I can understand why Israelis have been less excited about these latest developments. Israel lives in a dangerous neighborhood, surrounded by existential threats. The last thing it needs is to lose its most trusted ally in the Middle East. But leaving aside the moral hypocrisy of touting oneself as the only democracy in the Middle East while trying to stymie the emergence of another one, I’d like to make two quick points regarding Israel’s concerns:
- There has been much written over the past two weeks, largely from Israeli commentators, that the coming revolution spells the end of Israel’s treaty with Egypt. It’s possible, but I’d venture to say that outcome is quite unlikely. First of all, hundreds of thousands of protestors have not come to the street over Egypt-Israel relations; they’re driven by domestic issues. And if the new government is truly accountable to the will of the people, they will have many more things to worry about before annulling the peace treaty. Such a move would also end the $1.5 billion of US aid that Egypt receives every year. The country can barely feed its people even with this aid. No democratic government can afford to give up this money – especially one that would be brought to power largely based on economic concerns. More importantly, the free trade zones that the US negotiated with Egypt to bolster its treaty with Israel are the source of thousands of jobs and are almost single-handedly buoying the Egyptian cotton industry. So despite the short-term political advantage of whipping up anti-Israel sentiment, these pragmatic considerations make annulling the peace treaty a much more difficult move for the next Egyptian government.
- Much of the hand-wringing coming from Israel has been about the possible ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood. The Brotherhood is certainly anti-Israel, and if it had its way, it would annul the peace treaty with Israel. But the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood is not Hamas. It’s a lazy analogy that I have seen made in countless places, such as Richard Cohen’s contention in the Washington Post that, “under a different name (Hamas), the Muslim Brotherhood runs the Gaza Strip.” It is true that Hamas was borne out of the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood in the 1980s – but to claim that the two groups are the same is to ignore 30 years of quite divergent histories and social factors that have made them into two very different entities. A democratic Egypt will not become the Gaza Strip. The Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood has rejected violence, participated as a legitimate actor in the political system, and would likely be one of many parties in the new Egyptian democratic system (not to mention the fact that it would probably lose much of its popularity in a genuine democracy). To be sure, the group has yet to be truly tested in this regard, and should be engaged with caution and skepticism. But to dismiss them as Hamas is simplistic and unhelpful. As convincingly argued in a recent Foreign Affairs piece, “portraying the Brotherhood as eager and able to seize power and impose its version of sharia on an unwilling citizenry is a caricature that exaggerates certain features of the Brotherhood while ignoring others, and underestimates the extent to which the group has changed over time.” (For another nuanced view of the Brotherhood, read the section by Marc Lynch in this report from the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point.)
Israel does have many legitimate concerns about the future of Egypt; I just wanted to clarify some misconceptions about the actors involved and the likelihood of certain outcomes.
Furthermore, Israel’s response to recent events unfortunately seems to be an increased reluctance to engage in the peace process with the Palestinians. Israel should surely recalibrate its security needs in light of the changing Egyptian political landscape, and insist that those needs are addressed in any peace accord. But it is short-sighted to believe that Israel can achieve any real security without the establishment of a Palestinian state in the near future. As a former state department official lamented to me last week in discussing Israel’s response to the Egyptian protests, “In the Middle East, you can either drive events, or be driven by them.”
In that regard, I think the best advice to Israel was given by Thomas Friedman on “Meet the Press” this past week, “Israel should really reflect on what's going on in Egypt. It does not want to be the Hosni Mubarak of the peace process. Israel has never been stronger, militarily or economically. This is exactly the time it should be looking to forge and close a peace deal with the Palestinians, not because it's going to change the Arab world, but because it'll be a huge opportunity and stabilizer for that relationship.”