Arieh O'Sullivan
The Media Line
February 17, 2011 - 1:00am

While touting its own democratic credentials, Israel has been warning the world not to let experiments in democracy spread across the Middle East, lest Islamic fundamentalists are voted in.

“We don’t want to stay the only democracy in the Middle East. We would love to live in a neighborhood where all countries are democratic. But is it feasible now?” Deputy Prime Minister Dan Meridor said in an interview with The Media Line.

An enormously popular revolt in Egypt has morphed into what appears to be an unofficial coup d’état, with the army in control. Bahrain’s monarch has ruthlessly crushed a budding rebellion in its capital Manama. In Tunisia, public discontent succeeded in ousting its long-time president, and a caretaker government is trying to stabilize the country ahead of elections later this year.

In Yemen, President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who has been in power for 33 years, blasted anti-government protesters, saying “whoever wants to take the power, he must take it through the ballot boxes, not through chaos in streets.”

“We want democratization, but everyone has to understand, especially President [Barack] Obama, that democracy is not just the rule of majority and free election,” said Uzi Dayan, a former National Security Adviser.

“It’s not just: take off dictators and democracy will emerge from grass roots,” Dayan told The Media Line. “The enemy of this democratic revolution is the extremists because they are much more well organized.”

Israel has witnessed rays of democracy emerge in the Arab world only to be disappointed when Islamist extremists take over. The U.S. insisted that the Palestinians hold free and fair parliamentary elections in 2006, a vote that the Hamas movement – an Islamist movement sworn to Israel’s destruction -- won.

In Lebanon, democratic elections have gradually led to Hizbullah’s control of the government. Last month, the Shiite Muslim movement forced Prime Minster Saad Hariri to step down and has named its own candidate to succeed him. Both Hamas and Hizbullah play democratic politics while controlling their own armies and conducting private foreign policy, Israel says.

More distantly, Israel lost one of its greatest regional allies in 1979 with the fall of the Shah when the world supported the Iranian revolution that led to a theocratic anti-Israel regime of ayatollahs.

Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu told visiting American Jewish leaders on Wednesday that Israel hoped Egypt would emerge as a true democracy, but that the government must prepare for the worst.

“Part of that preparation is to alert the leaders and policymakers around the world to the possible dangers that may lie ahead,” Netanyahu said. “No one knows what the future in Egypt will bring. People in Washington don’t know. People in Tehran don’t know… even columnists for The New York Times don’t know.”

Netanyahu’s comment was directed at New York Times columnist Thomas L. Friedman who wrote this week that Israel was using the anti-government demonstrations across the Arab world to “score propaganda points” by spotlighting its own democracy and stability.

Friedman also accused Netanyahu’s “out-of-touch, in-bred, unimaginative and cliché-driven” cabinet of siding with Egypt’s “Pharaoh” and urging the U.S. not to dump the Egyptian leader and thus open the way there for democracy.

“Israel has very little to contribute to democracy building,” Friedman wrote.

Indeed, Israel had been so concerned fall of Mubarak’s stable rule would lead to a rupture in the peace treaty it dispatched Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Washington to urge them not to abandon the Egyptian leader.

Meridor, who is also Israel’s minister for intelligence and atomic energy, defined the conditions necessary for democracy to flourish.

“Democracy is more than elections and this has to do with my basic rights, inalienable rights, that cannot be taken away from me; the right to vote, the right to speak my mind the right to coalesce with others the right to assemble. These are the basic tenants of democracy,” Meridor said.

“Some people thought that if we allowed free democratic elections the Palestinian society were going to have progress toward democracy and you got Hamas instead,” Meridor added.

Amos Gilad, director of political-military affairs at Israel’s Defense Ministry, put it more bluntly.

“In the Middle East and the Arab world, there is no place for democracy,” said Gilad, a former chief intelligence officer for the Israel Defense Forces. “Look around the Middle East: if there is a democratic process here, it will bring, for sure, hell.”

Speaking at the Herzliya conference on security and policy near Tel Aviv last week, Gilad assessed that the only place in the region where democracy had a real chance of taking root was Iran, a non-Arab nation.

Dayan said the path to democracy needed to be encouraged and nursed and this required cultural and educational processes in regional societies.

“A revolution toward democracy might go through a lot of crises, instability and even another dictatorship or an Islamic dictatorship which is much worse,” Dayan said. “But in the long run this democratic revolution can be exactly what we are trying to achieve in this region, which is democracy and prosperity for everyone.”


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