Israel and the dictators (besides Mubarak)

It’s not that we’re against democracy, goes the Israeli line on Egypt, it’s that we’re afraid of the Islamists and radical Arab nationalists taking over. We’re afraid to lose the peace. We’re right on Egypt’s border – the front line. We love democracy, we want democracy for everyone, certainly for our Arab neighbors, and we hate dictatorship, of course – we’re just very worried about our security, and we have a right to be.

That’s Israel’s message to the world these days, and half of it is true – we do have legitimate worries for our security with what‘s going on in Egypt. The part that isn’t true is that Israel stands for democracy and against dictatorship in the world. Within the Green Line, yes, but anywhere beyond – not only in the Middle East, but throughout black Africa, Asia and Latin America – democracy has been absolutely irrelevant for Israeli foreign policy since the 1970s, and so has dictatorship. Throughout the Third World, for 40 years, the only question our political and military leadership – together with our private arms dealers and “security advisers” – have asked is this: In terms of political and economic profit, what’s in it for us?

The proof of this is that Israel has had “special relationships” with dictators much, much more infamous than Hosni Mubarak, in countries far from the Middle East, which knew nothing of Islamic fundamentalism. What’s more, we’ve taken sides against popular revolts that could hardly have cared less about the Israeli-Arab conflict, and that were thoroughly democratic.

We armed and trained troops that protected Philippine dictator and kleptocrat Ferdinand Marcos against the original “people power” movement – the one led by Corazon Aquino, widow of one of Marcos’s victims, that brought democracy to the country in 1986.

The most recent – and glaring – example of Israel’s indifference to democracy abroad, its complete readiness to forge the closest political, military and economic relations with tyrants, was in apartheid South Africa. When the whole world, even the US, turned against the white regime, Israel hung on. Over two decades, we sold billions of dollars in military goods and services to apartheid South Africa – even after Israel supposedly went along with the international sanctions campaign for fear of losing American foreign aid, wrote Foreign Affairs senior editor Sasha Polakow-Suransky, author of last year’s The Unspoken Alliance – Israel’s Secret Relationship with Apartheid South Africa.

Besides Marcos, besides the apartheid rulers, Israel carried on close, lucrative political/military/economic relationships with out-and-out monsters such as Congo’s Mobutu Sese Seko, Haiti’s Papa Doc and Baby Doc Duvalier, Uganda’s Idi Amin (briefly, before he threw us over for Ghadafi), Chile’s Augusto Pinochet, Nicaragua’s Anastasio Somoza and a host of other dirty warriors and death squad leaders.
In many if not most cases, we weren’t just one on a long list of countries grabbing the spoils of war and repression. Instead, we typically played Robin to America’s Batman in the fight against Communism – and if the rebels weren’t Communists, if they were socialists or liberals or peasants or just the run of poor people fed up with tyranny and poverty, we and our American patrons called them Communists. (Just like we’re tarring the Egyptian masses now as radicals and jihadists.)

And when, in the late 1970s, Jimmy Carter began cutting off American military aid to tyrants (including the Shah of Iran, another Israeli favorite), and in the 1980s, when Congress continued imposing these sanctions against Ronald Reagan’s will, Israel was there to step into the breach.

“’The Israelis do not let this human rights thing stand in the way of business,’ a prominent right-wing Guatemalan politician said in a recent interview. ‘You pay, they deliver. No questions asked, unlike the gringos,” wrote Haifa University Prof. Benjamin Beit-Hallahmi, quoting from Reuters in his 1987 book, The Israeli Connection – Who Israel Arms and Why.

There are times when Israel will support the forces of democracy against dictators – such as the Iranian reformers against Ahmadinejad and the mullahs, and, previously, the Iraqi Kurds against Saddam Hussein, the 1989 uprising against Soviet Communism, and, in the 1960s, the Southern Sudanese rebels against Sudan. There are probably other cases I don’t know of.  But in the ones I do, the dictators being challenged had something in common: they were all enemies of Israel. We have no problem supporting dictators or opposing democrats, all that matters (except for the money, especially for our private mercenaries) is that you be our enemy’s enemy. If you are, whoever you are, we will be your friend.

This has been the guiding principle of Israeli policy in the Third World since the 1970s, and it is our guiding principle today in Egypt. Democracy is for speeches.

Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the map of the Third World has changed and it isn’t so easy for Israel to choose sides. Argentina, Chile and other once-friendly military dictatorships in Latin America have gone democratic. (If they’re now recognizing Palestine one after another, maybe it’s partly because they remember Israel’s role in their oppression.) As for Latin American drug lords, I don’t know if Israeli mercenaries are still helping them out, but if they’re not, that would mark a change.

Regarding Africa today, Open University Prof. Benyamin Neuberger wrote in “Israel’s Relations with the Third World (1948-2008),” an October 2009 research paper: “As it now stands, most of the relations between Israel and Africa involve ‘practical’ concerns in the field of private enterprise. Israel’s business people – many of them ex-army officers interested in arms deals – are active in countries such as Kenya, Cameroon, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Liberia, Rwanda and Sierra Leone.“

Makes sense. Israelis have become go-getter capitalists, they like to travel, to take risks, and while Communism is gone, war isn’t, and with its hi-tech prowess, this country’s status among the major powers of the international arms trade is only going up.

Some of you reading this, I’m sure, find it to be a very bleak story. There is one ray of light, though, a time of lost innocence – in the 1950s and early 1960s, when Israel was known in black Africa not as a cynical gun-runner but as a model of a post-colonial, egalitarian nation. We had military trainers there, too, but our best-known people in Africa were kibbutz agronomists. Beit-Hallahmi wrote that nearly 15,000 Third World citizens, half of them black Africans, came to Israel to study at the Foreign Ministry’s International Institute for Development.   

Wrote Neuberger: “The African nationalist elites of the 1950s and 1960s truly admired Israel … [They] firmly believed that the enemies of the Jews were also the enemies of the blacks.”

Hurts, doesn’t it?

This solidarity began to fray in the mid-60s from the effects of Nasserism and the advent of the PLO, but the outgrowths of the Six Day War – the Israeli occupation and, finally, the Yom Kippur War – are what killed it. Israel, for its part, eagerly came under the generous patronage of the US, it found a perfect meeting of the minds with Nixon and Kissinger, and we became America’s brash little alter ego to the friendly fascists of the Third World.

We had the military knowhow, they had the money, and we all had a joint enemy – the have-nots, the weak, the masses and those who led them. Within the Green Line, we remained a democracy, but now we were an American-aligned tyrant in the West Bank and Gaza, so we became the natural allies of American-aligned tyrants everywhere.

This is by no means the whole story of why Israel is siding with Hosni Mubarak today – again, we have legitimate security worries – but it is a part of the story. 

Could things have been different? If we’d walked out of the West Bank and Gaza after the Six Day War, if we’d chosen not to become a dictator over the Palestinians and not to throw in so enthusiastically with dictators abroad, would we be watching the uprising in Egypt today through less fearful eyes?

I don’t know. For sure, we would not be having a beautiful friendship with the Arabs; even without the occupation, there would still be Palestinian refugees from 1948, still be Arab radicalism and Islamic fundamentalism, Israel would still be among the haves and the Arabs among the have-nots. The settlements can be blamed for a lot, but there are other problems in the Middle East, too.

Still, by becoming the Palestinians’ masters, we had to deaden ourselves. We were doing to other people what we’d always hated other people doing to us, so we had to look away. We made excuses – just like we did in South Africa, Zaire, Chile, Argentina and so on. We looked out for number one to the exclusion of everyone else in the world. We recited over and over the first part of Hillel’s dictum, ”If I am not for myself, who will be for me?” and completely erased the second part: “And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

Who are we? What do we stand for in the world? Since the day after the Six Day War, the day we became tyrants, we stand for nothing but ourselves.

And while we have the right to our worries, while that’s part of the story of why the incredibly brave people in Egypt inspire just about everyone in the world except us, our deadened conscience is also part of the story – a bigger part than we want to admit.

Stop and smell the roses in Pakistan

As an Egyptian whose country’s military dictators are either taken by God or an assassin’s bullet, I envy the Pakistani people’s ability to now use the term, “former president.”

As former Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf contemplates how his friends in the U.S. administration dropped him quicker than you can say “hot freedom fries,” for those of us from the Muslim world — awash in military dictators who have friends in high places in Washington — his exit from Pakistan’s frenetic political stage is miraculous.

The naysayers will remind us of all the “ifs” and “buts” that remain for Pakistan. For starters, Musharraf’s two main rivals, who engineered the threatened impeachment elbowing him toward resignation — Nawaz Sharif and Asif Ali Zardari — are nowhere near perfect leaders, especially since the only factor uniting them is now contemplating the real estate of exile sites in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

Sharif — the former prime minister swept aside by Musharraf’s bloodless 1999 coup — was himself in exile until last year, when he returned home vowing political revenge. He wants to try Musharraf for treason. Meanwhile, Zardari, the widower of assassinated former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, has taken a more conciliatory line.

They might disagree on Musharraf’s future, but what they do have in common is ignominious histories of corruption — a reminder that dictators like Musharraf are experts at stifling the life out of their country’s politics and leaving poor alternatives to their rules by coup d’état.

We will be reminded that the Taliban and Al Qaeda and all those other scary figures Musharraf dutifully fought as part of his card-carrying membership in the war on terror are now celebrating in every cave that straddles Pakistan’s troubled border with Afghanistan.

Last year, militant friends of the newly insurgent Taliban and its Al Qaeda allies slaughtered hundreds of Pakistanis in waves of suicide bombings across the country. But much like his fellow Muslim dictators befriended by Washington, Musharraf just perfected his technique of using them as Islamist bogeymen.

My country’s president, Hosni Mubarak, points to the Muslim Brotherhood. Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas points to Hamas. But neither can beat having Osama bin Laden allegedly hiding somewhere in his country.

Although he presented himself as a secular leader, Musharraf gave free rein to those same Islamists that he was warning the West about, because they were a foil to Pakistan’s vibrant liberal community.

It’s unclear who will become Pakistan’s next president, but there’s no doubt that the ruling coalition’s challenges are many now that Musharraf is out of the picture: fighting inflation, reducing the gap between rich and poor and continuing to fight militancy in the nuclear-armed country. For Pakistan, politics has been a roller-coaster ride since its birth in 1947 as a partition from India.

But let’s stop for a moment and appreciate what has just happened in Pakistan: The constitution and the justice system of a Muslim country were about to impeach a sitting president who was once head of the armed forces. Rather than face such accountability, that president resigned.

To further put Pakistan’s achievement in context, consider that had he insisted on fighting impeachment, Musharraf faced charges of violating the constitution and gross misconduct. Why?

Because he imposed six weeks of emergency rule and fired dozens of judges last November, when the Supreme Court met to decide his eligibility to stand for re-election for a third term as president while still army chief.

Egypt has lived under emergency rule for each and every one of Mubarak’s four terms in power straddling 26 years. In 2006, his regime showed a similar allergy to an independent judiciary. Mubarak’s regime disciplined two senior judges and arrested and beat dozens of their supporters when the judges had the temerity to press for an inquiry into electoral fraud during the 2005 parliamentary elections, which Mubarak’s party swept. The elections were marred by violence, several deaths and plenty of intimidation.

Just like Musharraf, Mubarak recognized the dangers of an independent judiciary — which in many Muslim countries constitutes the most potent secular opposition. But don’t hold your breath for Mubarak’s impeachment any time soon.

“Let’s hope we can learn from this in Egypt,” my dad told me as we discussed Musharraf’s resignation. “It will tell our dictators, ‘You are not more powerful than the people.'”

It will also signal to our various dictators that no matter how tight you are with Washington, no matter how well you have managed to persuade your American friends that you’re the only thing that stands between them and Islamist lunatics, they will look away when your people have had it with you.

For years, Pakistan has been home to much that ails the Muslim world: coups, dictatorship, militancy and corruption. Let’s recognize it now as home to judges and lawyers who won their staredown with the dictator.

And let’s remind Sharif, Zardari and whoever becomes Pakistan’s next president: “Hey, those same judges and lawyers against whom Musharraf foolishly picked a fight and lost are there keeping an eye on you, too.”

To the people of Pakistan — I salute you!

Mona Eltahawy is an award-winning New York-based journalist and commentator and an international lecturer on Arab and Muslim issues.

GOP Missing Chance to Attract Jews

An Israeli diplomat once remarked famously that the Palestinians “never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity” to make peace. Much the same, it appears, is true in the efforts of the Republican Party, particularly here in California, to reach out to the Jewish community.

In the runup to the war in Iraq, the Republicans possessed a golden opportunity to break deeply into Jewish ranks. The president of the United States was now taking on one of the worst anti-Semitic dictators of modern times and a sworn blood enemy of Israel.

Equally important, Bush, unlike his father, was widely perceived to be constitutionally pro-Israel. His refusal to deal with the terrorist regime of Yasser Arafat and his support for the new regime at the Palestinian Authority gave hope to a wide range of Jewish opinion. And unlike Bill Clinton, Bush seemed comfortable with the ruling Likud Party and even with often-difficult Ariel Sharon.

Other factors, longer in gestation, favored a Republican breakthrough. The increasingly middle- and upper-class economic status of Jews made them susceptible to conservative fiscal policies. And the growth of new forces within the community — including new immigrants from the Middle East and the former Soviet Union and the growth of the Orthodox factions — seemed to put more of the Jewish electorate “in play” for the Republicans.

Now much of that progress appears deeply threatened. Some of this is a natural outgrowth of other things driving Bush’s fortunes down — the growing problems with the occupation in Iraq, the sense that the president and his advisers misled the public on the true causes of the war and a generally moribund economy.

However, there are also problems that are specifically difficult for Jews. In contrast to previous Republicans who appealed to significant Jewish constituencies, such as Ronald Reagan and Richard Nixon, Bush has few Jews in his inner circle.

Reagan, a product of Hollywood and former Democrat, seemed genuinely comfortable around Jews; Nixon, with his intelligence and sense of history, appealed to the rising corps of Jewish neo-conservative intellectuals, most notably Henry Kissinger and William Safire.

In addition, both Reagan and Nixon sought — and achieved — electoral support of close to 60 percent. They sought out new constituencies to add to the traditional Republican base. It may not have been a “big tent” ideologically, but it was sociologically. In that big tent, Jews had a place, even an honored one.

Bush is something different. A man without a strong rhetorical appeal, he seems content to concentrate on maintaining a 52 percent majority.

Indeed, with the exception of occasional forays into the Latino community, he has made no concerted effort to reach out to traditionally Democratic constituencies. Rather than a coalition-builder, he appears very much instead a consolidator of the core Republican base of the corporate elite, social conservatives and nationalists.

This means Bush can count on support from core Jewish conservatives — from the policy intellectuals to the more theocratically oriented — but little else. None of his other initiatives, like the dividend tax cuts to his environmental policies, are likely to peel off many Jewish voters.

But Bush’s biggest problem is not himself, but his party. One critical concern to Jewish voters, even those who supported the Iraq War and some of his other initiatives, lies in support for such things as a hard-right social agenda.

The announcement by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) of support for a constitutional amendment to ban gay marriages smacks of the kind of intolerance, and desire to use the government to impose one set of norms, that normally offends Jews.

This is not to say that gay marriage is necessarily a good idea. Allowing homosexuals the privileges — and the disadvantages — of marriage or even civil union is a topic for debate in most communities. But last time this was on the ballot in California, Jews were one of the most sympathetic groups to the idea. To many of us, I would guess, only someone with a dubious sense of priorities, or an odd sexual fixation, thinks that is an issue worthy of a constitutionally amendment.

Ideological overkill is something Jews rightly naturally abhor, because they have so often been the victims. California Republicans may be doing the same with their shameful know-nothingism on the state budget and the attempted recall. Instead of acting like a principled opposition party, offering reasonable alternative, they have decided to act more like a lynch mob.

Nor has their choice of Congressman Darrell Issa (R-Vista) as leader of the recall been a stroke of genius, except perhaps for our hapless governor. Although Issa is simply a right-wing ideologue and only mildly pro-Arab, by the time Davis’ team of professional character assassins finish with him, he is likely to appear to most Jews as a mix between Yasser Arafat and Osama bin Laden. Issa seems like an opponent from central casting sent to Davis by his Hollywood friends.

As a result, the real issues that might make Jews think about supporting Republicans — such as the gross fiscal irresponsibility of the Democrats — will be buried. Instead of feeling shame from their long-standing role in bankrolling and buttressing the utterly unprincipled, disastrous leadership of Gray Davis, they will now likely run willy-nilly into his camp without reflection.

Recent political circumstances have given Republicans an excellent chance to turn the tides and become competitive in the Jewish community. Now, unfortunately, leaders from Washington to Sacramento seem determined to blow their opportunity once again.

Joel Kotkin is a senior fellow at the
Davenport Institute for Public Policy at Pepperdine University
and is writing a book on the history of cities for
Modern Library. He can be reached at