Envoy: Israel welcomes Mideast democratization

Washington Times  March 9, 2011

Michael Oren, Israeli ambassador to the United States (AP Photo)

Israel’s ambassador to the United States offered a welcoming hand to democracy movements in the Middle East on Tuesday, after weeks in which senior Israeli officials fretted that Egypt’s revolution could produce another Islamic republic.

“I want to say here unequivocally – unequivocally, categorically – that Israel welcomes the democratization process in the Middle East, that if democracies arise in Egypt, Tunisia and elsewhere, we will be the first to embrace them,” Ambassador Michael Oren said.

“We’ve long been proud to say we are the Middle East’s only functioning democracy. We’d be happier still to say that we’re one of many democracies in the Middle East.”

Mr. Oren spoke Tuesday on Capitol Hill at the Jerusalem Conference for International Policy along with visiting Israeli officials and several prominent congressional supporters.

His comments represent a sharp rhetorical turn from Jerusalem, which has been cautious about the democratic wave that threatens to topple Israel’s few regional friends – such as ousted Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak – and give power to populations that hold critical views of the Jewish state.

Mr. Oren injected his embrace of Mideast democratization with a note of caution.

“We would also be irresponsible if we overlooked the role of radical movements in some of these countries,” he said. “And we’ve seen how democratic processes in other countries – in Iran, in Lebanon, in Gaza – have been hijacked by radical minorities.”

Speaking at the same conference, Yuli Edelstein, a Cabinet member of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud Party, lambasted editorial writers who “give us advice” and “know exactly everything about these changes.”

“You know what? I know it’s a terrible thing for an elected official to say, ‘I don’t know,'” said Mr. Edelstein, Israel’s minister for diaspora affairs and public diplomacy.

He said he wants to be “hopeful” about the new Middle East but that the “few experiments” with democracy in the region give him little cause for optimism. The best thing Israel can do in this situation is to stay out of the way, he said.

“If we want democratic forces to really find their place there, I guess – I hate to say it this way – but we have to distance ourselves as far as we can and as much as we can because, unfortunately, the atmosphere is such that the moment someone cautiously or uncautiously says something about this or that party, this or that leader in any of the neighboring countries, you can cross it out,” Mr. Edelstein said.

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