Postcard from Herzliya

Matt Duss writes in the Nation about the annual regional security conference in Herzliya, outside Tel Aviv, where the Israel national security establishment and American neo-conservatives talk shop. This year, Egypt was a big topic:

As a result of the revolution in Egypt, a key theme that emerged at the conference was hostility to Arab democracy and the assumption that it would bring only chaos and danger for Israel—a mantra that also exposed a division between Israeli neoconservatives and some of their American comrades. “In the Arab world, there is no room for democracy,” Israeli Major General Amos Gilead told a nodding audience. “This is the truth. We prefer stability.” Former Israeli Ambassador to the US Zalman Shoval scoffed that George W. Bush’s freedom agenda’s “principle accomplishment seems to be the victory of Hamas in Gaza.” Boaz Ganor, the executive director of the IDC’s International Institute for Counter-Terrorism, warned, “When these people [Arabs] vote, they are voting for what Coca-Cola calls the real thing and that is fundamentalism.” Shmuel Bar, Director of Studies at the IDC’s Institute of Policy and Strategy, declared that the US had “become an agent of revolutionary change in the Middle East, at the expense of stability.”

In opening remarks to a late-addition panel on “Stability vs. Democracy,” progressive analyst Brian Katulis—one of a handful of non-conservatives invited to participate in the conference—declared the panel’s title false choice. Calling America’s “continuing addiction to dictators” part of “a Cold War hangover,” Katulis stressed the regional trends driving events in Egypt—massive unemployment, millions of disillusioned youth—and suggested that Israel and the US would be wise to anticipate them. “There’s a delusion that we can prevent these trends,” said Katulis. “And we’ll probably hear some of these delusions on this panel.”

As if to immediately make Katulis’ point for him, Martin Kramer of Israel’s conservative Shalem Center began by mocking the Obama administration’s repeated assertions that the regional “status quo is unsustainable,” suggesting that it should be taken as the administration's motto. "In Israel, we are for the status quo," Kramer said. "Not only do we believe the status quo is sustainable, we think it's the job of the US to sustain it."

Responding to Kramer’s remark afterward, Israeli analyst Meir Javedanfar said, “The first stage after a divorce or death is denial. This is followed by anger, then bargaining, depression and acceptance.” Kramer “is still in the denial stage. His statement shows that he still has not realized that the relationship with Egypt is over.”

But however much in denial, Kramer’s and Bar’s comments get at something real among conservative Israeli foreign policy elite: a sense that America, under both Bush and Obama, has failed to apply its power correctly in the region. This inability to achieve certain goals has consequently led to a perception of American decline (never mind that the refusal of allies like Netanyahu to honor American requests contributes to that perception). Many also voiced concerns that Obama’s treatment of Mubarak would cause other US client states to question America’s commitments.

“Obama is perceived, in a moment of truth, to have abandoned an ally,” said Brig. Gen. Michael Herzog, now a senior fellow at the Jewish People Policy Institute. “It’s unfair, but that’s the perception.” Herzog also doesn’t characterize Israeli views on democracy as harshly as some others. “Many, if not most, Israelis would lean at this point towards stability” rather than democracy, Herzog said, “not because they don’t want to see democracy around them—they do—but because they are highly skeptical whether the upheaval in Egypt will lead to real democracy in the foreseeable future.” And many Israelis are deeply concerned over potential negative developments in the meantime.

Make sure you read his concluding paragraph.