I’m not expert enough on Middle Eastern politics to know whether it was wise for the United States to join he coalition taking military action against the Libyan government.
Toppling dictators and thugs is, on one level, a gratifying business. And it was painful to watch as Muammar Gaddafi’s troops closed in on rebels fighting for regime change.
Hopefully the world’s intervention can bring about a quick and positive transition of power, without a lengthy entanglement.
I am concerned, however, that this decision to resort to military action betrays a misunderstanding about the real meaning of the remarkable events of the Cairo Spring, both to the region and to the world.
Broadly speaking, we have learned in recent months that there is extensive political support in the Middle East for creating sustainable democracies, productive economies, and civil societies where the rule of law prevails.
The portrait of the “Muslim Street” that many Americans had internalized — one of chaotic fist-shaking masses, of a society that will always collaborate at least passively with terrorists — has been turned on its head.
We have seen women in leadership positions. We have seen peaceful expressions of political idealism. We have seen articulate, reasonable and courageous people demanding better and freer lives.
All of which should lead the world back to the fundamental and inevitable question in that region: What do we do about Palestine?
While largely peaceful revolutions were sweeping the Arab world, we have also seen indications that Palestinian leaders are also legitimately eager for a settlement.
But the Israeli leadership continues to press disappointing policies that have nothing to do with national security — indeed, some of those policies are so provocative that they endanger the Israeli people.
The most risky of these actions is the continued construction of Jewish settlements in the occupied territories.
This is dangerous for two reasons. First, it weakens those elements in Palestinian society that appear to be searching in earnest for civilized co-existence with Israel.
That can only embolden the deadly, terrorist factions that Israel faces.
But the other risk to Israel is that the nation will continue to find itself more and more isolated in the world community.
The Israeli occupation of Palestinian territory is already hugely controversial throughout the vast Islamic world and increasingly in much of the Western world.
Imagine a future where Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, Lebanon, and Libya are functioning democracies, yet Palestinians still live under the control of the Israeli military.
Surely that would be intolerable for many of Israel’s allies, and for many of Israel’s democracy-loving citizens.
In the latest issue of the New Yorker, David Remnick suggests that this kind of isolation is already brewing.
He quotes a scathing conversation between Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Late last month, [Netahyahu] called the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to register his displeasure that Germany had voted for a U.N. Security Council resolution condemning the Jewish settlements.
According to an account in the Israeli daily Haaretz, a German source said that Merkel could hardly contain her outrage.
“How dare you?” she said. “You are the one who has disappointed us. You haven’t made a single step to advance peace.”
I’m guessing that Israel is hearing much the same, in private, from many other world leaders.
The Israeli leadership has insisted for more than forty years that their occupation of Palestinian territories — unambiguously condemned by the United Nations — is a necessary bulwark against the chaos and violence of Islamic radicalism.
One can’t help but observe that all the Arab despots toppled in recent weeks made much the same claim.
Dictators like Hosni Mubarak assured the world that their brutish and undemocratic approach was the only way to treat with Muslims. It turns out they were wrong.
As I write this, Egyptians are drafting a new constitution and preparing for a presidential election.
Israeli leaders (and we who support them) are confronted now with a troubling and urgent question:
Does anyone really believe that the Palestinians are less capable of democracy than, say, the Egyptians or the Libyans?
So while the Obama administration participates in the Libya campaign, it should also reopen high level talks immediately with the Israelis and Palestinians.
Toppling Gaddafi may be a laudable pursuit.
But the real goal in this historic moment should be establishing a lasting peace, with dignity, territorial security, and self-determination for both Israelis and Palestinians.
Yes, that means challenging Palestinians to embrace non-violent aspects of this Cairo Spring.
It also means challenging Israel’s leaders to rethink their view of what security and prosperity in the Middle East might look like in the wake of the Middle East’s transformation.