Hague assumption on Egypt so wrong

By Robin Shepherd, February 10, 2011

It has been remarked by more than one observer of events in Egypt and the wider Middle East that whatever else the crowds have been chanting as they call for political reforms, the "Death to Israel" mantra has been notable for its absence.

Israeli fears about what may or may not transpire in the region, the argument goes, amount to so much paranoia. Or as Foreign Secretary William Hague put it this week in chiding Israeli premier Binymain Netanyahu for having vowed to "reinforce the might of the state of Israel" and to be prepared for "any outcome" from recent events: "This should not be a time for belligerent language."

William Hague is a good man. But his advisers at the Foreign Office are failing him. Here is what Mr Netanyahu knows that Mr Hague's advisers won't tell him: the reason why the crowds are making so little noise about destroying Israel is that hatred of the "Zionist entity" and the Jewish people is so much a matter of societal consensus in Egypt, and beyond that there is no mileage to be had from any particular faction in employing it as a means to political advancement.

As a major survey by Pew showed in 2006, for example, 97 per cent of Egyptians hold "somewhat" or "very" unfavourable opinions of Jews, with none (zero per cent) admitting to favourable views. In Jordan the figure was 98 per cent against the Jews and one per cent in favour.

In contrast to their European counterparts, this sort of information is well known to Israeli policy makers, which explains their nervousness when anything appears to threaten a status quo which, however imperfect, has at least provided for a degree of regional stability.

This is not to say that anyone should mourn the passing of Hosni Mubarak. His dictatorship was bound to fall sooner or later. Israel and the rest of us should have known that and been preparing for it over decades by fostering a gradual process of democratic reforms including a consistent policy of zero tolerance on Arab antisemitism. If we had chosen such a path, the dangers we now face might not be quite so severe.

But we are where we are. The question for Israelis now is not whether or to what extent they are hated by the peoples of the countries which surround them, but how that hatred will manifest itself and how they should prepare themselves for dangerous outcomes. And that is why, under the circumstances, Mr Netanyahu's remarks were as prudent and sensible as Mr Hague's were naïve and ill advised.

Robin Shepherd is Director, International Affairs at the Henry Jackson Society

Last updated: 12:32pm, February 10 2011