If Egypt's President Hosni Mubarak is toppled, Israel will lose one of its very few friends in a hostile neighborhood and President Barack Obama will bear a large share of the blame, Israeli pundits said on Monday.Although perhaps the quoted Israelis are being slightly too generous to a despot, the larger point is very important: If Middle East leaders, especially Arab leaders, do not believe that the US is behind them anymore, then the idea of a domino effect of Arab regimes being replaced by potentially much worse Islamist regimes becomes much closer to reality.
Political commentators expressed shock at how the United States as well as its major European allies appeared to be ready to dump a staunch strategic ally of three decades, simply to conform to the current ideology of political correctness.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has told ministers of the Jewish state to make no comment on the political cliffhanger in Cairo, to avoid inflaming an already explosive situation. But Israel's President Shimon Peres is not a minister.
"We always have had and still have great respect for President Mubarak," he said on Monday. He then switched to the past tense. "I don't say everything that he did was right, but he did one thing which all of us are thankful to him for: he kept the peace in the Middle East."
Newspaper columnists were far more blunt.
One comment by Aviad Pohoryles in the daily Maariv was entitled "A Bullet in the Back from Uncle Sam." It accused Obama and his Secretary of State Hillary Clinton of pursuing a naive, smug, and insular diplomacy heedless of the risks.
Who is advising them, he asked, "to fuel the mob raging in the streets of Egypt and to demand the head of the person who five minutes ago was the bold ally of the president ... an almost lone voice of sanity in a Middle East?"
"The politically correct diplomacy of American presidents throughout the generations ... is painfully naive."
"The question is, do we think Obama is reliable or not," said an Israeli official, who declined to be named.
"Right now it doesn't look so. That is a question resonating across the region not just in Israel."
Writing in Haaretz, Ari Shavit said Obama had betrayed "a moderate Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States, promoted stability and encouraged moderation."
To win popular Arab opinion, Obama was risking America's status as a superpower and reliable ally.
"Throughout Asia, Africa and South America, leaders are now looking at what is going on between Washington and Cairo. Everyone grasps the message: "America's word is worthless ... America has lost it."
Not only that, but if Arab leaders no longer perceive the US as protecting them, they will seek another country for them to orbit. Like, say, Iran.
No one is saying that it is easy for the US to publicly support a dictator whose country is now seemingly against him. But now the US is not acting like a leader at all.
Here is one possible idea that would be true to both democratic ideals and minimize the chances for an Islamist takeover of Egypt.
The US should pressure Mubarak to embark on a five-year program of increasing freedoms. Get rid of the "state of emergency" that Egypt has been under since 1967 and start to implement a concrete plan of action to open up Egypt to the marketplace of ideas - with a specific timetable.
Only after five years of freedom can one even hope for an electorate that can sort through the alternatives intelligently. It would also take that long for new political parties to have the chance to grow and get organized, gain supporters and money.
Then the real elections can take place, in a new, democratic Egypt, where no one is afraid that their words can get them killed.
Rushing into uncharted waters now has disaster written all over it. This is a vacuum that the US can fill if it acts skillfully and forcefully. But is there the will?
(h/t Zach N)