May 10, 2011
Was Mubarak a Zionist?
Was Hosni Mubarak a Zionist, as his critics within Egypt and across the Arab world suggest?
That sounds absurd but it’s an accusation that has riled a lot of folks in Israel and Egypt.
Of course, being called a Zionist is about as nasty a charge as there is in many parts of the Arab world, the dark corners of the blogosphere and a few other places as well.
To many Israelis calling the deposed Egyptian president a Zionist is an insult to their country, as they quickly and correctly cite a long list of affronts that made for a cold peace, not the warm alliance they’d once hoped for.
For most Israelis, the unkindest cut of all may be that for nearly 30 years as president, Mubarak refused to visit Israel – he said his trip to Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral didn’t count – leading Avigdor Lieberman to tell the Egyptian leader he could “go to hell.”
That probably is what made Foreign Minister Lieberman just about the only top Israeli official unwelcome in Cairo; by contrast, Mubarak had an open door to nearly every other Israeli leader, and they took full advantage of the access.
He was the go-to Arab leader when Israel needed help dealing with other Arabs, particularly the Palestinians.
Israeli-Egyptian relations were a bowl of chop suey. Mubarak’s detractors and admirers all have long lists of examples to fortify their case.
He was a better ally than he got credit for. Some observers say that by keeping the peace cold he was able to do more for Israel as well as Egypt. The Camp David treaty was never very popular on the Egyptian street – perhaps Mubarak can be faulted for failing to foster public support – and the outward chill allowed him to cooperate much more with Israel than public opinion might have tolerated otherwise.
Israel was very reluctant to see him go, perhaps a bit too reluctant. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and other top officials lobbied American and European leaders to help Mubarak keep his job, seemingly unable to comprehend that he faced a domestic uprising based on decades of oppression and it could only do harm to try to inject Israel as his only defender. In a typical “it’s all about me” view of the world, some Israeli commentators, reflecting what they likely heard from government leaders, interpreted President Obama’s call for Mubarak’s departure as a betrayal of the Jewish state.
Peace with Egypt has been a cornerstone of Israeli security for more than three decades, allowing it to cut defense spending and focus on threats elsewhere. Mubarak, for all his faults, kept that peace intact.
He shared U.S. and Israeli views of Iran, and cooperated in efforts to isolate and sanction the regime. His successors quickly began to upgrade Egypt’s relations with Iran as well as with Hamas.
Mubarak saw Hamas as an ally of the outlawed Egyptian Moslem Brotherhood, which he considered a threat to his government. He joined Israel’s blockade of Gaza in order to weaken the Islamist terror group’s hold there and began construction of a security barrier along the Gaza-Sinai border to combat smuggling.
The new government has halted construction and opened the border; it’s not clear what it’ll do about the weapons smuggling.
He worked seriously, albeit unsuccessfully, to broker peace between the Palestinians and Israel and to help free Gilad Shalit, the Israeli soldier kidnapped by Hamas.
He shared Israel’s contempt for Yasser Arafat, although at times he also supported the old terrorist, as in the 1985 Achille Lauro hijacking when he released the PLO murderers of Leon Klinghoffer.
When it suited Mubarak, or he felt he needed to show he was in step with the rest of the Arab world, he would not hesitate to turn on Israel, even while he was sharing a platform with the prime minister.
He would tolerate – some say encourage—vicious anti-Semitism in the state-controlled media and from his own government to deflect criticism of his regime. When asked about it, he would say Egyptians need to be able to let off steam (translation: better they vent their anger on Israel than on me).
The new Egyptian government has pledged – as have most candidates for president in the November elections – to honor the treaty with Israel, but look for their chill to make Mubarak’s feel warm.
All this is not to say Mubarak could or should have stayed in power as long as he wanted, only that he was a better ally than he got credit for.
He also understood that keeping the treaty was Egypt’s ticket to Washington and billions of dollars in aid and top-of-the-line military equipment.
Was Mubarak a Zionist? Of course not, but he was a valued partner. Better than he got credit for until it was too late to save him. But that it was too late wasn’t anyone’s fault but his own. There was nothing the United States or Israel could have done to save him. It’s time to stop mourning the past and begin adapting to a new reality.