, populist movements. It loves Jordan’s Hashemite kingdom.
Israel is increasingly anti-democratic at home and views democracy in neighboring nations as a chance for the Arab masses to rise up against it. Which brings me to my main point: a country that loves dictatorships among its neighbors does so because it sees value in what they represent in domestic terms. Like the military dominated security-obsessed governments in Egypt, Saudi Arabia and Syria, Israel is becoming a mirror image. Every major domestic policy concern is refracted through a security mirror. Democracy is jettisoned to the extent that it conflicts with perceived security needs (see the Democracy Institute poll I posted about a few days ago).
Israel views with increasing alarm and hostility democratic openings in the Arab world. Turkey is the leader of an restive movement of Arab democracies which Israel can’t control. Lebanon’s democracy movement, in which Hezbollah has played a sometimes contradictory role, is yet another Arab country Israel can’t control. Iran, which represents the threat of revolutionary Islamism (in Israel’s eyes), is a regime whose interests resonate in Shiite areas of the Middle East.
Israel wants Arabs it can buy or control. Arabs (or Muslims) who are incorruptible or who represent populist values are a deep threat. Instead of engaging with such a movement and finding common cause with it, Israel sees the Arab Spring as the enemy. This doesn’t bode well for Israel’s ultimate integration into the region.
Finally, in typically clueless fashion, the Times neglected perhaps the main reason Israel has lobbied on Egypt’s behalf: Egypt’s military engaged in gross violations of democratic norms and international law in mounting a coup and massacring civilians in the streets. What other country does that remind you of? A country violating democratic norms and international law, mowing down protesting civilians in the street? That’s right, Israel.
Israel sees cancelling Egypt’s aid package as a precedent that could happen, if not now, then at some point in the future after Israel mounts an especially egregious massacre or war against one of its neighbors. Just as Israel fears BDS, or “delegitimization” as it so awkwardly calls it, it fears any action that could be used to single it out for opprobrium on the world stage. You can be sure anti-Occupation activists both inside Israel and abroad will take note of the Obama administration’s punishment of the junta generals and point out that Israel has behaved just as badly.
The Occupation has continued for five decades. Land continues to be stolen. Israel resists the world consensus in favor of a Palestinian state. The IDF daily kills and maims Palestinian civilians resisting Israel’s oppressive rule. It’s entirely appropriate for the U.S. to use the Egyptian precedent and withhold aid to Israel.