Don’t Let These People Go!
TEL AVIV – During the holiday just past, Israeli and American Jews alike commemorated the Exodus from Egypt, and in doing celebrated and discussed the all-important themes of liberation, struggle, and freedom. At a time when the delicate democratic system Israel’s fathers constructed is threatened by enemies external and internal, it is worth noting especially with Passover in mind that Israel remains a kind of beacon in a wider region largely untouched by liberty’s lovely light.
Israel is so much of a sanctuary, in fact, that still today many mimic Moses’ trek across the Sinai – taking their lives and the wellbeing of those they are forced to leave behind into their own hands – in search of shelter and comfort in the Promised Land. But it seems as though the present Israeli government, in addition to patches of wider society, have a blind spot regarding the suffering and emancipation of those forced temporarily to leave some of Africa’s most destitute nations for Israel.
Their plight has been brought into focus by a scoop in last Thursday’s Ha’aretz. Dana Weiler-Polak reported that of the thousands of requests for refugee status submitted in Israel last year, only eight were approved, noting that “long, exhausting interrogations, finding contradictions at any cost, investigations with foregone conclusions and contradictory responses” have become an inherent part of the refugee screening system designed by the Interior Ministry.
Executive Director of Hotline for Migrant Workers, Reut Michaeli, went so far as to say that the asylum system in Israel is set up with the goal of “rejecting asylum requests by refugees in a systematic manner”, leading to the “immoral deportation of refugees to places where their lives are in danger, in opposition to Israel’s international commitments and despite the personal history of the people and society in Israel”.
Attacking the Israeli Embassy: A Sign of Things to Come?
Burning the Israeli flag in the street was supposed to be antithetical to everything the Arab Spring represented: democracy, justice, the rule of law, and individual economic and political liberty. Columnists and opinion formers (I’m thinking mostly of people like Tom Friedman and Roger Cohen) often went to great lengths to stress the inclusive and all-encompassing nature of the revolutionary movement, particularly in Egypt, even as Muslims and Coptic Christians slid towards sectarian conflict.
Now the day we’d never hoped would come has arrived. After Friday prayers, agitators spilled outwards in the direction of the Israeli embassy. Armed with sledgehammers and battering rams, they stormed the building, scaling the recently-erected security wall in the process, leaving embassy staff fearing for their lives. Rooms were ransacked, document hurled out of windows, the Israeli flag was removed and a Palestinian one put in its place, and Israeli diplomats and their families were airlifted to safety.
The consequences of this assault is clear: In going after the Israeli representation in this fashion, the Egyptian people (or a subset of them at any rate) have accelerated in the onset of a diplomatic crisis, an event which has been muted since Hosni Mubarak was so gloriously toppled at the start of the year.
In the immediate, I do not believe the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty — a most vital pillar to upholding Israel’s current state of relative security — is under threat of extinction. Whilst the military remain in control of the organs of state, they will maintain the view that they as an institution, and Egypt as a viable state, has too much to lose from the collapse of bilateral relations. Hence, in the wake of the awful attacks on Eilat, an increased military and security cooperation between the two countries was put on the table, including the redeployment on Egyptian ground forces in the Sinai.
But in the longer term, the attack on the Israeli embassy might best be read as a sign that, if democracy ever flourishes in Egypt (and, at the moment, if is more apropo than when), then relations may turn cold very rapidly. Not only do the Egyptian people maintain a negative view of Sadat and Begin’s treaty, but they continue to hold not only a hostile position towards the State of Israel, but also a rather anti-Semitic outlook. A 2006 Ynet survey showed that 92pc of respondents saw Israel as an enemy, while only 2pc saw it as a “friend to Egypt”. Moreover, a 2010 Pew poll showed that 95pc of Egyptians surveyed had a unfavourable opinion of Jews in general.
Thus if Egyptian foreign policy ever comes to reflect to the opinion of the Arab street, then upholding good relations with their Jewish neighbours may suddenly fall off the top of the agenda. It was said, at the beginning of this wonderous season of light in the Mideast, that an open society in Egypt would been good things for Israel. Of course, this is still possible, but after the assault in Cairo, now I’m not so sure.
A Final Thought for Israel
The State of Israel has out of any nation – not only in the region but the world-at-large – the most to lose from the removal of Hosni Mubarak. Ian Black outlines in The Guardian their nightmare scenario, the “abrogation of the peace treaty under pressure from an Egyptian public that has always been hostile to it.” Amos Harel in Haaretz argues that such a scenario would “bring about changes in the Israel Defence Forces and worsen the Israeli economy.”
Thus, on the one hand, I can understand why Netanyahu feels the need to order his cabinet to “refrain from commenting publicly on the unfolding drama”, lest their words change the situation on the ground, or worse, allow Cairo’s dinosaur to somehow cling onto power.
Nevertheless, I cannot help but feel that, in not making the necessary noises in support of democratic reform like the United States has done, Israel is bringing on a collapse of diplomatic relations with whatever sort of polity emerges from the desert sands. Even if the current administration does remain in office, it seems evident that it would not include Hosni Mubarak, in the long term at least.
A new government is inevitable: it would do Israel the world of good to stop enabling Mubarak now. There was little need, for example, for the Netanyahu administration to allow Egypt to move troops into the Sinai – a demilitarised zone since 1979. There was, too, no need at all to allow rumours to be banded about regarding Tel Aviv has a likely place of exile for Mubarak.
Israel needs to embody the principles the State was founded on: of a democratic homeland for a disenfranchised and subjugated people. This would require moving away from Mubarak. Netanyahu: Make it so.