At Large

Why Israel Worries About a Post-Mubarak Egypt

Thirty-three years of cold peace was better than four wars over a quarter century.

By 2.2.11

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No country finds itself at greater unease with the developments in Egypt than Israel, and for good reason.

It isn't that Israel opposes the genuine democratic aspirations of the Egyptian people. If a new government in a post-Mubarak Egypt clearly stated it planned to maintain peaceful relations with the Jewish State, there would be no problem. But when Israel purportedly gave its blessing for the Egyptian military to mobilize in Sinai, you know it's very worried. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called these developments a "tremendous threat."

Let us not forget that there was a time not so long ago when Egypt was Israel's arch enemy. In Israel's first quarter century as a state it fought four wars with Egypt. The sight of Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat shaking hands along with Jimmy Carter was surely as inconceivable as the fall of the Berlin Wall. Egypt would be expelled from the Arab League for its rapprochement with Israel and Sadat would pay for peace with his life. Who in 1978 could have imagined that Israel and Egypt would be at peace with each other longer than they had been adversaries?

Now I certainly don't want to convey the impression Israel and Egypt are bosom buddies -- far from it. When I visited Israel during the summer of 1988, Egypt was a frequent topic of discussion as the tenth anniversary of Begin and Sadat's handshake was forthcoming. The consensus was, "Israel and Egypt are at peace. But it's a cold peace."

Over the years, the Mubarak regime has tolerated anti-Semitic sentiment as when Egyptian state television broadcast a 41-part mini-series on The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion throughout Egypt and the Arab world in 2002. In May 2008, Farouk Hosny, who has served as Egypt's Minister of Culture since 1987, said he "would burn Israeli books in Egyptian libraries." These comments would later cost Hosni his opportunity to become Director-General of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). When Hosny came up short in his bid he blamed his loss on "a group of the world's Jews." Earlier this month, Abdallah Al-Ash'al, a former Egyptian Deputy Foreign Minister, blamed Mossad for inciting December's Alexandria church bombing.

 Yet for all the public hostility in Egypt towards the Jewish State and Jews in general, Mubarak has steadfastly maintained peace with Israel. Indeed, the two nations have common security interests. While much of the world was busy condemning Israel for its blockade of Gaza, Egypt was also blockading the Hamas run territory. It may be a cold peace but it's still peace.

Now there is no denying that Hosni Mubarak has governed Egypt in an autocratic, dictatorial manner and has only himself to blame for the current state of affairs. Yet for all his faults and shortcomings, Mubarak is the devil Israel (and for that matter the United States) knows. Of course, Mubarak is 82 years old and will not stay in power forever. But there is every reason to believe that if Mubarak loses his grip on power it will not bode well for Israel.

It appears that both secular and Muslim opposition forces are coalescing around Mohammed ElBaradei, the former head of the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). In his capacity with the IAEA, ElBaradei became known for his kid glove treatment of Iran. In fact, in a joint press conference with Iran's then Atomic Energy Agency chief Ali Akbar Salehi (who is now Foreign Minister) in October 2009, ElBaradei said, "Israel is the number one threat to the Middle East." In April 2010, ElBaradei expressed his support for "Palestinian resistance." This is nothing more than parlance for acts of terrorism.

Of course, there are the likes of Stephen Walt, the noted anti-Israel academic, who naturally downplays the adverse consequences of a sudden change of government in Egypt for Israel:

For starters, a post-Mubarak government is unlikely to tear up the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty, because such a move would put it immediately at odds with the United States and Europe and bring Cairo few tangible benefits. Although ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians, the primary concern of those now marching in the streets is domestic affairs, not foreign policy.

I am not sure what makes Walt think a post-Mubarak Egypt, especially one where the Muslim Brotherhood plays a role, will give a damn about what the Obama Administration or the EU might think of its actions any more than Iran does. Besides, what happens if a new regime in Egypt, whether led by ElBaradei or someone else, cannot redress the primary concerns of those now marching in the streets any better than Mubarak?  By Walt's own admission, ordinary Egyptians do feel strong sympathy for the Palestinians. Should a new Egyptian government be unable to address the domestic concerns of it populace, what card is it likely to play? Well, Muhammad Ghannem, a leading spokesperson for the Muslim Brotherhood in the U.K., says the people of Egypt "should be prepared for war against Israel."

This, of course, would be Israel's worst nightmare. Now some might argue that Egypt is no match for Israel militarily. But Israelis are more likely to remember the IDF being unable to defeat Hezbollah in Lebanon less than five years ago than they are to remember the triumph of the Six Day War. The prospect of another war with Egypt is complicated considerably by a regime in Iran (along with its surrogates in Syria and Lebanon) bent on Israel's annihilation. And what if the kind of protests we're seeing in Egypt spread to Jordan in any meaningful way? The Muslim world could very well do to Israel what it was unable to do in 1967.

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About the Author
Aaron Goldstein writes from Boston, Massachusetts.