Egypt with dread

We will have to swallow very hard and do our utmost to show restraint in the face of Egyptian hostility.

By
May 23, 2012 21:43
3 minute read.
Egyptians line up to vote in Egypt

Egyptians line up to vote in Egypt 370. (photo credit: Eliezer Sherman)

 
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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.

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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.

Worse, Egypt 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 frightening enough.

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.

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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 needs.

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 assistance.

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.

The writer is a former deputy Israeli national security adviser, is a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

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