Above the Fray: Lessons for Israel from Egypt

Missing opportunities to establish a status quo that offers peace and security will lead to a status quo of regional instability.

Protesters in Tahrir Square 520 (photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
Protesters in Tahrir Square 520
(photo credit: MELANIE LIDMAN)
While much is unknown about the ultimate implications of the Egyptian uprising for Israel, one lesson can already be drawn: The missed opportunities to achieve peace with the Arab states could have disastrous impacts. Of course, many see the unraveling of the once-vaunted Egyptian government and argue that the increasingly precarious nature of the Arab regimes means that any peace agreement with them would be equally precarious. But rather than serve as an excuse not to make peace, the events in Egypt should serve as a warning – missing opportunities to establish a status quo that offers peace and security will lead to a status quo of regional instability, threats and conflict.
Indeed, if Israel had accepted the Arab League’s peace initiative and established normal relations with all 22 members, the anxiety that grips it with regard to the critical peace treaty with Egypt would have been significantly diminished. Instead, today it is faced with – and must prepare for – two possible scenarios: an Egypt influenced greatly by the Muslim Brotherhood which rejects Israel in principle, or the establishment of a largely secular government.
In either scenario it can be assumed that the cold peace has the potential to become even colder. Israel must therefore recalibrate its policies toward the Arab states because what happened in Tunisia, and especially Egypt, will impact other Arab countries in one way or another and the Middle East will never be the same.
The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only significantly organized opposition group in Egypt, strengthened by its network of social services. While it is viewed as a political movement, it has served to influence and provide a common foundation for many Muslim extremists in the region, including its offshoot, Hamas.
Israel – rightly – is deeply concerned that the Brotherhood’s head start on other groups in political organization could allow it to have significant influence in a democratic Egypt – or even to lead it. If the Brotherhood had such a prominent role in the largest and most influential Arab state, there would be fears of potential gains for Islamists in other nations, including in Jordan. Such fears may include the possibility that Islamist groups might coalesce around a common enemy – Israel – potentially gaining backing from Iran and unraveling the nascent support it has enjoyed from some Arab states in its efforts to stop Iran’s nuclear pursuit.
FURTHERMORE, THE possibility for a dramatic recalibration of Egyptian policy toward the Gaza Strip would require the diversion of significant amounts of military resources to a border that has been relatively calm for more than 30 years. Plus, an end to the high level of intelligence cooperation would require a great investment to keep tabs on a nation that was once hostile, but is now open, to engaging Islamist movements. Finally, a hostile Egypt would likely cease the delivery of natural gas, which Israel has increasingly become dependent upon to meet its needs.
These fears are already beginning to be expressed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who in his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated his concern that the Egyptian revolution could take the shape of the Iranian one in 1979. “Our real fear is of a situation that could develop... and which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself – repressive regimes of radical Islam,” he told reporters.
Meanwhile, many are pointing out that the uncertainty that now grips the Arab world makes peace agreements seemingly impossible to maintain, even with repressive dictators. The rise of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood could exacerbate this anxiety, leaving Israel paralyzed while the status quo crumbles around it.
The second more hopeful scenario would be the rise of a secular democratic Egypt that would maintain the peace treaty and good relations with the US. The hope for this scenario rests with the army and its desire to maintain a semblance of stability in the transition from the Mubarak regime to a truly democratic Egypt, void of significant influence from Islamists. Any new government would feel the impact of an end to the $1.5 billion in aid the US sends each year, largely as a result of the maintenance of the peace treaty.
The military has long maintained cooperation, keeping its forces out of the Sinai, until granted permission last week, and never violating the peace treaty. The prospect the military would seek to maintain the US aid and intelligence cooperation with Israel provides hope that a democratic Egypt could eventually look more like Turkey than Iran.
THAT SAID, once the dust settles and regardless of who or what political party or a coalition of parties rises to power, Israel should make it abundantly clear that it intends to observe the peace agreement and leave the onus on the new government to redefine relations. Interestingly enough, throughout the uprising, Israel has not been particularly blamed for the government’s shortcomings, which may bode well for future relations.
Should Israel-Egypt and US-Egypt relations be largely maintained, Jerusalem must still be concerned about the reverberations of the protests. Egypt’s role as the center of Arab culture is likely to cause a wave of reform throughout the region. Other Arab leaders are already working to stay one step ahead – King Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet, and Yemen’s President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared he will not seek reelection nor will he hand power to his son when his term ends in 2013. To what extent such changes will satisfy the masses, and whether other governments will fall, remains to be seen.
In either scenario, Israel will need to be prepared to address a region in change. It will not be able to base its policies on the events happening in one country at a time – herein lies the opportunity of the current moment. In addition to seeking to maintain its peace with the newly shaped Egypt, it should also pursue bilateral tracks with Syria, the Palestinians and the Lebanese. There is never truly an ideal moment to make peace; there will always be great uncertainty and a measure of risk. However, the risk of not achieving peace, or of achieving bilateral peace agreements which leave other conflicts unresolved, is simply unacceptable at a time when Israel is facing the rising threat of Islamic radicals, whether in the form of Iran to the east, Hamas to the south or Hizbullah to the north.
The Arab League’s peace initiative offers a way to mitigate risk and receive a maximum reward: normalized relations with its 22 nations. Indeed, the greater the number of Arab states with which it forges a peace agreement, the less threatened it will be.
Should one Arab country violate such an agreement it would be a violation of peace reached with all other Arab nations, not just Israel. The stakes therefore would be raised for all involved, and the resulting agreement would be the more secure because of it.
Of course, whether the peace initiative will survive the turmoil remains to be seen. If Israel is to ensure it does not miss the opportunity, it can embrace the initiative, signaling its intention to engage Egypt and Jordan, the cochairs of the Arab League’s committee on the initiative, and indicate its willingness to accept its principles as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab world at large. It must signal that it is prepared to support Egyptian democracy, work with the government that is ultimately formed to maintain and even enhance relations and, most importantly, meaningfully address the Palestinian question.
The writer is professor of international relations at the Center for Global Affairs at NYU. He teaches international negotiation and Middle Eastern studies.