Barack Obama's demand that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak accept an immediate transition of power has hardly calmed an anxious Israeli people watching the fall of its closest Arab ally. For Israelis, the American President doesn't appear principled and resolute but untrustworthy and flailing.
By insisting that Mr. Mubarak immediately resign, Mr. Obama undermines the possibility of a peaceful transition that could empower democrats, rather than the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood. Allowing Mr. Mubarak to remain in office until September, as he has offered, would allow the secular opposition to begin organizing for the election. So far, the only organized opposition is the Brotherhood.
Israelis fear that the haste with which the Obama administration turned its back on its own closest ally in the Arab world has signalled other pro-U.S. leaders in the region that Washington can't be trusted. A cartoon in the newspaper Maariv showed Mr. Mubarak as an astronaut drifting in space. "Houston, I've got a problem," he says. "Houston … Houston …" The fear here is that Israel could become that astronaut. Both left and right commentators are warning that, even as the region turns increasingly Islamist, the Jewish state can't depend on Mr. Obama.
Mr. Obama's outreach to the Muslim world in atonement for America's sins of arrogance has created a new American sin: abrogating the responsibility that comes with power. The accelerating radicalization of the region - from Turkey to Lebanon - is the price of the new American virtue.
In the fall of Mr. Mubarak, Israelis don't see a harbinger of a better Middle East. That's partly because of the very real possibility of a Muslim Brotherhood takeover. That would lead to the collapse of the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement, which the Brotherhood vehemently opposes.
However corrupt, Mr. Mubarak is hardly the root of the Arab world's torment. The dictators now being forced out of power are vulnerable precisely because there's a limit to their venality. They won't use unlimited force against their own people. Meantime, the region's most vicious dictatorships - in Iran and Syria - remain stable. Deposing Mr. Mubarak while Iran's Mahmoud Ahmadinejad stays in power doesn't help heal the Middle East. It only makes the region more vulnerable to Islamist expansion.
Yet, Mr. Obama has abandoned the very dissidents trying to topple the region's worst regimes. When pro-democracy protests in Tehran were brutally suppressed in 2009, Mr. Obama stayed aloof. Chanting demonstrators demanded that Mr. Obama choose between them and the regime. Mr. Obama, in effect, chose the regime.
And now he's "engaging" the Syrian dictatorship. After a five-year diplomatic boycott, an American ambassador has just been dispatched to Damascus. Here, too, the message to dissidents is that they're on their own.
In his desperation to produce some tangible achievement in the Middle East, Mr. Obama may be tempted to intensify his efforts to create a Palestinian state. If so, he'll ensure the total failure of his Middle East policy.
The Israeli public doesn't need to be convinced of the necessity of a Palestinian state. Most Israelis understand that ending the occupation is an existential necessity. Palestinian independence would extricate Israel from the demographic threat of a Palestinian majority, from the impossible dilemma of choosing between Israel's two essential identities, as a Jewish and as a democratic state. A Palestinian state would ease Israel's growing diplomatic isolation.
But Israelis know, too, that a premature Palestinian state would pose an existential threat. An unstable Palestine, headed by the corrupt one-party dictatorship of Mahmoud Abbas, would be vulnerable to a takeover by Hamas. Israelis will not consider a withdrawal from the West Bank at a time when Israel's treaty with Egypt - so far, the only successful land-for-peace agreement - appears at risk.
The notion that the Palestinian problem is the root cause of Middle Eastern instability has been disproved by recent events. The crowds demonstrating in Cairo, Tunis, Sanaa and Amman aren't protesting for Palestine but for themselves.
Mr. Obama has argued that containing Iran requires first neutralizing Arab resentment over the Palestinians. He has it backward. The precondition for a stable Palestine is a truly transformed Middle East, in which the Islamist revolution is contained. Mr. Obama needs to adopt a policy aimed at weakening the Islamists. Preventing a Muslim Brotherhood takeover of Egypt, along with undoing the gradual Hezbollah takeover of Lebanon, are his most urgent challenges. And this is the moment to actively support the suppressed Iranian dissident movement.
If Mr. Obama opts to pursue a Palestinian state as the key to healing the Middle East, America will continue to retreat, while Iran and its allies will continue to advance.
Yossi Klein Halevi is a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem and a contributing editor of The New Republic.Report Typo/Error
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