Why Israel Hates the Egyptian Uprising

The view from Tel Aviv.

Read more of Slate’s coverage of the Egyptian protests.

Hosni Mubarak

Israel can be a spoiled brat. Constantly craving attention and assurances of undying friendship and commitment, self-centered and blind to the needs of others. Israel, unlike America, isn’t a superpower. It isn’t an empire. It doesn’t have much of a role in world affairs other than taking care of its own little self. So, when Israel looks at the revolutionary forces in Egypt, it doesn’t see “change,” or “hope,” or “democracy,” or the “end of oppression.” It doesn’t see Egyptians rejoicing in anticipation of their new beginning. All Israel sees is trouble.

You can ponder the philosophical virtues of “democratization” versus those of “stability.” Or you can quit being a wise-ass and learn from experience: In the last 40 years of Middle East political turmoil, all the significant changes related to Israel were for the worse—all except one: peace with Egypt. That’s Mubarak’s Egypt. (Yes, technically, his predecessor Anwar Sadat signed the peace accords, but it’s the same old autocratic regime.) That same Egypt is now in danger of being toppled with the prodding and blessing of President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

Consider all the other presumably positive events besides peace with Egypt. Peace between Israel and Jordan? That was good but not nearly as important. Jordan was never a major threat to Israel; Egypt was. The Oslo Accords with Yasser Arafat’s Palestinians? We know how that ended. Lebanon’s  Cedar revolution? Ditto. The removal of Saddam Hussein? The jury is still out on that one, but in the meantime, Iran is getting stronger. The Palestinian changing of the guard and elections? That ended badly, with Hamas taking over Gaza. And these are just the changes that were initially thought to be good for Israel, not those we all knew in advance would be for the worse.

So, Israelis were stunned to wake up and discover that their American friend had abandoned Mubarak in favor of change. “The Americans brought disaster to the Middle East by calling for [Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak to leave his country,” said Knesset Member Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former defense minister and one of Israel’s most establishment-minded politicians. And he wasn’t alone: Official Israel was uncharacteristically subdued in its public statements, but behind closed doors there was no shortage of criticism. Right and left, coalition and opposition, all but a very few thought poorly of U.S. policy. Everyone felt that the Obama administration had once again been “naive,” or “hasty,” that it didn’t understand the region and didn’t understand the Arab mentality. Israelis were stunned—and somewhat frightened. After all, if Washington has dumped Mubarak, maybe peaceful Egypt is gone for good. And if the United States could desert such a valued strategic ally, maybe we’re next in line for the boot?

Of course, such fears are nonsense. Israel isn’t Egypt, and its ties with the United States run much stronger and deeper. It will not be abandoned with such haste, and anyway, why would anyone want to abandon Israel? Still, there’s something to these fears, because the Egyptian unrest emphasizes the extent to which American and Israeli interests in the Middle East can be different. The United States, for all its many faults, is a dreamer; and Israel is a cynical pragmatist. America wants to advance liberal values; Israel just wants peace and quiet. America, at least sometimes, thinks about the poor Arabs living under despotic regimes; Israel only thinks about its own people. And that doesn’t mean that Israel is immoral or wicked. Being small, being vulnerable, being insecure, having to live with the consequences, Israel must prioritize security and stability over vague dreams of a better future—especially when, as I mentioned earlier, our previous experience is hardly encouraging.

Mubarak was good for Israel. Not great, mind you. The peace with Egypt was a cold one, and ties between people were rare and strained in many ways. But Israel—with its pragmatic way of prioritizing interests—got a good deal from the Egyptians. The southern border, which was Israel’s main concern in its first 30 years, was quiet and didn’t require much attention. Egyptians agreed to sell gas to Israel and to tighten security in Gaza. They opposed the advancement of Iran and its allies, and they prevented terrorists from infiltrating from the Sinai Peninsula. So, chaos or worse—for example, regime change that strengthens the Muslim Brotherhood or other radical forces—will be a headache for Israel.

And for what? So that Egyptians can have their “democracy”?

The Egyptian unrest provides a great opportunity to refute once and for all the ridiculous but still strangely common belief that Israelis or, even more commonly, “Likudniks” are the oriental equivalent of American neocons. Just Google Likudnik and neocon together, and you’ll see it all: the “neocon-Likudnik nexus,” and “Joe Lieberman the Likudnik,” and “Likudnik neocons at the Pentagon,” and “neocon Likudniks who don’t care about American casualties.” On and on it goes, from people who either don’t understand neoconservatism, don’t understand Israel, or, in most cases, don’t understand either.

In recent days there’s even been some talk of a neocon “split” with Israel, or vice versa. “The neoconservatives, who have made democracy promotion in the Middle East an overarching goal, are scratching their heads at what they see as Israeli shortsightedness,” wrote Jeffrey Goldberg. If that’s true, I’m not sure why they’re so confused—the Israeli position is completely predictable.

Those head-scratching neocons should know—as I’m sure most of them do—that there’s no such thing as an Israeli neocon. The Israeli establishment never believed in promoting democracy in the Arab world, and it still doesn’t. It never much cared about Arab democracy, period. In Israel—if you feel an urgent need to make such comparisons—the establishment tends to reflect American pragmatic (some would say cynical) “realism.” America’s “freedom agenda” was anathema to Israelis, even when President George W. Bush—whom they respected and liked much more than they like President Obama—was in power. It was anathema to them not because Arab democracy isn’t a tempting notion, and not because they want Arabs to live forever under Mubaraks and Assads and Husseins. They just think it’s a pipedream, a wonderful idea that the people of Tel Aviv might pay a high price for.

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