FOR decades Shimon Peres, now Israel’s president, has spoken of his country’s yearning for a “new Middle East,” one in which Israel is at peace with its neighbors, regional economies cooperate and the conflict with the Palestinians is finally set aside. Now, with Egypt’s government on the edge of collapse, Israel is suddenly faced with a “new Middle East” — and Israelis are terrified.
Many Westerners believe that the events in Egypt are a disaster for the Jewish state. Its most important regional ally faces possible chaos and an Islamist takeover. Add to this King Abdullah II’s recent dismissal of his cabinet in Jordan (the only other Arab country that has signed a peace treaty with Israel), Hezbollah’s quiet coup in Lebanon last month, a resurgent Syria and an increasingly Islamist Turkey, and you can understand why many Israelis feel surrounded, as they did decades ago.
In the short run America faces an uncomfortable choice. It can support Egypt’s president, Hosni Mubarak, who is at least marginally pro-Western and has maintained the cold peace with Israel initiated by his predecessor, Anwar el-Sadat. But Mr. Mubarak is also a ruthless despot. Alternately, Washington can support the democracy movement, but with the knowledge that democracy could bring anti-Western, anti-Israel and possibly Islamist leaders to power.
In short, none of the parties vying for control of Egypt share America’s fundamental values of genuine democracy, a free press, women’s rights and minority protections.
But the threat of chaos, and even Islamist rule, might have a silver lining. It is all the more obvious that there is only one country in the region that has the same values as America: Israel. If America reacts to recent events by increasing its support for those who share its values, it could reassure a suddenly surrounded Israel and perhaps even move the peace process with the Palestinians forward.
Until now the central pillar of President Obama’s strategy for restarting peace talks has been to pressure Israel to cease building settlements. Settlements may or may not be wise, but where has the equivalent pressure on the Palestinians been?
The administration has failed to insist that the Palestinian Authority recognize Israel as a Jewish state, even though Israel has recognized the national aspirations of the Palestinian people. And Mr. Obama has allowed the Palestinian flag to fly in Washington, a symbolic signal of support for Palestinian statehood. All without the Palestinians making any concessions.
As a result, the United States has unwittingly created disincentives for the Palestinians to negotiate with Israel. Without pressure from Washington, the political position of Mahmoud Abbas, the Palestinian president, is growing stronger each month, abetted by the growing number of countries that have recently recognized Palestinian statehood.
But the chaos throughout the Arab world could force Washington to realize that all its coddling of oppressive regimes in Egypt, Jordan and Yemen has done nothing to spread its values in a region that desperately needs them.
In that event America might, at long last, come to understand that its best hope for peace in the region is to throw its weight behind Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, even if he isn’t its Israeli politician of choice.
In doing so, Mr. Obama should make it clear to the Palestinians that what the United States respects is democracy, a free press, equal rights for women and a commitment to the free exchange of ideas. If he wishes to pressure Israel on settlements, he should publicly pressure the Palestinians on something equally politically fraught for Mr. Abbas. Washington should bring Israel in from the cold, and let Mr. Abbas know that time is not on his side.
[This column appeared as an Op Ed in the New York Times on February 9, 2011, page A27, and online at http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/09/opinion/09gordis.html.]