Back in 1993, just months before signing the Oslo Peace Accords with Yasser Arafat in Washington, then-Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin was asked by a group of journalists which Arab leader he trusted the most. He didn’t hesitate when he said: “Hafez Assad.” The answer took some in the group by surprise – Rabin had not only never met Assad, he’d spurned an American suggestion the year before that concluding a peace agreement with Syria would be easier than concluding one with the Palestinians.
But Rabin was adamant. “Hafez Assad keeps his word,” he explained and then, after a moment’s hesitation, he added, “and he knows how to deal with Islamists.” Rabin’s matter-of-fact statement needed no further explanation, for everyone knew what he meant: nary a single shell had been fired from Syria into Israel since Assad had agreed to a ceasefire with Israel in the wake of the 1973 war – and when threatened with an uprising by Islamist groups in Hama in February 1982, he sent his younger brother Rifat into the city, along with 12,000 troops, to crush it. The resulting “Hama Massacre” levelled the city and took the lives of more than 20,000 Hama residents – and 1,000 of the regime’s soldiers.
If Rabin had made his declaration in America, and in public, it might have become known as “the Rabin Doctrine” and extolled as a sanguine expression of “realpolitik” – that, given a choice, the Government of Israel not only prefers Arab dictators to Arab democracies, but finds dealing with Arab democracies (something it has not had to do until very recently) messy and unpredictable.
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From Israel’s point of view, this makes perfect sense: the Rabin Doctrine not only keeps intact Israel’s irksome claim to be “the only democracy in the Middle East” (updated, now, to “the only real democracy in the Middle East” – whatever that means), it makes Israel’s neighbours pliable, which is just how Israeli leaders like them. Put another way, Israel found it commonly easy to deal with, say, an Egypt ruled by Hosni Mubarak because it believed what he believed: that the best place for an Islamist was in a jail cell – or swinging from a gallows.
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“The Brotherhood will never change. They believe only in violence,” the late former Egyptian vice-president, Omar Suleiman, told me two years before the events of Tahrir Square. Suleiman’s statement would have found resonance with Rabin – and with Binyamin Netanyahu.
It was Netanyahu, after all, who worriedly telephoned Barack Obama during Egypt’s January 25 Revolution to urge that the US do its best to “save” Mubarak. Obama’s response was the same that he’d given to Saudi Arabia’s King Abdullah, who’d issued the same plea – that it was too late to save Mubarak, or as a White House official vividly expressed it at the time: “Obama told him he can’t unring the bell.”
Netanyahu can’t unring the bell in Syria either, but there’s little doubt that he’d like to. The Israeli prime minister remained suspiciously silent during the Syrian uprising’s first 90 days but then, as if testing the wind, began to cautiously support the rebels. By July of last year he was all in, but only after his silence bordered on the embarrassing. Even then, he characterised the May 2011 Houla Massacre (in which a reported 108 Syrians were slaughtered by Assad’s henchmen), as being carried out primarily with the help of Iran and Hezbollah. It was almost as if the Syrian military was a bystander.
This was all part of the same sad drumbeat, as if Netanyahu feared that (in the midst of the Arab Spring), we’d lose sight of the real agenda – which was finding a reason to blow Iran to smithereens. It wasn’t so important that the Houla Massacre was evidence of the Syrian government’s hate of its own people, (you see), it was important that it was carried out by people who hate Israel. “Iran and Hezbollah are an inseparable part of the Syrian atrocities and the world needs to act against them,” Netanyahu said. Or, parsing the participle, the world doesn’t need to act against Syria – it needs to act against Iran and Hezbollah.
Israel’s support for Arab dictators sounds nonsensical to many of Israel’s American supporters, who’d have us believe that Israel and the US “share the same values“. When it comes to democracy, however, that’s simply not true. While Israeli leaders are careful not to characterise Arabs as a people incapable of democracy (Arab Israelis vote in Israeli elections, after all), they come close to saying that Arabs are incapable of electing anyone they approve of. The litmus test here is not love of democracy, but love of Israel.
Writing in the Washington Post, David Ignatius called this “Israel’s Arab Spring Problem” – a discomfort with the fact that Israel, for the first time since its founding, may actually have to pay attention to its relations with Arab countries, and not just Arab leaders. “Most officials think that relations with the Arabs are gradually going to get worse, perhaps for decades, before democracy really takes root …” he wrote last July. “The challenge for Israel is how to avoid inflaming Arab public opinion, a newly important factor, while protecting the country.” Netanyahu’s reaction, Ignatius noted, was not a warm embrace of the Arab Spring, but rather the equivalent of putting up shutters before the storm.
That this might be in the least bit embarrassing has occurred to Israelis of course, who have jumped through hoops to explain their views on what they mean when they say they support democracy – but prefer dictators. Caroline Glick, the deputy managing editor of the Jerusalem Post, for instance, excuses Israel’s support for Arab dictators by noting that when an Arab country becomes democratic, Arabs start to speak their minds – which (God forbid) includes criticism of Israel or, as she terms it, “anti-Semitism”. Anti-Semitism – not a yearning for freedom – she wrote in February of last year, is the “unifying sentiment” of the Arab peoples, the “glue that binds Arab societies”.
In America, this kind of nonsense takes a different form. Neo-conservative supporters of Israel invariably hector progressives with the reminder that Hitler was democratically elected – an inelegant claim that also happens to be false. Hitler was not “elected” Chancellor of Germany, but appointed to the post (as historian Alan Bulloch says) “as part of a shoddy political deal” between Franz von Papen and ageing Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg. In fact, that deal was so shoddy that von Papen was put on trial for his role in arranging it at Nuremberg in 1946.
“Hitler was not ‘elected’ Chancellor of Germany, but appointed to the post… ‘as part of a shoddy political deal’ between Franz von Papen and ageing Field Marshal Paul von Hindenburg.”
All of this is unremarkable to Palestinians, who have their own experience with Israeli democracy. Back in 2005, when the Bush administration promoted the need for Palestinian elections to bolster the position of Fatah, Israel argued against them. Why take a chance? In the wake of those elections, which brought a majority of Hamas representatives into the Palestinian parliament, Israeli leaders never tired of saying “we told ya so” – and have since made a pastime of comparing Hamas leaders to latter day Hitlerites.
Two months after those elections, Israel announced that it retained the right to assassinate Hamas parliamentarians, and democracy be damned. Several weeks after that, George Bush’s national security team decided to launch a programme to reverse the vote by supporting a Fatah coup in Gaza, what reporter David Rose described as a “scandalously covert and self-defeating Middle East debacle”. Israeli leaders doubted that the American plan would work, and said so: which is not the same as saying they didn’t support it. They did.
It is with this as a background that we might finally put Israel’s recent intervention in Syria in its proper, if counter-intuitive, perspective. The January 30 bombing of a Syrian scientific research centre (or was it a Hezbollah convoy – or both?) had Washington policymakers scratching their heads. The business-as-usual statement in support of Israel’s “right to defend itself” (US diplomats now mouth the words when they snore) was never forthcoming, and it took the White House 24 hours to respond to the attack. Even then, the White House statement was curiously indirect: a pointed warning to Syria that it “should not further destabilise the region by transferring weaponry to Hezbollah”.
Even more strangely – or perhaps not, given the Rabin Doctrine – Damascus had precisely the opposite response to the attack as a number of high level officials in Washington. Syrian officials described the operation as proof that the US and Israel were in league with the resistance – and pointed out that “armed terrorist groups” (Syria’s term for the opposition) had been attempting to storm the site over the past weeks.
In Washington, meanwhile, puzzlement gave way to an unhealthy belief that Israel had turned over a card that they hoped no one would see. “This was a stupid mistake,” a senior Pentagon official told me in the incident’s wake. “If you wanted to help Assad, and give him some legitimacy, this would be the one way to do it. Is that what Netanyahu wanted?” Then too, there’s also the belief that the Israeli attack was conducted as a way to measure how the world will react if, and when, Israel attacks Iran. “You have to remember, Israel sometimes uses its military to signal people,” this same Pentagon official explained, “while we use ours to kill them.”
Of course, a lot of this will strike the Israeli leadership as conspiracy mongering. That Hezbollah might acquire advanced anti-aircraft missiles – procuring them from Syria – scares the dickens out of the Israeli military. So it’s only reasonable to assume that, given the sorry state of the Syrian Air Force, Israel’s decision to destroy the missiles (if that is, in fact, what they were doing) came quite easily. Yet. Yet, it seems obviously true that if Netanyahu supports democracy – and the Syrian peoples’ fight against their dictator (as he claims he does) – then he could show that best by keeping his F-16s out of their country’s airspace.
Mark Perry is a journalist and author of the recently released Talking to Terrorists: Why America Must Engage with its Enemies.