Feb 15th 2011

The Egyptian Uprising: the Lessons for Israel

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

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 Israelis 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 and the uncertainty they create for Israel should serve as a warning-missing opportunities to establish a status quo that offers Israel peace and security will instead 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 Israel with regard to the critical Israel-Egypt peace treaty would have been significantly diminished. Instead, today it is faced with-and must prepare for-three possible scenarios: 1) an Egypt influenced greatly by the Muslim Brotherhood which rejects Israel in principle, 2) the establishment of a largely secular government, though not as friendly as the Mubarak government, or 3) since the Egyptian military has been behind the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a continuation of similar bilateral relations may not be ruled out. Because of the still unfolding events, however, it can be assumed that any of the three scenarios could play out. 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 provided throughout the country. While the Muslim Brotherhood 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 cousin, 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 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 Sunni and Shiite groups might coalesce around a common enemy-Israel-potentially gaining backing from Iran and unraveling the nascent support Israel 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 Israel to divert significant amounts of military resources to a border with Egypt that has been relatively calm for over thirty years. Plus, an end to the high level of intelligence cooperation with Egypt would require a great investment by Israel to keep tabs on a nation that was once hostile, but is now open, to engaging Islamist movements in the region. Finally, a hostile Egypt would likely cease the delivery of energy resources, 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 with certainty, even with repressive dictators. The rise of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could exacerbate this anxiety, leaving Israel paralyzed while the status quo in the region crumbles around it.

The second more hopeful scenario from Israel's perspective would be the rise of a secular democratic Egypt that would maintain the peace treaty with Israel and good relations with the United States. The hope for this scenario rests with the Egyptian 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 United States sends to Egypt each year, largely as a result of the maintenance of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The Egyptian military has long maintained cooperation with Israel, keeping its forces out of the Sinai Peninsula and never violating the peace treaty-until Israel granted the Egyptian military permission to enter the Sinai during the protests of the last week. The prospect that Egypt's military would seek to maintain the aid it receives from the United States, while fully cooperating with the Pentagon as well as the intelligence cooperation it shares with Israel, provides hope that a democratic Egypt could eventually look more like Turkey than Iran.

That said, once the dust settles in Egypt and regardless of who or what political party or a coalition of parties rise to power, Israel should make it abundantly clear that it intends to observe and respect the bilateral peace agreement with Egypt. Israel should invite the new Egyptian government to play a significant role, as Israel did its predecessors, in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Interestingly enough, throughout the uprising, Israel has not been particularly blamed for the Egyptian government's shortcomings, which may bode well for the future relations between the two countries.

Should Israel-Egypt and US-Egypt relations be largely maintained, Israel 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 of the waves of protest-King Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet, including Prime Minister Samir Rifai, 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, Israel should also pursue bilateral tracks with Syria, the Palestinians and the Lebanese. Indeed, 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 Hezbollah 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 all the more secure because of it.

Of course, whether the Arab Peace Initiative (API) itself will survive this period of turmoil remains to be seen. Israel should ensure that it does not miss the opportunity to utilize the Initiative once and for all. It can begin to do so by embracing the API, signaling its intention to engage Egypt and Jordan, the co-chairs of the Arab League's committee on the Arab Peace Initiative, and indicate its willingness to accept the principles of the Initiative 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 Egyptian government that is ultimately formed to maintain and even enhance Israel-Egypt relations and, most importantly, meaningfully address the Palestinian question. Former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came very close in 2008-2009 to forge an Israel-Palestinian accord, there is no reason why Israel, with the support of the Obama administration, should not resume negotiations from where they left off.

The Egyptian revolution has the potential for many great and positive developments, though of course there is always the possibility that the revolution may usher in a prolonged period of instability. Under any circumstances, Israel must remain focused on making peace and must invite the Egyptians to be an integral part of creating this peace. This would also send a powerful message that Israel is prepared to proactively establish a new, sustainable status quo in the Middle East based on peaceful relations and mutual security with all its neighbors.

A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on 2/11/11, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=207648

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