MIDDLE EAST II: by Jeffry BabbNews Weekly
Obama learns nothing from Bush's Middle East failures
, February 19, 2011
When US President Barack Obama, British Prime Minister David Cameron and other assorted Western leaders were calling for an orderly transition of power in Egypt, only Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu got it right - he said President Hosni Mubarak should stay.
The Israeli PM, of course, has the most at stake. His country, the only democracy in the Middle East, is the power most directly threatened by the rise of an Islamist regime in Egypt.
Israel can be criticised for many things, including the glacial pace of the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority on the West Bank, which is the most accommodating negotiating partner the Jewish state is likely to get. But Israel has held up its end of the deal in its symbiotic relationship with Egypt, ensuring 30 years of peace.
Unlike other researchers, who are habitually schlepped around Israel seeing only what the Israeli government wants them to see, I went to the Middle East in the early 1980s entirely at my own expense and with no contact with the Israeli authorities whatsoever.
At that time, the 1979 Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty was still fresh. The air in Tel Aviv was filled with optimism. Articles discussed condominiums between Israel and the West Bank, and how Israel would become the Hong Kong of the Middle East.
Through a fortunate combination of circumstances - the Israeli authorities were entirely unhelpful - we caught a decrepit and overcrowded bus carrying mainly young conscripts returning to duty at Yamit, an Israeli settlement in the middle of Israel-occupied Sinai Peninsula, which was then about to be returned to Egypt.
Before the peace treaty, Yamit was intended to be Israeli territory in perpetuity. The settlers were mainly American Jews, some of whom had broad New York accents I had only ever encountered previously in American gangster movies.
A newsagent from Cincinnati, Ohio, invited us to his well-established home for coffee. The husband, formerly a cantor in a synagogue, explained that his family had been recruited as pioneers in the desert. They were put out but philosophical that Israel had handed back the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt; if the peace worked, it was worth the sacrifice. Yamit was to be abandoned.
Early the next morning, we took a taxi to the new Egyptian border. We swapped American Express travellers' cheques for Egyptian pounds, which were worthless outside of Egypt.
We crossed the border by bus. An Israeli official told us we were amongst the first 30 persons to cross the border, "except in a tank", he joked. A short ride took us to Al Arish, an oasis town on the coast mentioned in the Bible.
From there, we took a taxi across the Sinai Peninsula to Cairo. Why it took Moses 40 years has never been satisfactorily explained to me; it took us hours, not days.
The Egyptian with whom we shared the taxi was happy. "See that? It's an Israeli tank. We destroyed it. We beat the Israelis."
The truth is that after initial setbacks in the Yom Kippur War of 1973, the Israelis counter-attacked. Ariel Sharon was bivouacked by the Suez Canal, with nothing between his tanks and Cairo, ready to roll. US Secretary of State Henry Kissinger told the Israelis that Sharon would trigger World War III unless he was reined in, which he was.
But the Yom Kippur War gave Egyptian President Anwar Sadat credibility with his army and his people. He wanted peace. The Israells wanted peace. Sadat could negotiate as an equal. And he got a good deal.
The unfortunate truth is that it is a cold peace. At an official level, the two sides cooperate, but it is not a popular peace with the Egyptian people. Only the Egyptian army guarantees the peace will hold.
It's hard to find words to describe President Barak Obama's reaction to the Egypt crisis. George Bush, egged on by a group of ex-Trotskyites re-badged as neoconservatives, emptied the Treasury of the wealthiest nation on Earth and fought two wars, neither of which achieved its objectives, while still believing that democracy would cure the Middle East's ills. It won't.
Tunisia was a coup d'etat. An unpopular leader, saddled with a thieving wife, was dumped. The army is still in control. This is the only country in the current wave of unrest where any leader has been deposed.
President Obama has called on the young people of Egypt to assert themselves.
What is the chance of democracy breaking out in Egypt? None whatsoever. By trying to install his son as the next president, Mubarak overstepped the mark. He was stupid. Rising food prices are also causing discontent.
The conflict in Egypt is between the army and the Islamists.
The situation in Egypt is like the Russian revolution of 1917. Now is February. The army aside, the only organised political force in Egypt is the Muslim Brotherhood. They are the Bolsheviks. Wait until October and see how "moderate" they are.
The Iranians were unhappy too; look what it got them.