Egypt will hold its first ever free presidential elections this week, a victory
for democracy in which Israel and the entire democratic world should rejoice,
but which fills me instead with a sense of dread.
No matter who is
elected, the outcome bodes poorly for Israel, American interests in the region
and probably for Egypt as well. In a field of candidates in which Amr Moussa,
the anti-Israel hardliner of the Mubarak era, is the leading voice of
moderation, little good can be expected.
Indeed, it will be a very
pleasant surprise if the peace treaty remains in force a few years from now –
and if the peace with Egypt comes to an end, it is hard to imagine that Jordan
could remain the only Arab country at peace with Israel.
could rejoin the war camp. This would probably not be the result of a conscious
policy decision, though the very fact that this possibility now exists is
Rather, it is more likely to be the unintended
outcome of a future round of violence between Israel and Hamas or Hezbollah, or
in the event of an attack on the Iranian nuclear program, when the Egyptian
street may explode in fury and drag the government into actions it may not want.
Been there, done that, no need to go there again.
Maintaining the peace
with Egypt is a supreme Israeli national interest the importance of which cannot
be overstated. Egypt was the only Arab country that participated in all of the
full-scale wars, and was the leader of the confrontational states. Once Egypt
made peace, the other Arab states no longer had the independent conventional
capability to wage war.
It is not by chance that the border with Syria
has been quiescent ever since 1973, and it is not because Damascus became
pacifist or a Lover of Zion; without Egypt it simply had no war option. For 30
years we knew that Egypt was out of the fray, in itself a huge strategic boon
but one which also allowed us to attack the Iraqi and Syrian reactors, conduct
repeated operations, even wars, in Lebanon, fight the intifadas and much more,
without fear of Egyptian involvement.
With the largest and most powerful
Arab army out of the picture, Israel was able to divert resources both to other
military threats and, more importantly, to what it truly values: domestic
It is again not by chance that Israel’s economy has taken off so
dramatically since the 1980s.
Though certainly not entirely the result of
the peace with Egypt, it is significantly so, and Israel today devotes about six
percent of GDP to defense, as opposed to a whopping 25% in the 1970s. Peace with
Egypt paved the way for the peace with Jordan, and for the unfortunately failed
talks with the Palestinians and Syria.
There is little that Israel can do
to directly affect the course that Egypt takes over the coming years, vital as
it is for her security, and in this case running to Washington for help, our
normal solution to virtually all other problems, will be of limited
The US, too, has little influence over Egypt’s course.
American aid may be vital in maintaining a pro-Western and moderate Egyptian
military, paradoxically the most pro-peace force in the evolving new Egypt, but
this is hardly felt by the Egyptian public.
Israel can, however, make a
significant contribution to maintaining the peace treaty in the long run, by
launching a renewed peace process with the Palestinians. Partisan political
perspectives aside, nothing has undermined peace with Egypt as much as the
absence of progress toward peace, and especially ongoing settlement. The
prospects for progress appear bleak on both the Palestinian and Israeli sides,
but if there is one thing the broad new coalition could do to save the peace
with Egypt, it would be to achieve progress toward peace, or at least the
appearance of the willingness to do so.
In the coming years we will face
numerous challenges from Egypt, strident rhetoric and significant provocations.
Our natural and justified tendencies notwithstanding, we will have to swallow
very hard and do our utmost to show restraint in the face of Egyptian hostility,
terrorism stemming from Sinai and attacks by Hamas, Hezbollah and others. No
other consideration outweighs the importance of maintaining the peace with
Egypt, including possible military action to prevent a nuclear Iran.
writer is a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow
at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.