William Pfaff is a Tribune Media Services columnist.
PARIS -- The events in the Arab world during the past three weeks have ended the era of American-Israeli domination/intimidation of the region. This is all but universally acknowledged outside the United States, although many in Washington refuse to admit it -- as does, with considerable concern, the Israeli government in Jerusalem.
The spectacle of confused and confusing administration and State Department responses to the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Yemen, and to the huge mass movement in Egypt, protected by the Egyptian army, as well as prudent prime ministerial change in Jordan, suggests that, until now, no one in an American government office has considered -- or been allowed to consider, more likely -- that this day would inevitably come.
The presence of the U.S. in the Mideast has lost its ability to intimidate the more than a half-billion people who live in the Arab, Egyptian and North African states, once politically united under the Ottoman Turks, and before that under the Arab Caliphates, but which until now have seemed discarded by history.
The reaction of the Israeli government has been more shocking still. There seems to have been panic, rather than the confusion and seeming impotence in Washington -- both liberal and conservative Washington, and in whatever other sectors of opinion that these days also exist in that troubled city, which has yet to emerge from two meaningless and un-won wars fought ostensibly for democracy, and which now is shocked to confront democracy among the Arabs.
Israel, since its defeat of combined Arab armies in 1948, has believed that it could only survive in the Middle East through total military domination of its Arab enemies and control without concessions of the subjects of its military occupation of Palestine. Israel has been supported in this, more or less willingly, by every American administration since that of Dwight Eisenhower -- the last to say "no" to Israel.
The contempt initially shown toward Israel's Arab enemies was ended by the 1973 surprise attack by Egypt and Syria, the rise of Hamas (whose creation Israel over-cleverly supported to counter the Palestine Liberation Organization; how could religious enthusiasts do anything to harm Israel?), and the resistance of Hezbollah to Israel's 2006 (and second) invasion of Lebanon. The result of that was to give Hezbollah political predominance in Lebanon.
Lebanon is the nation that once, using conciliation rather than intimidation, might have been turned into Israel's passport to peace with the other Arab countries. Israel's eyes were already on complete possession of Palestine when I first visited Beirut in 1955. The swagger of the Lebanese then was that, given unrestricted relations, the Lebanese could easily outsmart, out-trade and outwit the Jews. The Zionists should have taken up that challenge.
The Israeli calculation today is that if "Mubarak goes" (which is usually stated as "If America lets Mubarak go"), Egypt goes. If Tunisia goes (same elaboration), Morocco and Algeria go. Turkey has already gone (for which the Israelis have only themselves to blame). Syria is gone (in part because Israel wanted to cut it off from Sea of Galilee water access). Gaza has gone to Hamas, and the Palestine Authority might soon be gone too (to Hamas?). That leaves Israel amidst the ruins of a policy of military domination of the region.
Now, it is only America that can save us, Israelis say. But Washington has sent new emissaries to Cairo, undoubtedly to tell Hosni Mubarak that departure in September is not good enough. Now is the time to go -- with a graceful acknowledgement of the popular will and good wishes to his successors. He has already named reliable and moderate men to take over, whom the Pentagon and CIA trust. Will that be good enough? I think not. The people do not want a makeover of U.S.-dominated government. I doubt seriously that they would accept the "orderly transition to meet the democratic and economic needs of the people" that Hillary Clinton kindly proposes, adding that America stands "ready to help with the kind of transition that will lead to greater political and economic freedom." I would imagine that the popular feeling is that they have had quite enough help from Washington.
Would the people accept Mohamed ElBaradei to conduct a transition to elections, the ex-U.N. nuclear agency chief whom Washington considers an enemy? Possibly. The best thing the U.S. can do is to keep out of this, speak only when spoken to and hope that the common sense that has prevailed thus far in Tunisia and Egypt will continue.
The trouble is that the people who are handling these things in Washington are the same ones, or the proteges of the ones, now retired, who were responsible for American policy in the Middle East under both Democratic and Republican administrations since Franklin Roosevelt, late in the Second World War, made a deal to trade guaranteed security for Saudi Arabia in exchange for guaranteed oil for the U.S. Certainly since President Richard Nixon clapped the Shah of Iran on the back and said, "We restored you to your throne in 1953, young man -- I mean, Your Imperial Majesty. From now on, you are our gendarme in the Middle East. Just tell the Pentagon what you need." Israelis take notice.