Israelis Dissing Obama

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I love it when the Israelis and Americans fall out amid mutual recriminations.

The mood at the 11th annual Herzliya conference, where Israel’s top policymakers come to debate strategy and diplomacy with invited international experts, is understandably twitchy. The events in Egypt hang over the conference like the threatening grey clouds. And yesterday those clouds unleashed a savage hailstorm, in the form of a stinging attack on the Netanyahu government by Tzipi Livni, the former foreign minister who now leads Israel’s fragmented opposition. Nobody here claims that they saw the upheaval in Egypt coming, and few think that President Hosni Mubarak’s regime will be replaced by one that Israel will find anything like as easy to live with.

Members of the government have taken a vow of silence not to comment, even off the record, on the unfolding situation in Egypt. But if you talk to people here privately, they suggest there are three possible scenarios. The first (intended to sound incredible) is that Israel’s biggest neighbour will be transformed into a peaceable, pluralist democracy. The second is that Egypt will become something like Turkey, either with an army-dominated government as in the past or with a government a bit like the present one in Ankara that has a quite a strong Islamist flavour (either more or less intense, depending on the role within it of the Muslim Brotherhood). The third is that something similar to the Iranian revolution in 1979 is played out “with dramatic consequences”. If the third scenario were to be realised, the psychological impact on Israel will be such that any conceivable land-for-peace deal with the Palestinians will have to be accompanied by much more rigorous security arrangements on the ground. That said, the emergence of a moderately Islamist government that remained committed to peace with Israel could, after the initial shock, prove quite positive.

…Special criticism among most of the people you meet at Herzliya is reserved for Barack Obama. After the row over settlement building, which many Israelis thought was the wrong fight to pick, and what is seen here as shameless flipflopping by the administration over the fate of Mr Mubarak, the kindest description of the president you will hear in Herzliya is that he is naïve. Others are harsher, saying that he is a serial blunderer who is presiding over a rapid waning of American power and influence within the region. In particular, there is both puzzlement and anger over what is seen as the very public betrayal of Mr Mubarak, which, it is claimed, will cause every moderate Arab government to review its security relationship with America. As one source puts it: “They could have told him in private that his time was up, while sticking outwardly to a position of neutrality. But by saying they supported all the aims of the protesters and telling Mubarak he must go immediately, they took a very serious, very dangerous risk.”

When there’s a choice between a series of bad decisions and a “worst” one, the optimal course is to avoid the “worst” one. That’s if one knows the range of choices to begin with. It seems the Israelis and Americans got caught without a backup plan, because both just don’t want to change. That’s as hubristic as just rolling the dice with the protesters on the street.

Both Israel and the US could have vetted groups behind the scenes. Those groups would probably have become marginalized through contamination, but still both states could have negotiated with the Muslim Brotherhood. And, even without that, why do Israel and the US need Omar Suleiman? No one seriously thinks, even in the worst-case scenario, that some elements of the Egyptian security state won’t endure. Cosmetic changes to a certain amount of leadership, along with token recognition of the opposition, and a figurehead, like ElBaradei, would have been a remarkably prudent and stabilizing decision. Instead, we just get a line in the proverbial sand.

I agree, President Obama took a risk. it’s the same risk the Israelis took. That means both governments are complicit in the incompetence.

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Filed under: Africa, Eurasian Balkans, Subscriptions, USA Tagged: egypt, herzliya, hosni mubarak, isrrael, muslim brotherhood, omar suleiman, the economist, tzipi livni


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