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February 16, 2011

Israelis wonder: better a bird in the hand?

http://www.jewishjournal.com/world/article/israelis_wonder_better_a_bird_in_the_hand_20110216

In the midst of so many uncertainties dumped on us by the dramatic demise of the Mubarak regime, one solid, crystal-clear fact emerges: The “experts” don’t know what they are talking about.

The same people who now sit in television studios explaining to us what is happening in Egypt and why are the same people who three weeks ago swore that the Egyptian regime was stable. Which reminds one of the saying of Abba Eban: “It is very difficult to forecast, especially about the future.”

Not being an expert on Egypt myself, I feel comfortable sharing some of the thoughts and the concerns of the Israelis today, as they wake up to a new reality in this volatile region. If I were you, however, I would take even these thoughts with a grain of Sinai sand.

To start with, Israelis wonder what will happen with the peace between the two countries. Cold as this peace was, with good old Mubarak we probably felt like bedfellows who were not crazy about each other, but nevertheless hugged each other because the alternatives (Muslim Brotherhood, Hamas) were worse. Even Omar Suleiman, vice president and head of Egyptian intelligence, who used to come here frequently and rub shoulders with his Israeli buddies, is out. Should we now consider the Egyptian front a hostile one? There are already talks about reviving Israel Defense Forces’ Southern Army Corps, which was disbanded after the peace treaty was signed in 1979.

The military council ruling Egypt issued a soothing statement, and Sameh Shoukry, Egyptian envoy to Washington, told ABC’s “This Week” that the Israeli peace treaty had been beneficial to his country for 30 years and he expected it to remain in place. This is probably true, but so is the Jewish dictum “Ashrei adam mefached tamid” —  “Happy is the man that feareth always” (Proverbs 28:14).

More specifically, Israelis are worried about Sinai. This area, which was supposed to serve as a buffer zone, as well as a tranquil vacation resort, became a haven for Hamas and Bedouin arms smugglers and terrorists. Will the instability in Egypt proper weaken the ability of the Egyptians to control Sinai? Just in case, Israel allowed Egypt to move two battalions into Sinai, demilitarized under the peace treaty. Coordination between the two military institutions still seems to work smoothly. One needs every shred of comfort these days.

Then there is the question of the Egyptian gas supply to Israel. Will it continue? It seems so because it is an important source of income and also one of the pillars of the peace treaty. Yet already someone tried to sabotage the gas pipeline going through Sinai. Again, one wonders why Moses, when pulling out of Egypt, instead of turning right to the oil-soaked gulf, led the Israelites leftward, into dry Canaan. That is, until this year, when we found a lot of gas in our shores. We breathe again.

The biggest question still is where Egypt is going. The demonstrators in Tahrir Square generated a lot of sympathy among us. The sight of so many people in our authoritarian region taking to the streets to say “enough is enough” was a heartening one. Maybe the old truism that Arabs and democracy are mutually exclusive wasn’t true after all. And while the pragmatic Israelis realize that peace in the Middle East you make with dictators, deep in our hearts there lies the hope that with democracies around us, we will not have to fight and then make peace, because democracies are not warmongers.

But will Egypt become a democracy? If there were free elections today, the Muslim Brotherhood would have emerged as the biggest party. (Caution: “Expert” talking here, but still, I think it’s true.) Why? Because unlike the masses who filled the street, they are highly organized. If they had their way, Egypt would have become a theocracy, a far cry from what the people in Tahrir Square wanted. It is safe to assume that the military will not let this happen.

However, even if there is a successful period of transition to democracy, where true parties are established and a civil government is formed, the socioeconomic challenges of Egypt are so awesome that failing to meet the expectations of the revolutionaries will push them into the arms of the Muslim Brothers, who are waiting there patiently, believing in the slogan of “the worse, the better.” Will the army be there to intervene, or, like in the Turkish case, will its feathers be trimmed over time?

One thing for sure: At the coming seder, we should be twice thankful for leaving Egypt. With their televised conspiracies about the Mossad being behind every trouble, the last thing we need now is a Joseph messing with Pharaoh’s wife.

Last but not least, people here wonder at the ease with which the Obama administration dumped their loyal Egyptian ally of 30 years. Of course, it has nothing to do with us. The experts keep telling us that.

Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992-96 he served as the spokesman of the Rabin and Peres governments. He blogs exclusively at jewishjournal.com/jerusalemview.

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