The recent turmoil in Egypt might push Israelis to believe that time is working in Israel’s favor. If in the past we used to react to any regional development with the old worry, “Is it good or bad for the Jews?” today it seems that when it comes to Israel’s standing and interests in the Middle East, wherever we look, something good is happening.
Indeed, gone are the days when we were surrounded by mighty, threatening Arab countries. We have a solid peace with Jordan; Syria is falling apart, and its army is crumbling; Hezbollah is buried up to its neck in Syria, losing its base in Lebanon and becoming the pariah of the Arab world; Egypt, which has a peace treaty with us, has just ousted the Muslim Brotherhood from power and its army will now work closely with us to put the lid on the Islamic intransigence in Sinai; the Arab League, weary of trying to eliminate Israel, has, since 2002, offered a comprehensive peace with us; and relations with Turkey, an old strategic ally of Israel, are again warming.
Ah, yes, I forgot the tiny issue with the Palestinians, but why spoil the party? The conventional wisdom here is that Hamas in Gaza, weakened by the blow suffered by its big Egyptian Muslin Brothers, will now find itself crushed between the Egyptian rock and the Israeli hard place. The Palestinians in the West Bank, for some obscure reasons, are quiet, and anyway, according to former Israeli Ambassador Yoram Ettinger, who keeps defying all demographic alerts, they are not as many as we fear, so why worry?
Israelis, who never act until forced to (consider the first and the second Intifadas, the release of Palestinian prisoners only after Gilad Shalit had been abducted, etc.), might tend to translate their current satisfaction with the unfolding events around them into complacency and inaction. Why initiate anything, they might reason, when, without lifting a finger, our situation keeps getting better?
This approach, however, is shortsighted. If anything, the current, dramatic events in the region in general, and in Egypt in particular, open a window of opportunity for Israel to enhance its interests for the long run. Instead of sitting idly, then, we should now seize the moment and act.
The main concern for Israelis — apart from a nuclear Iran — is how to preserve Israel as a Jewish and democratic state. In poll after poll, two out of every three Israelis say they favor a two-state solution, realizing that if the present situation continues, they might find themselves in a single, bi-national state where Arabs will total 40 percent of the population or more (or, if Ettinger is right, “only” 40 percent, thank you very much).
Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who in his 1993 book, “A Place Among the Nations: Israel and the World,” warned that a Palestinian state would pose a grave danger to Israel, spoke the unspeakable in his 2009 Bar-Ilan University speech by endorsing the idea of a two-state solution. Netanyahu came to the conclusion that losing the Jewish and/or the democratic nature of Israel would be worse. And in our bad neighborhood, after all, the choice is not between good and bad, but between bad and worse.
Up till now, in spite of our desire to see a two-state solution materialize, we Israelis were reluctant to take the necessary steps leading to it because of the risks involved. If we pulled out of Gaza and were rewarded by a Hamas regime showering rockets on our south, should we repeat this in the West Bank, closer to home?
Yet the dramatic events in Egypt offer us a chance to take that risk (hold your boos — remember that bad is always better than worse). Egypt is now embarking on a long path of instability because the Muslim Brotherhood, who waited patiently for eight decades to assume power, won’t give up so easily. Egyptians will be fighting each other, and the Egyptian army will soon have to take its gloves off to crush the radical Islamists. All this, while 1 million babies are born in Egypt every year, with their chances of being properly fed or having a future being slim. The last thing we need is that the rage of the frustrated Egyptians be diverted against Israel. A breakthrough in the stalled Israeli-Palestinian peace process would guarantee that that won’t happen.
[Related: In Egypt, Pita over Allah]
However, we don’t need to initiate moves only to appease others. Israel, by boldly offering to look seriously at the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative and to start talks with the Palestinians, might find itself riding the Middle East tiger rather than being pushed or dragged screaming and yelling into a forced solution. The earthquake in Cairo might soon send aftershock waves into Gaza and weaken Hamas. A more self-confident Mahmoud Abbas, sensing that this could be his chance to regain the Palestinian hegemony, might turn out to be a more open partner.
Having said that, even if all this fails, then an Israel that becomes stronger by the fact that its neighbors are becoming weaker can afford to take risks and make unilateral steps that will bring her closer to the desired goal: a two-state solution.
Uri Dromi is a columnist based in Jerusalem. From 1992 to 1996, he served as the spokesman of Israel’s Rabin and Peres governments.