Why Egypt worries Israel

Many Israelis see the uprising as a sign of a dangerous new instability in the Arab world

A nation filled with fear

Photograph by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

By Monday Ephraim Sneh had heard quite enough talk about democracy in Egypt.
“I am not interested in democracy in this region,” the former Israeli deputy minister of defence told a conference room full of dignitaries at the annual security conference in Herzliya, a Mediterranean Sea resort north of Tel Aviv. “Personally I prefer to have stability.”

Sentiments like Sneh’s are easy to find in Israel these days, although the wiry 66-year-old expressed them more bluntly than most. Just look around, he said. Everywhere Israel’s neighbours get the vote, things get worse. Take Gaza, or as Sneh called it, “Hamastan,” after the ruling Hamas party’s 2006 election victory. “Based on a democratic, free election, we are facing now some of the worst terrorists.”

Or consider Lebanon, where a Hezbollah-backed candidate became prime minister in January. “Lebanon is democracy, so-called,” he said. “Lebanon is a constitution without a state. But it’s very democratic. You have an elected president, you have an elected prime minister, you have a speaker of Parliament, you have all these institutions. But the country is losing itself. We call it Hezbollahstan.”

Democracy, Sneh concluded, “is not only voting. If there is democratic process in the Middle East, it will bring, for sure, dictatorships that will make this area like hell.”

It doesn’t take a visitor to Israel long to figure out that the euphoria accompanying most North American coverage of the popular uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt is in short supply here. Sure, everything could work out for the best. Few are inclined to bet that way. There is widespread concern that the people’s revolution in Egypt might stall, or that the regime could fall into the hands of Islamic fundamentalists. Israel’s 30-year “cold peace” with Egypt, the fruit of a 1979 peace treaty between Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat, would be at risk.

Some observers are more than just nervous. There is a bitterness to some Israeli commentary that contrasts starkly with the amazing images from Tahrir Square in Cairo. “From an Israeli perspective, the most depressing and worrying overview of this staggeringly rapid shattering of regional certainties is that it reverses a generation’s momentum,” the Jerusalem Post’s editor David Horovitz wrote in his column. Peace with Egypt in 1979 and Jordan in 1994 could have given Israelis the feeling their country was growing safer in a dangerous neighbourhood, he wrote. “Now, for the first time in more than 30 years, we see the spectre of our gains being rolled back, of the adjacent countries we thought we had grudgingly won over, slipping away again into hostility.”

Officially the Israeli government is saying little about events in Egypt. The only detailed comments so far came from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in the Knesset on Feb. 2. He took note of the elation “in Washington, London, Paris and throughout the democratic world” at the news from Cairo, and was careful to admit it might not be misplaced. “It is obvious that an Egypt that fully embraces the 21st century and that adopts these reforms would be a source of great hope for the entire world, for the region and for us.”

A nation filled with fear

Photograph by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

The optimism didn’t last long. “Far away from Washington, Paris, London—and not so far from Jerusalem—is another capital in which there are hopes,” Netanyahu went on to say. This capital is Tehran. “The Iranian regime… wants an Egypt that returns to the Middle Ages. They want Egypt to become another Gaza, run by radical forces.”

Netanyahu’s pessimism isn’t universal. In the liberal newspaper Haaretz, commentators have been lining up to make fun of it. Columnist Anshel Pfeffer put it this way: “We’re all suffering from Orientalism, not to say racism, if the sight of an entire people throwing off the yoke of tyranny and courageously demanding free elections fills us with fear rather than uplifting us, just because they’re Arabs.”

What about the Muslim Brotherhood, lingering in the shadows around Tahrir Square? “We also have religious fundamentalists in the government,” Pfeffer wrote. “That is the price of a parliamentary democracy.”
Pfeffer was writing from Cairo, where he asked “hundreds of Egyptians” about the peace treaty between their country and his. Almost all favoured maintaining diplomatic relations, he said.

And yet a lot of Israelis remain unpersuaded. On my way to the airport to catch a flight to Jerusalem, I had lunch in Ottawa with a visiting Israeli scholar, Jonathan Fine. An ordained conservative rabbi, Fine lectures on diplomacy and strategy at the Lauder School of Government in Herzliya. He described a Middle East where Israel’s prospects for peace can only go from bad to worse.

“The tragedy and the problem with Egypt that I think your readers have to understand is that, with all the happy feelings about very populistic striving for democracy, there ain’t no democratic force to step in,” he said. “They went from a monarchy with King Farouk, to Gamal Abdel Nasser, which was anything but a democracy, to Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. Now, Sadat and Mubarak were nice guys because they were pro-Western, but they weren’t democratic. And who are the forces that can take over? That’s the $1-million question.”

Fine is pretty sure it’s the Muslim Brotherhood that’s waiting in the wings, and that Western commentators who downplay the Brotherhood’s predilection for violent extremism are misguided. “And of course what happens in Egypt will have a tremendous impact on the Arab world,” he says. “See what’s happening in Yemen. Yemen is already an al-Qaeda playground. Has been in the past 10 years. There’s no strong central authority there. And with all this mess that is going to come up, the rioting and everything, it might be even worse. You’ll find Yemen turning into Somalia Number Two.”

Why so gloomy? Because, Fine said, Israel has tried optimism before and it never works. At the beginning of 1979 there was the peace treaty with Egypt. At the end of that year there was the Islamist revolution in Iran. Like many Israelis, Fine thinks the future will look more like Iran in 1979 than Eastern Europe after the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.

“Four questions will decide the future for our region,” he said. “First of all, how will the war in Afghanistan turn out? Second, what happens when Iran has the [nuclear] bomb? What are the implications? Three, what is the significance of Islamists taking over Lebanon? Four, where’s Turkey going?”

As for the war in Afghanistan, Fine says, “nobody cares about the Afghans. The issue is Pakistan—168 million people, a very heterogeneous, fragile society which the Taliban and al-Qaeda have been trying to rip apart by stirring up a civil war. And nobody would have cared about that, except they have 165 nuclear warheads. What the Taliban and al-Qaeda want to do is take over. You don’t have to be a great expert in arms control to understand what that would imply,” Fine adds.

“Second thing, Iran and the bomb. Would they throw a bomb at Israel the next day? The answer is no. They’re radical but they’re pragmatic. And they know what the reaction would be. Fighting to the last sheik in Lebanon and fighting to the last Palestinian in Gaza is one thing”—Iran is widely believed to have proxy regimes among Hezbollah and Hamas, which fought quick, nasty, losing ?ghts against Israel in 2006 and 2009—”but sacrificing Iran itself is another issue. Why do they want the bomb? As an insurance policy. The revolution is a total flop and the only guarantee that can keep it afloat is the bomb. They’ve got a wonderful example, which you know very well, which is North Korea. They get away with everything. Nobody’s daring to touch them because they have the bomb. That’s exactly what we’re afraid of with Iran.”

As for Lebanon, other powers have tried to control that country before, including Israel and Syria. They soon found they couldn’t. Hezbollah won’t have any more success, Fine said, and in seeking a scapegoat will turn again against Israel. It would be like the 2006 Israel-Hezbollah war, but more violent.

“Turkey? Doesn’t look good,” Fine says. Recep Tayyip Erdogan has seemed an enlightened leader for a large, Muslim democracy. Fine believes that’s just about over. “At the end of the day he has a very, very clear objective of moving eastwards. He’s finished with Europe. The Europeans will never admit Turkey into the union in the next 500 years. And Turkey is becoming very dangerous.”

Many observers believe Israel could reduce all the tension in its violent neighbourhood by reaching a peace with the Palestinian Authority. James Jones, Barack Obama’s former national security adviser, showed up at Herzliya to call a peace settlement “the one thing that, in my personal opinion, drives nearly everything else that threatens us, everything that happens in this region, and has global ramifications if not addressed.”
Tzipi Livni, Israel’s fiery centrist opposition leader, addressed the conference in similar terms. “People in the region look at us with Al Jazeera eyes. They will always see Israel as a tank against a Palestinian child.” A peace accord would put Hamas on the defensive instead of Israel, she said. “I want Hamas to have to decide: are they going to side with Iran and Hezbollah against the majority in the Arab world and against a new Palestinian state?”

A nation filled with fear

Photograph by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images

Conservatives like Fine don’t buy it. “Assume theoretically that tomorrow we would have a full peace agreement with the Palestinian Authority and we would dance with Hamas and the PA in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv,” Fine said. “It would be great. Will this change in any way al-Qaeda and the Taliban’s objectives in Pakistan? No. Would it stop Iran from racing for the bomb? No. Would it stop Hezbollah from taking over Lebanon? No. They are too allied with the Iranians. Would this change Turkey’s strategy? No. So whatever happens between us and the Palestinians, the impact isn’t going to be that great.”

Soon after I arrived in Jerusalem, I caught a Number 18 bus at the Damascus Gate and rode it through an
Israeli military checkpoint into Ramallah in the Palestinian West Bank. At Manara Square, around a fountain decorated with four concrete lions, a listless pro-Egypt demonstration began. The demonstrators, perhaps 300 in number, exclaimed their support for the anti-Mubarak forces in Cairo. Soon a young man climbed onto one of the lions and set fire to an American flag. The crowd cheered and whistled. A U.S. ?ag burning is a welcome addition to just about any political statement in Ramallah.

Just before the demonstration began I visited Sam Bahour, a successful Palestinian-American businessman, at the comfortable Ramallah home he inherited from his grandparents. What was interesting about the demonstration, he said, was that the Palestinian Authority police had shut one just like it down only days earlier. The same thing happened in Gaza: Hamas cut a pro-Egyptian democracy protest short. They were finally letting sympathy demonstrations go ahead, on a modest scale, because the strangeness of suppressing them was getting noticed.

“The Palestinian Authority seems to be very hesitant to allow any expression of non-support of Mubarak,” Bahour said. “Which is rather interesting, because it’s a complete mismatch with the mood of the city.” But this is one of the strange ways the Egypt ball may bounce. Ordinary Egyptians have concluded they can no longer stand the way the regime treats them. The sympathy of Palestinians is a danger for the Palestinian regime at least as much as for the Israelis. “People are seeing that the regime that is being created in the West Bank is not much different from the Mubarak regime that’s being kicked out [in Egypt],” Bahour added.
Like Jim Jones and Tzipi Livni, and unlike much of the Israeli security establishment, Bahour believes Israel could improve its chances of living in peace with its neighbours if it reached a durable peace with the

Palestinians. “I’m a business planner. I do business plans. If Israel was given to me today as a business plan, my recommendation would be that it’s an infeasible project. You cannot continue to act as though you don’t belong in the region that you exist in. When they built that wall [between Israeli and Palestinian populations in the West Bank], they became, on the other side of it, imprisoned just as much as us.”

Quietly, some Israeli government officials say there’s real reason to see hope in what’s happening in Cairo. They note that when millions of Egyptians took to the streets, they weren’t bothering to complain about Israel because they had more immediate concerns. Maybe, once free, the region’s populations will learn they have more in common than they ever believed. It will be excellent if that happens. A lot of Israelis aren’t holding their breath.