Will Egypt’s revolution trample the peace process?

If Mubarak’s successors are hostile, any semblance of a peace process with the Palestinians could be even more elusive.

Hosni Mubarak (photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
Hosni Mubarak
(photo credit: ASSOCIATED PRESS)
If you want to know what Barack Obama thinks about chances to deliver on his goal of Israeli-Palestinian peace by September, just listen to what he had to say about it in his State of the Union address.
Nothing. Nada. Bupkiss.
And the nascent revolution sweeping across the Arab world will add to the peace process woes of the administration – while raising the stakes enormously.
A revolution that began in Tunisia has spread to Egypt, as repressive and corrupt leaders, deaf to their peoples’ demands for freedom and economic/political reform, are being driven from office. Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak, whom a former American diplomat calls a “dead man walking,” is expected to fly into gilded exile soon.
Two significant elements of the upheavals are worth noting.
Brutal, autocratic regimes were brought down not by the military or the mosques but by something new to the Arab world – popular revolution.
And Israel is not an issue in the uprisings in Tunisia, Yemen, Egypt and elsewhere – the best evidence yet to counter those who claim it is the primary cause of regional instability. The real causes are a long-ignored public yearning for freedom, economic opportunity and democratic reform.
Mubarak brushed aside the urgings of the Bush and Obama administrations – Bush more vigorously and publicly – for reform; US leaders, when told to mind their own business, meekly obeyed. Only after it became clear that Mubarak is a goner did the Obama administration ramp up the pressure in an effort to avoid becoming an enemy of the crowds.
WHEN I was in Egypt two months ago, I conducted a very unscientific survey, and virtually everyone I spoke to wanted Mubarak to go; when I got to Israel, nearly everyone I spoke to wanted him to stay on indefinitely.
Mubarak may have presided over a cold peace, but he proved to be a valuable ally not only in preserving the peace treaty, but also as an intermediary with the Palestinians and an enemy of the Islamists. That could change, and it has Israelis worried. Some are blaming the Egyptian upheaval on Obama, saying he should have stepped in somehow to keep Mubarak in power. Much of that is coming from the usual hate-Obama crowd, but in truth there is nothing Washington could have done to rescue him after his stubborn resistance to change. His wounds are self-inflicted.
Worries grew inside and outside of Egypt as the Muslim Brotherhood has already begun trying to hijack the revolution, throwing its support behind the secular moderate Mohamed ElBaradei, hoping to ride to power on the coattails of the former UN International Atomic Energy Agency chief who called Israel the “number one threat to the Middle East.”
The Brotherhood, which spawned Hamas and is rabidly anti-American and anti-Israel, has denounced the peace treaty with Israel and, if in a position of power, would likely try to abrogate it.
Israel has begun preparing for a less-friendly regime, one that might decide to lift the blockade on Gaza, turn a blind eye to the tunnel smuggling, and support Hamas’s efforts to challenge Fatah in the West Bank. It is considering refocusing its defense deployment to the long-peaceful southern border.
If Mubarak’s successors are hostile, particularly if the government includes the Brotherhood, any semblance of a peace process with the Palestinians could be even more elusive. Hizbullah’s takeover of the Lebanese government and unrest in Jordan will only harden Israel’s positions.
That could encourage Palestinians to intensify efforts to win recognition of statehood in September by accusing Israel of being inflexible and uncooperative.
The government can take the initiative by moving quickly to hammer out a deal with Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas – even if it means freezing settlements – or turn to Syria and make one there. American help will be essential, but it has to happen before Obama’s next State of the Union address, because by then the 2012 presidential campaign will be sucking all the oxygen out of risky undertakings like Mideast peace.
But so far, there are few signs an administration that missed all the indicators pointing to revolution in Egypt – just as its predecessors missed the potential dangers of backing a despot – will have the foresight or backbone to do that. Nor are there any signs the Israeli leadership is ready to put politics aside and make a deal.
Finally, there is no reason to believe a weak, vacillating Abbas will see the handwriting on the wall and understand that his chances of creating a viable state are vanishing like a desert mirage.
The only certainty – and the one that Hosni Mubarak so profoundly personifies – is that standing still can be very dangerous.
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