Known unknowns: Israel and a region in flux
February 16, 2011
We know events in Egypt will affect Israeli-Palestinian relations, but we do not yet know in what way; we can only speculate. This requires caution, but is nevertheless a useful exercise if we wish to prepare ourselves for possible events to come.
To begin on a positive note: If Egypt, the Arab world’s most populous and powerful country, succeeds in democratizing gradually and with moderation, it could in the long term play a dominant role in regional peace-making and in countering, alongside Israel, militant Islamist influence.
Yet we must address more likely, and largely negative, scenarios.
First, and most obviously, Egypt in the near future will probably be very busy with its own internal affairs. The last few years of rule under the aging and ailing Hosni Mubarak were characterized by the waning of Cairo’s regional influence. This state of affairs is now likely to be amplified, regardless of who rules the country. This means less Egyptian input into the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, into Fatah-Hamas reconciliation, and the like. Who, if anyone, will fill the gap is not at all clear.
As a corollary of this weakening of regional leadership, we are already witnessing a decline in Egypt’s security control over northern Sinai. The Feb. 5 gas explosion at a Sinai terminal and the Egyptian army’s request that Israel permit it to deploy additional troops in Sinai (a permission required under the two countries’ peace treaty) reflect the escalation, under the shadow of the unrest throughout the country, of ongoing hostility on the part of the Sinai Bedouin toward central authority. This could have important and negative ramifications for the amazingly porous Sinai-Gaza border, posing the specter of increased anti-Israel violence and lawlessness emanating both from the Strip and from Egyptian Sinai. We don’t normally think of Egypt as a country beset by regional and ethnic separatism, in the category of Sudan or Iraq. But Sinai — northern Sinai in particular — is populated by Bedouins and, in the Rafah area, Palestinians, who do not think of themselves as Egyptians.
Apropos Gaza and its Hamas rulers, to the extent Egypt’s Islamists succeed in establishing even a foothold in the government in Cairo, Egypt’s relationship with Hamas could be upgraded. Hamas, after all, is an offshoot of the Muslim Brotherhood. This, in turn, could affect the standing of the West Bank-based PLO, to say nothing of the overall regional balance of power. Any enhancement of political Islam in Egypt could affect Jordan as well, thereby further isolating the Palestinian secular leadership in Ramallah.
In this respect, an absolute worst-case scenario (from Israel’s standpoint) would be for an extremist Egyptian government to cancel the peace treaty. That could plunge the region into a crisis that could divert everyone’s attention away from Israeli-Palestinian relations, the peace process, and the occupation. That is not likely to happen. But even a scenario in which Egypt becomes less accommodating toward Israel at the strategic level is generating serious strategic rethinking among Israelis.
Sadly, no one in Israel seems to be changing his mind: Israel’s hawks are becoming more hawkish and its doves more dovish, particularly on the Palestinian issue. We already hear the advocates of a forward-looking peace process, including President Shimon Peres, advising that Israel would be far more capable of dealing with regional shockwaves if it could present the prospect of peace with its neighbors.
In response, those who never really wanted a Palestinian state next door in the first place explain that events in Egypt require Israel to hold onto its territorial assets and avoid risk-taking, given the instability of its neighbors. This camp, led by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, also seeks to explain to the United States and Europe that Israel is now, more than ever, their most stable and valuable friend in the region, and that the events in Egypt illustrate that the region’s most fundamental problems have nothing to do with Israel’s existence and the Palestinian conflict.
Right now, Netanyahu can congratulate himself that the West’s preoccupation with Egypt takes the peace process heat off Israel. Yet as a result of events in Egypt, he has a whole series of immediate weighty consequences to deal with. These begin, today, with fuel and border security. Where they end, no one knows.