For Israel, the popular uprising against the Mubarak regime raises the specter of its worst strategic nightmare: collapse of the peace treaty with Egypt, the cornerstone of its regional policy for the past three decades.
That is not the inevitable outcome of the unrest; a modified version of the Mubarak government could survive and retain the “cold peace” with Israel. But if, in a worst case scenario, democratic or Islamic forces were to come to power denouncing Israel and repudiating the peace deal, that could herald the resurrection of a major military threat on Israel’s southern border.
The largely American-equipped and American-trained Egyptian army — by far the most powerful military in the Arab world — numbers around 650,000 men, with 60 combat brigades, 3500 tanks and 600 fighter planes. For Israel, the main strategic significance of the peace with Egypt is that it has been able to take the threat of full-scale war against its strongest foe out of the military equation. But a hostile regime change in Cairo could compel Israel to rethink its military strategy, restructure its combat forces, and, in general, build a bigger army, diverting billions of shekels to that end with major social and economic consequences.
A hostile government in Cairo could also mean that Egypt would be aiding and abetting the radical Hamas regime in neighboring Gaza, rather than, as at present, helping to contain it.
Worse: If there is a domino effect that also leads to an anti-Israel regime change in Jordan, with its relatively large Islamic political presence, Israel could find itself facing an augmented military threat on its eastern border, too. That could leave it even worse off than it was before 1977, facing a combined military challenge from Egypt, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and the Palestinians—with the added menace of a fundamentalist Iran that seeks to acquire nuclear weapons.
The strategic importance of the peace with Egypt has come to the fore during a number of crises over the past decade. Without it, the Second Palestinian Intifada (2000-2005), the Second Lebanon War (2006) and the Gaza War (2008-2009) could easily have triggered wider regional hostilities. But in each case, in the teeth of regionwide popular sentiment against Israel, Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak adamantly rejected calls to commit Egyptian soldiers to the fray. On the contrary, Mubarak was critical of Hezbollah in Lebanon and of Hamas in Gaza for provoking senseless killing, and he played a significant role in achieving postwar ceasefire arrangements. “Not everything Mubarak did was right,” President Shimon Peres declared Monday. “But he did one thing for which we all owe him a debt of gratitude. He kept the peace in the Middle East.”
Because Mubarak has served as a bulwark against regional chaos and was for decades a central pillar of American strategy against the radical forces led by Iran, Israelis found it baffling that President Obama turned his back on the embattled Egyptian leader so quickly. Pundits argued that Obama’s stance sent a deeply disconcerting message to America’s moderate allies across the region, from Saudi Arabia to Morocco, that they, too, might be as peremptorily abandoned in time of need. That message, the pundits said, might drive those equally autocratic leaders elsewhere for support, even possibly toward America’s regional foe, Iran. Secondly, the pundits insisted that by distancing himself from Mubarak, Obama was encouraging the would-be revolutionary opposition in Egypt in a gamble that could prove counterproductive to American and Western interests. Clearly, the American president was hoping for democracy in Egypt and a concomitant increase in popular support for America across the region.
In his Cairo speech in June 2009, Obama offered the Muslim peoples of the Middle East a new beginning. Now, he seems to be using the Egyptian crisis to underscore that appeal to the Muslim masses. But Israeli pundits warn that this is most unlikely to work. They maintain that instead of democracy in Egypt, there could well be a two-stage revolutionary process—an initial quasi-democracy, overtaken within months by the emergence of an autocratic Islamic republic under the heel of the Muslim Brotherhood. It would be similar to what happened when the United States supported pro-democracy forces against the Shah in Iran in the 1970s, only to see the emergence of the fundamentalist Ayatollahs. Moreover, in the event of an eventual Muslim Brotherhood victory, the big regional winner would be fundamentalist Iran.
Israeli diplomats across the globe have been instructed to quietly make the case for the importance of stability in Egypt. Careful not to exacerbate an already delicate situation by saying anything that might be construed as support for one side or the other, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has merely reaffirmed Israel’s desire to preserve regional stability. But it is safe to assume that his government would be relieved to see power remaining in the hands of Egypt’s current ruling elite — say, through a peaceful handover to Mubarak’s recently appointed vice president, Omar Suleiman.
The Israeli hope is that Suleiman, the former head of Egypt’s intelligence services and a major player in everything related to Egyptian-Israeli ties, would be able to continue Egypt’s pro-Western alignment and its support for the peace deal with Israel, while allowing a greater degree of democracy in Egypt and pre-empting the rise of an Islamic republic. But it is unclear how much popular support he can muster, given his close ties down the years with Mubarak, who seemingly overnight has become the most hated man in Egypt.
However the events in Egypt play out, they will clearly have an impact on the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The very notion of a threat to the peace with Egypt will almost certainly further reduce the Netanyahu government’s readiness to take risks for peace. In a news conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel in Jerusalem on Monday, Netanyahu re-emphasized the importance he attaches to the security element in any peace package—“in case the peace unravels.” As for the Palestinians, the Egyptian protests could trigger Palestinian demonstrations pressing for statehood—without peace or mutual concessions.
As usual, events seem to be reinforcing both sides of the Israeli political divide in their core beliefs. The right is already saying that Israel should not make peace unless it can be assured of ironclad security arrangements, and the left maintains that if only Israel had already made peace with the Palestinians and the Arab world, then popular unrest such as the protests in Egypt would not be potentially so earth-shattering.
Either way, the events in Egypt are not good news for those advocating Israeli-Arab peacemaking. They could push efforts to resolve the conflict back several decades.