Israel likes to call itself an island of democratic stability in a Mideast sea of dictatorships. But now that democratic winds are blowing through the region, Israelis have been reluctant to embrace mounting calls for regime change beyond their border.
Even as the U.S. applies pressure on Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak to step down, Israel’s leaders are urging caution, fearing that free elections in neighboring Arab nations will usher in governments that are more hostile.
Simply put, Israel would rather have autocratic friends than democratic enemies.
Though Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has limited his public comments about Mubarak — any endorsement by Israel would be seen as a kiss of death in most of the Arab world — he has privately conveyed his support to the Egyptian president and ordered Israeli ambassadors around the world to help tamp down expectations for sweeping reform in Egypt, according to Israeli media.
Netanyahu warned this week against getting caught up in romantic ideals. Many Israelis who have fumed because they believe the U.S. abandoned its longtime ally Mubarak worry that losing him as president could destabilize the region and endanger the landmark Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty. They say U.S. officials naively believe Egypt can be transformed into a strong democracy.
“We must look around with our eyes wide open,” the prime minister told lawmakers Wednesday. “We must identify things as they are, not as we’d like them to be.”
Israelis have good reason to have mixed feelings about Arab democracies. Elections in Lebanon and the West Bank and Gaza Strip served to bring to power two of its archenemies, Hezbollah and Hamas. Both are labeled as terrorist groups by the U.S. and Israel.
The Islamic regime in Iran, which is now Israel’s greatest threat, rose out of a popular revolution that was hijacked by extremists, Netanyahu noted.
Some critics here have faulted Netanyahu for failing to back democratic tides in Egypt and Jordan. Haaretz newspaper wrote in an editorial that Netanyahu is “clinging to the old, collapsing order.”
But many Israelis share Netanyahu’s concern that Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist opposition group, and Iran would try to turn Egypt into “another Gaza run by radical forces that oppose everything the democratic world stands for.”
As Mubarak’s position grows more precarious by the day and popular protests spread to Yemen, Syria and Sudan, Israel is bracing for change. It is particularly concerned with the stability of its peace treaties with Egypt and Jordan, signed in 1979 and 1994, respectively.
Regardless of how events unfold in Egypt, some expect the relationship with Israel to suffer, due largely to the hostility many Egyptians still feel toward Israel.
The 1979 treaty ushered in what many have described as a “cold peace.” The countries cooperate politically and militarily, but many Egyptians still view Israel as an enemy and few Egyptian tourists travel to Israel. Elements of anti-Israeli sentiment were apparent in Cairo protests last week, where a Star of David was spray-painted on one burned-out truck and pro-Mubarak supporters accused Israel of being behind the unrest.
“However this plays out, it appears that relations with Egypt will get worse for the simple reason that any new regime in Egypt will understand it must be more attuned to its street — and the street does not Iike Israel,” said Shlomo Brom, senior researcher at the Institute for National Security Studies in Tel Aviv.
Now Israel is quietly dusting off shelved war scenarios and updating defense strategies to include prospects of renewed hostilities along a border it has not had to worry about for years. Intelligence-sharing and border coordination with Egypt have helped Israel battle Islamic extremists in Gaza. Egypt is also crucial to stemming the flow of weapons into Gaza and of illegal immigrants into Israel.
Israel is expected to harden its stance on security measures, particularly when it comes to negotiating a future demilitarized Palestinian state.
According to one Washington lobbyist, Israel is considering opposing the United States’ $60-billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, arguing that the regime might be at higher risk of collapse because of the regional instability.
Others in Israel are calling for the nation to boost its self-reliance. It currently receives about half its natural gas from Egypt, and some advocate banning export of eventual production from recently discovered offshore oil and gas fields in order to ensure a stable domestic supply.
Events in Egypt and other countries could also have an effect on Israel’s all-important relationship with the U.S., analysts and officials say. Though the Obama administration has clashed openly with Netanyahu’s government over Israel’s settlement construction in the West Bank, the growing regional uncertainty might bring the two sides closer together.
“When Obama looks at a map of the region, he sees only one country he can count on — Israel,” said Israeli lawmaker Nahman Shai of the centrist Kadima party during a parliamentary debate.
Though the political instability in the region could distract from getting stalled peace talks back on track, Brom said the Obama administration might be able to use the situation to push Israel for a stronger commitment toward finally ending the West Bank occupation.
“The more pressured Israel feels — and this current situation is making Israel nervous — the more leverage the U.S. has,” he said. “The U.S. had a good hand, but it depends how they play it.”
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau and Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.