Avoiding comment is a basic skill that every diplomat and politician should master. Unfortunately, it's one that Benjamin Netanyahu has yet to learn. Nothing requires the prime minister of Israel to comment publicly on the uprising against President Hosni Mubark's regime in Egypt. But Netanyahu simply can't resist the urge, especially when meeting with naive Europeans who don't understand the Middle East.
"Our concern is that when there are rapid changes, without all aspects of a modern democracy in place, what will happen -- and it has happened already in Iran -- will be the rise of an oppressive regime of radical Islam," Netanyahu said at a press conference with visiting German Chancellor Angela Merkel soon after the uprising began. This week, when meeting with European diplomats, he repeated his warning: Islamic radicals, he explained, could "exploit the situation to seize power in the country and lead it backward."
Netanyahu -- son of a renowned historian whose magnum opus was on immutable hatred toward Jews in medieval Spain -- draws historical analogies reflexively. Egypt could become the new Iran, the prime minister says. Iran, he has asserted stridently in the past, "is Germany" in 1938. Ergo, Israelis should feel very afraid.
To be fair, Netanyahu has company in drawing analogies. In packs, pundits have repeated the question of whether Cairo of 2011 is actually Berlin of 1989 or Tehran of 1979, the birth of democracy or of theocracy. Nicholas Kristoff suggests that the answer to "what time is it in Cairo?" is "1776," as if the Liberty Bell were about to ring in Tahrir Square. Why be limited to these precedents? Perhaps Cairo is Petrograd 1917, where the rise of the moderates was only a prelude to the victory of the Bolshevik radicals; or Tehran 2009, where the democratic revolt against Islamic hard-liners failed; or Lisbon 1974, where a military coup against Portugal's dictatorship led to democracy. In fact, the one solid lesson offered by history is that this early in a revolution, no one knows where it will lead.
Netanyahu's sources are as clueless as everyone else. On the day the demonstrations began, the head of Israeli Military Intelligence, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi, told a Knesset committee that the Egyptian regime was stable. Neither he nor the prime minister has a better idea today of what will happen. Given that uncertainty, Israelis have reasons to be nervous. But for exactly the same reasons, Netanyahu's comments are utterly irresponsible.
Peace with Egypt is fundamental to Israeli security. And as the ex-director of Israel's Foreign Ministry, Alon Liel, points out, the 1979 peace agreement with Egypt initiated a steady improvement in Israel's relations with the rest of the Muslim world. The thaw lasted until 2000, when the Israeli-Palestinian peace process collapsed and a new ice age began. Israel's alliance with Turkey has been in shreds since the Israeli invasion of Gaza in 2009, Liel notes. Netanyahu's refusal to pursue peace seriously with the Palestinians has done similar damage to relations with Jordan. The only Arab leader happy to meet Netanyahu is -- or rather, was -- Mubarak. Mubarak's comfortable relation with Israel flew in the face of Egyptian popular opinion, which "is closer to the Middle Eastern average than to Mubarak's policies," Liel says.
On the other hand, the protests in Egypt haven't been about Israel. Egyptians are upset about domestic repression, poverty, and the regime's theft of the country's wealth. Nor has this been an Islamic revolt, at least so far. Egypt's Muslim Brothers were apparently as surprised by the uprising as Maj. Gen. Kochavi was.
If one takes a deep breath and thinks calmly about a post-Mubarak Egypt, why assume it will return to confrontation with Israel? Egyptians celebrate their last war with Israel, in 1973, as a victory, but that's partly a matter of very good marketing by their government. The generals know that the war ended with an Egyptian army surrounded and cut off, and with Israeli forces rolling toward Cairo. "I don't think the [Egyptian] military is at all interested in testing out its hardware," says Dr. Joshua Teitelbaum, a Middle East expert at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.
Yet emotions sometimes do overcome rational interests. That's why Netanyahu voices his fear -- but his comments could themselves spur emotional rather than rational responses. An Israeli embrace of Mubarak won't help the despised president. But it could put Egypt's relation with Israel on the revolution's agenda. By describing Egypt to Western leaders and diplomats as a place unready for democracy, Netanyahu reinforces the image of Israel as a country of contemptuous Westerners, and he identifies aspirations for democracy with hostility toward Israel. By describing Islamicists as the chief danger, Netanyahu only risks increasing their popularity. In short, by voicing his fears, the prime minister increases the chances that they will be realized.
In the process, he does very little for Israel's image in the West. Silence would be much better. Better yet would be expressing respect for the Egyptian desire for democracy. To this, he could add an Israeli recommitment to making peace with the Palestinians. Besides its intrinsic value, peace on that front will make it far easier for a new Egyptian government to legitimize relations with Israel.
In the Netanyahu universe, though, Israeli actions play a very little role in Arab attitudes. Hostility toward Israel is a force of nature. It's always 1979 in Tehran, which is always 1938 in Germany. One more basic quality of leadership that Netanyahu has not learned is that what he should fear most is fear itself.
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