A young cab driver in Israel was shocked when a historian friend of mine mentioned to him the difficulty of fighting Egypt during the War of Independence in 1948.
“Egypt?” the man asked in amazement. “Egypt was our enemy?”
Israel has had peace with Egypt for more than three decades. True, it has been a “cold peace,” with little friendship on Egypt’s part, but anyone born after the Yom Kippur War of 1973 or with a weak sense of history might be as surprised as this young man that through much of Israel’s existence Egypt was its greatest threat. In those years the term “peace talks” did not refer to attempts to solve problems between Israel and the Palestinians, but to attempts to end conflicts between Israel and surrounding Arab countries, which appeared constantly poised to annihilate the small Jewish state.
I thought about the strange turns history takes while following the upheavals in the Arab world. What will a post-Mubarak Egypt look like? Will the clock spin backwards now to those dreadful days when Israel had not even one non-belligerent Arab neighbor? Will newly liberated Arab countries use Israel as their whipping boy while they try to find their way in unchartered territory? These are some of the questions that worry all of us who care deeply about Israel’s existence and safety.
As many commentators have pointed out, we have what to worry about. The best-organized groups in these Arab rebellions are the religious ones, such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, and they are poisonously anti-Israel. Then there is the perennial danger of Iran, which could take advantage of the current chaos to extend its power even while it moves ahead with its nuclear designs.
And yet, it is hard not to feel exhilarated by the overthrow of oppressive dictators, hard not be optimistic at the sight of thousands of young people willing to put their lives on the line for the causes of freedom and democracy. They took the world by surprise, these protesters, with their passion and courage and nonviolent demonstrations. It is hard, and hard-hearted, not to wish them well. Unlike many Arab demonstrations we’ve seen in the past, the slogans here, for the most part, did not target Israel or America. What the demonstrators want and need are the basics of life — clean water, enough food, educational opportunities, jobs to support themselves. Fighting Israel is low down on their list of priorities at this moment; they need to make order in their shattered universe.
In this there is also cause for optimism. One of the most potent examples the Arab young have of what life could be like has come from Israel. Young Egyptians read Israeli books, and watch Israeli television and movies. They see democracy in action in Israel’s election campaigns, even in the barrage of insults its politicians may hurl at each other. As difficult as are the lives of Israeli Arabs — and they are difficult and in great need of improvement — these people also serve as examples for Arabs in other lands of what it means to live in a free and open society. Many Israeli Arabs have made it clear that in peace negotiations they do not want their areas given over to the Palestinian Authority in exchange for Jewish areas going to Israel. They prefer living in a democratic Jewish state, whatever flaws it may have, to living under Arab jurisdiction.
To be sure, I’d be a fool not to temper my optimism with recognition of the grave perils inherent in the current revolutions. We have only to think of the Iranian revolution of 1979 that ousted the Shah in the name of a constitutional government and the hate-spewing dictatorship that is Iran today. The United States needs to give more than moral support to the revolutionaries; it also needs to carefully monitor what happens from now on. We cannot simply call for free elections in countries that have no experience with them. We need to help those countries develop democratic institutions, such as a free press and a just court system. We need to push for women’s rights. Studies show that countries where women have education and job opportunities — Turkey for example — have achieved more than others.
As for Israel, it needs to come to an agreement with the Palestinians that takes that the conflict off the agenda in the Arab and general worlds.
In the end, of course, the West cannot control what happens in the Middle East. The protesters who burst out against tyranny may end up overtaken by Islamist or military dictators. But we can offer support and live by example so that the essentials of freedom and democracy do not disappear from the minds and memories of the young Arabs who long for them.
Francine Klagsbrun’s most recent book is “The Fourth Commandment: Remember the Sabbath World.”