Concerned but quiet, Israel watches Egypt with an anxious eye

Israel used to live in a neighborhood where the evil men in charge were at least predictable, but that has all changed.

protesters wave egyptian flag 370 (photo credit: REUTERS)
protesters wave egyptian flag 370
(photo credit: REUTERS)
Israel likes stability, yearns for predictability. It abhors chaos. And that is why the “Arab Spring” has been so problematic from an Israeli point of view.
There is presently precious little predictability in the region. Nations can turn on themselves over night, unleashing God only knows what. And that’s the inherent danger – from Israel’s point of view – regarding what is happening in Egypt right now. No one knows what forces will be unleashed, or where they will lead.
Israel likes the knowable, even if the knowable, the stability, is based on fundamentally bad actors. Take Syrian President Bashar Assad and his father, Hafez, for example. These are evil men who caused Israel countless headaches and much suffering. Yet they were predictable. Israel knew, for the most part, how they would act, could predict their reaction.
Israel was able to take out a Syrian nuclear installation in 2007 (at least according to foreign reports and the memoir of former US President George W. Bush) because it could fairly judge what Bashar Assad’s reaction would be. If the Syrian president’s nose was not rubbed into the act, the conjecture went, he would not react. And, indeed, he didn’t.
The same could be said of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak. He was no lover of Zion, but after almost three decades of dealing with him, Israel knew him and what he was – and was not – capable of.
And this is why the “Arab Spring” has been so problematic for Israel. That predictability, stability, has been lost. First in Syria, and now – for a second time – in Egypt.
As millions of people take to the streets in Egypt to rid themselves of their president elected just a year ago, Jerusalem – as Israeli officials have been instructed to say – “is watching carefully.”
And that is all they are instructed to say. Beyond that mantra, government officials – wisely – are not commenting.
They are not commenting on what they want to see, or on what they think they will see.
This is wise policy for a couple of reasons. First, because whatever Israel says on behalf of one side or the other will be used against that side by the other one.
Second: What could Israel possibly say? That it hopes whatever happens in Egypt, Cairo will honor the peace treaty? That would simply be stating the obvious. These are domestic Egyptian events over which Israel has absolutely no impact or say. So why speak out? Official silence, however, should not be confused with a lack of concern. Israel is concerned, mightily concerned.
Not panicky, because this country has the ability to defend itself and protect its vital interests, but concerned.
Concern No. 1 is how the current chaos and anarchy impact the ability of Egypt to police and control what happens in Sinai.
In the immediate aftermath of the "Tahrir Square" revolution two years ago, the situation in Sinai deteriorated. The gas pipelines to Israel and Jordan were repeatedly sabotaged and blown up, and terrorist attacks and rocket attacks were staged from Sinai. In the past, when the Egyptian military was distracted by events taking place in Cairo, elements inside Sinai used the commotion to launch attacks and create problems in and from the peninsula.
A second concern is that Egypt may become ungovernable. Israel has no interest in its largest neighbor becoming a failed state. A failed state, an ungovernable country, cannot be counted upon to uphold its treaty requirements, for instance.
Israel also has no illusions – just as it has no illusion concerning Syria – that whoever ultimately prevails there will be imbibed with pro-Israel sensitivities. One of the names bandied about as a potential leader is Amr Moussa, a former foreign minister and former head of the Arab League known in Jerusalem for his long-time antipathy toward Israel. Another name appearing in the Western media as a leader of the opposition is Mohamed ElBaradei, someone whose exit as chairman of the International Atomic Energy Agency in 2009 Israel had longed to see.
A third concern is that if anarchy prevails in Cairo, Israel and/or the Jews will be blamed. This concern is deeply ingrained in the Jewish and Israeli DNA. (Those who think this is little more than Jewish paranoia need look no further then Turkish Deputy Prime Minister Besir Atalay’s comment on Tuesday that “Diaspora Jews” were responsible for the Gezi protests that rocked his country last month.)
And the final concern regarding Egypt has to do with how all this will impact Hamas. On paper, a weakened Muslim Brotherhood should mean a weakened Hamas, as the Brotherhood was seen as Hamas’s older sibling and patron. In practice, the relationship between the two has not been completely smooth.
Mohamed Morsi did not provide Hamas with all it had hoped for – he clamped down on the arms smuggling into Gaza, and three Hamas men were accused of taking part in last August’s attack that killed 16 Egyptian soldiers.
Hamas has been quiet lately, both because of Israeli deterrence and because of a sense of obligation to commitments it made toward Morsi, who helped broker a cease-fire between Israel and Hamas in November. If Hamas no longer feels committed to Morsi, it may no longer feel obligated to keep the border quiet.
Israel and Egypt worked out an odd modus vivendi during the year Morsi was in office. According to the new rules, there is absolutely no contact between the countries’ leaders – as there had been in the past – and even no contact at the level of foreign minister to foreign minister. But there is a good channel of communications between the militaries and defense establishments.
Jerusalem never harbored any fantasy concerning Morsi. Steps he took in Sinai to crack down on the anarchy there, or moves to stop arms smuggling into Gaza, or even efforts to broker quiet between Israel and Hamas in Gaza were perceived as things he did to protect his own interests.
From the day he took office until today, there had been deep concern in Jerusalem because of his extreme Islamic worldview, about how he would relate to Israel and the peace treaty five or 10 years down the line, if he was ever able to get his chaotic house in order.
That turned out to be a huge “if.”
When it comes to Egypt, Israel can do little more than worry - and prepare for a worst-case scenario.