By Joel Brinkley

As Middle East revolutions continue to spread like a contagion, Israelis are spinning like tops, afraid the Muslim Brotherhood will take over Egypt, fearful that the overthrowing of Sunni dictators will give new power to the Shiite theocracy in Iran -- and much more.

These are well-founded concerns. But I've spent many years working in the Middle East, and I have countervailing views.

For more than half a century, ever since the nakba, the Arab world's "day of catastrophe," the day Israel was founded, Arab leaders have used one consistent strategy to keep their people in line.

Our life's goal, they would say over and over again, is to take back "Palestine." Nothing else matters. Deliberately implicit in that was the expectation that their people would stop thinking about their own stunted lives and focus instead on the fight.

For many years that seemed to work. Then came satellite television, the Internet, and over time, ordinary Arabs began to realize that Israel had nothing to do with their own circumscribed lives. All of it was the fault of their corrupt, implacable dictators.

Frustration grew and grew until finally a catalyst -- that vegetable merchant in Tunisia who burned himself up -- set the region on fire. Now the world has been watching actual and threatened uprisings, from Morocco to Iraq and beyond. They are televised. All of us can see and hear what these people want. And one remarkable fact is now patently clear.

Even after decades of indoctrination, these protesters, in state after state, have nothing to say about Israel. That conflict is not even a tertiary concern. Early this month, television did show one protestor waving a poster-board depiction of Hosni Mubarak, stars of David scrawled across his face. But that was more about Mubarak than Israel.

Few Arabs hold warm feelings toward Israel. But for nearly all of them now, Israel is just an unfortunate fact of life, not an obsession. Remember, the nakba was 63 years ago. The most recent Arab-Israeli war ended 38 years ago. Today, well more than half of the world's Arabs were born years after these events. The average age in Libya right now is 24; in Egypt it's 25. These people now know that their dictators' alarmist warnings about Israel were cynical distractions.

Still, Israel is not the only nation consumed with worry about what governments will replace the dictators who are falling from power. After all, in each of these countries, tyrants eliminated any significant opposition leaders. The only people who have had the freedom to organize are religious leaders. They can hold meetings and preach Islamic revolution in their mosques -- generally without interference from anyone. And ever-present on most everyone's mind is the Iranian revolution in 1979, a secular citizens' revolt that was captured by the Islamists. Couldn't that happen again?

Watching these uprisings, however, we have heard almost no one clamoring for a fundamentalist Islamic government. On NPR a few days ago, for example, a Libyan businessman declared: "This isn't about the Islamists. It's about freedom and democracy!" Fundamentalist Islam is absolutely antithetical to multi-party democracy.

For Israelis, Iran is now the number one boogeyman, but despite all the talk about possible new Iranian influence in the Arab world, it's important to note that Arabia and Persia have been bitter enemies for centuries. They hate each other even now. Few if any Arab nations would accept supplication to Tehran.

Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood is another of Israel's worries. A few days ago, Ari Shavit, an opinion columnist for Israel's Haaretz newspaper, blamed America for allowing Hosni Mubarak to fall from power in Egypt, "paving with their own hands the road to victory for the Muslim Brotherhood and Iran."

That's a common Israeli refrain, but I wonder how they think the U.S. could possibly have propped up the hated dictator -- while betraying 80 million Egyptians.

In any case, from the Muslim Brotherhood's own recent statements we know that the group is conflicted. Its younger leaders speak of democracy and pluralism, while its elders still cling to evil, racist views of Israel and the West. They seem to talk out of both sides of their mouths, speaking about freedom one day and Islamic fascism the next.

We can't know what the Muslim Brotherhood actually wants to do. But it's irrefutable that the vast majority of Egyptians, including the military, don't want the Brotherhood in a leadership role. And don't forget: At a moment's notice, all those people, in Egypt and elsewhere, can take to the streets once again.


Joel Brinkley, a professor of journalism at Stanford University, is a Pulitzer Prize-winning former foreign correspondent for the New York Times


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