Rumor Debunked

by James Kirchick | February 28, 2011

Herzliya, Israel—For years, American neoconservatives have been accused of being lackeys for Israel, namely the Likud party. In 2008, Time’s Joe Klein wrote, “The fact that a great many Jewish neoconservatives—people like Joe Lieberman and the crowd over at Commentary—plumped for [the Iraq] war, and now for an even more foolish assault on Iran, raised the question of divided loyalties: using U.S. military power, U.S. lives and money, to make the world safe for Israel.” In 2004, University of Michigan Professor Juan Cole alleged that there existed a neocon cell within the Bush administration Defense Department, which attempted “to use the Pentagon as Israel’s Gurkha regiment, fighting elective wars on behalf of Tel Aviv.” Google neocons likud and you get over 40,000 results.

But the events in Egypt have laid bare a stark divide between neoconservatives and the Israeli elite: While the former are ecstatic about the fall of Mubarak and the prospect of a democratic Egypt, the latter are waryat best. “Supporting democracy is part of the genetic code of Americans,” says Martin Kramer, a senior fellow at Jerusalem’s Shalem Center. “Israelis,” on the other hand, “like the status quo.”

Putting pressure on the Middle East’s sclerotic and corrupt governments to liberalize is the touchstone of the U.S. neoconservative foreign policy project, as embodied in the Bush administration’s National Security Strategy of 2002 and made manifest with the war in Iraq. With regard to Egypt, one of the earliest and most persistent critics of the Mubarak regime was Robert Kagan, the preeminent neoconservative intellectual. Over a year ago, Kagan formed a bipartisan Working Group on Egypt that issued a stream of reports and statements warning about the potential for mass volatility in the country. In June, he co-authored a Washington Post op-ed alleging that the White House was “repeating the mistake that Cold War-era administrations made when they supported right-wing dictatorships—right up until the point when they were toppled by radical forces.” “The delegitimizing of Mubarak began with the neocons,” Kramer explains.

So, unsurprisingly, when mass protests erupted in Egypt in January, it did not take long for neoconservatives to come out in support of the demonstrators and trumpet the revolt as a victory for their own point of view. “EGYPT PROTESTS SHOW GEORGE W. BUSH WAS RIGHT ABOUT FREEDOM IN THE ARAB WORLD,” read the headline of an op-ed piece in The Washington Post by Elliot Abrams, who served as a deputy national security advisor in the Bush administration. “Bush’s insight is being vindicated now on the streets of Cairo,” wrote Douglas J. Feith, a former undersecretary of defense. “[T]he West should want this revolution to continue, even if it allows the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood much greater influence,” concluded Reuel Marc Gerecht, a fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.

Many Israelis, meanwhile, view this talk about democracy and liberalism in Egypt (and the rest of the Arab world, for that matter) as pollyannish. At this month’s Herzliya Conference, an annual gathering of Israel’s defense establishment and security experts from around the world, many Israelis said the overthrow of Mubarak is, above all, the loss of a predictable ally. While he was autocratic, at least he kept up his end of the Camp David Accords for nearly 30 years and held the lid tight on the Muslim Brotherhood. Now, Israelis are worried about the potential rise of the Brotherhood and the threat that, were it to come to power, it might abrogate the accords. In the words of one Israeli official, the accords have served as the “psychological cornerstone” of Israel’s relationship to its Arab neighbors.

What’s more, Israeli skeptics note, the new Egyptian dispensation need not be dominated by the Brotherhood to pose problems for Israel. According to the Israeli analyst Barry Rubin, “Islamism is not the only alternative ideology. There’s an alternative ideology called radical Arab nationalism.” Egyptian nationalists, he says, could make life more difficult for Israel by assisting Hamas in Gaza and, generally, taking a staunchly anti-Western stance.

So how do Israelis worried about the future of Egypt and U.S. neoconservatives view each other at the moment? “There’s a lot naïveté in the American and European expectation to see democratization in the Arab and Muslim world,” said Amnon Lipkin-Shahak, a former chief of staff of the Israeli Defense Force (IDF). Some Israelis have even put these sentiments directly to U.S. neocons. Elliott Abrams says he has received “emails saying, ‘Are you crazy and is Obama crazy? Mubarak is the linchpin of stability of this region’” from “a lot of Israelis in the security establishment.” Meanwhile, Gerecht, who attended the Herzliya conference, characterized the reactions of Israelis there as redolent of pensée unique—an ironic term lampooning the tendency of French intellectual conformity, whereby the “French elite, without any instruction, acts the same way.”

In light of this current debate, the claim that Iraq was a “war for Israel” looks even more specious. Israelis, skeptical about the prospects of Arab democracy, were at best agnostic about the overthrow of Saddam. Whatever his faults, they warned, he was at least an enemy of Iran, which Israel considers a far greater threat to its security. As Danny Ayalon, the former Israeli ambassador to Washington, said at the time, then-Prime Minister Ariel Sharon warned Bush, “In terms of culture and tradition, the Arab world is not built for democratization.” In an account provided by The Forward’s Yossi Alpher, “Sharon told Bush, please remember that you will conquer, occupy and leave, but we have to remain in this part of the world. Israel, he reminded the American president, does not wish to see its vital interests hurt by regional radicalization and the spillover of violence beyond Iraq’s borders.”

To be sure, despite their criticisms of the current situation in Egypt and, years ago, the war in Iraq, Israelis are quick to point out that it’s not Arab and Muslim democracy per se that they oppose. Israel would love to be surrounded by democracies—but only if they are genuine democracies with all of the attendant qualities: checks on power, secularism, a free press, and other features that distinguish a truly liberal democracy from an illiberal one. Indeed, Israelis warn that Americans, including neocons, have too narrow a view of what democracy entails. “It seems the Americans don’t understand democracy is something much bigger than free elections,” said Boaz Ganor, founder and the Executive Director of the International Institute for Counter-Terrorism.

Democracy in the Middle East, Ganor and others say, must be about a liberal culture that respects the rights of women and minorities—and acknowledges the presence of a Jewish State. But they are skeptical this is possible anytime soon, in Egypt or elsewhere. “It’s important not to be an Orientalist, to think that we can change the culture of the Middle East,” notes Yaakov Amidror, program director of the Institute for Contemporary Affairs at the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former commander of the Israeli Defense Force’s National Defense College. “This turns out to be presumptuous and unrealistic.” A prominent Israeli hawk invoking Edward Said to denounce the core idea behind neoconservative foreign policy: Could there be a starker illustration of just how mistaken the neocon-Israeli conflation always was?

James Kirchick is a New Republic contributing editor and writer at large with Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty based in Prague.

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