By Alan Schneider
Director, B’nai B’rith World Center, Jerusalem
Like Fidel Castro for Americans, predicting the political or physical demise of Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak has been a pastime of Israelis for years, particularly after speculation about the 82-year-old’s questionable health and medical treatments abroad became public and the unmistakable efforts to identify his son Gamal as heir-apparent came into view.
So long as Mubarak—loyal vice-president to Anwar Sadat when the latter was assassinated by Islamic extremists in retribution for signing a peace treaty with Israel—was in power, Israelis could reasonably assume that military hostilities between the countries would not break out. Although the Camp David Accords envisioned much more than the non-belligerency that ensued (benevolently described by some as a “cold peace” or by less-kind others as Cold War) over the past 32 years, the vast majority of Israelis viewed their government’s concessions—including the complete withdrawal from the Sinai peninsula, the resultant destruction of Yamit and 15 other Israeli settlements and the loss of strategic depth that these provided—as well worth the price.
While speculation is still rife about who is actually behind the ongoing violence in Tahrir Square now that Mubarak has pledged not to seek re-election and his newly appointed deputy, Omar Suleiman, has vowed that neither will Gamal, no one can predict how the dust will actually settle and Israelis are bracing for the worst. The dangers of the current situation—too close for comfort to the onset of Iran’s1979 Islamic Revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini (who coincidentally returned to Iran exactly 32 years ago this week) and the genocidal Iranian President Ahmadinejad to power—is not lost on any Israeli observer.
Despite the contention of Mohamed ElBaradei, one of the leaders of the opposition to Mubarak, that the Muslim Brotherhood is not an extremist organization and would command only 20 percent of the votes in a democratic election, the specter that the Brotherhood would sooner or later wrestle control away from any other opposition forces seems realistic, since it is the largest and most well organized opposition group in Egypt today.
Mohammed Badi, elected last year as the Supreme Leader of the Muslim Brotherhood, made his position very clear last April, saying that the Camp David Accords are “a failed agreement” and that “it lost all of its conditions. It does not fit Islamic law and does not serve the interests of the Islamic people. This agreement brought only corruption and tragedy. Thirty-one years after the Camp David Accords were signed, the espionage wars against us never ceased. The Palestinian lands were not returned. Instead, we are witness to the destruction of Palestinian homes, building of settlements and the Judaization of Jerusalem. The reason I demand the abrogation of the accord is because the Zionists have emptied it of meaning through continuous war, vicious aggression against Gaza and killing of leaders of the Palestinian resistance movements.”
Journalist Yossi Klein Halevi hit the right chord when he wrote: “[T]he grim assumption is that it is just a matter of time before the only real opposition group in Egypt, the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood, takes power. Israelis fear that Egypt will go the way of Iran or Turkey, with Islamists gaining control through violence or gradual co-optation. Either result would be the end of Israel’s most important relationship in the Arab world. The Muslim Brotherhood has long stated its opposition to peace with Israel and has pledged to revoke the 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty if it comes into power. Given the strengthening of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas’s control of Gaza and the unraveling of the Turkish-Israeli alliance, an Islamist Egypt could produce the ultimate Israeli nightmare: living in a country surrounded by Iran’s allies or proxies” (“Israel, Alone Again,” New York Times Feb. 2, 2011).
If, indeed, the ascension of the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood to Egyptian leadership would lead to the abrogation of the treaty and the infusion of Egyptian troops into Sinai, something proscribed by the accord, Israelis would not only be concerned about the outbreak of war, but would most surely permanently shelve proposals for further territorial concessions to the Palestinians, Syrians or any other party in the future.
In essence, this would mean the end of the peace process and the necessary transformation of Israel into a virtual fortress state forced to protect herself on all borders and with no reasonable hope for normalization in the foreseeable future.
A takeover by the Muslim Brotherhood would also force major changes upon the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). Due to the peace with Egypt and Jordan as well as the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Iraq, the IDF has spent the last decade focused on fighting Palestinian terrorism, countering Hezbollah in Lebanon and preparing for potential wars with Syria and Iran. These scenarios did not envision the IDF fighting simultaneously on more than one front and Israel’s military buildup was performed accordingly. Regime change in Egypt—and if, as predicted by some, it occurs in Jordan as well—will pose an unprecedented challenge for the IDF: to protect an Israel surrounded by radical regimes.
Halevi also observed that “Israelis want to rejoice over the outbreak of protests in Egypt’s city squares. They want to believe that this is the Arab world’s ‘1989’ moment. Perhaps, they say, the poisonous reflex of blaming the Jewish state for the Middle East’s ills will be replaced by an honest self-assessment. But few Israelis really believe in that hopeful outcome.” Unfortunately, this prediction was confirmed on Thursday by Palestinian Authority Prime Minister Salam Fayyad who blamed the recent turmoil in Egypt and a number of Muslim countries on “frustration and desperation” with the failure of efforts to solve the Palestinian issue, alongside the domestic situation in those countries. Syria’s President Bashar al-Assad also seems to think that he can continue to use the Israel card to continue to abuse the Syrian people and maintain the constraining state of emergency that has been in force since 1963, saying this week that he fears no Egyptian-style upheaval because he, unlike Mubarak, has been “resisting Israel.”
Journalist Amotz Asa-El argued that Mubarak’s downfall actually started in 1989 when he failed to respond to geo-political changes in Eastern Europe (“It Started in 1989,” Jerusalem Post Magazine Feb. 4). “Back then he remained unperturbed the morning after the fall of the Berlin Wall and even after the violent removal of his friend Nicolae Ceausescu in live broadcast. The entire world understood that freedom was marching globally. Not only the East Bloc, but also Latin American soon shed despotism, and much of sub-Saharan Africa was also parting with its dictatorial post. History, therefore, begged an Arab choice, and more than anyone else’s the choice was to be Mubarak’s, as the leader of the largest and strongest Arab nation. Mubarak didn’t flinch. He chose despotism, running repeatedly in fake elections, muzzling opponents, distributing political booty, controlling the media and abandoning the masses to the destitution that the whole world has now finally come to discuss. And what Mubarak chose, the rest of the Arabs followed. That is how the Arab world emerged from the Cold War as the entire world’s political black hole.”
One pertinent question for Israelis is whether copycat Intifada-style violence could erupt in the disputed territories and east Jerusalem. In a precautionary measure, Israeli authorities just announced that only Muslim males over the age of 50 and holders of Israeli identity cards would be allowed to attend Friday prayers on Temple Mount in Jerusalem which in the past has been a hotbed for Muslim unrest in the city. Although Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyadsaid that the Authority does not feel threatened by demands of democracy and reforms in the Arab world, the PA announced a ban on demonstrations in the West Bank in support of the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia. The ban was reportedly instituted after several hundred Palestinians staged a protest against Mubarak in Ramallah, while hundreds of Palestinians marched in the streets of Gaza in protest against Mubarak and in solidarity with the Egyptian uprising.
What is seen by some as the abandonment of Mubarak by the United States has come in for heavy criticism in Israeli policy circles. Barry Rubin, director of the Global Research in International Affairs (GLORIA) Center of the Interdisciplinary Center (IDC) in Herzliya, Israel, determined in a Jan. 31 Jerusalem Post article that “[I]f the regime does what Obama wants it to do, it will fall. And what is going to replace it? And by his lack of support—his language goes further than it might have done—the president is demoralizing an ally. And it is all very well to believe idealistically that even if Egyptians are longing to be free, one has to define what ‘free’ means to them. Also, the ruler who emerges is likely to be from the best organized, disciplined group. People in Russia in 1917 were yearning to be free also and they got the Bolsheviks. In Iran, where people are yearning to be free, the Obama administration did nothing. No matter what the United States says or does at this point, it is not going to reap the gratitude of millions of Egyptians as a liberator. For the new anti-regime leaders will blame America for its past support of Mubarak, opposition to Islamism, backing of Israel, cultural influence, incidents of alleged imperialism, and for not being Muslim…Without the confidence to resist this upheaval, the Egyptian system could collapse, leaving a vacuum that is not going to be filled by friendly leaders. That is potentially disastrous for the United States and the Middle East. There will be many who will say that an anti-American Islamist government allied with Iran and ready to restart war with Israel ‘cannot’ emerge. That’s a pretty big risk to take on the word of those who have been so often wrong in the past.”
Ultimately, it will be the responsibility of Prime Minister Netanyahu and his cabinet to decide how Israel will respond to the unexpected violent end of the Mubarak era.
Speaking Feb. 2 to the Knesset, Netanyahu argued for a reality check, pitting the scenario that seems to be favored by President Obama and other western leaders—of a transition into democratic government that will lead to stronger foundations of peace—against a sinister scenario promoted by Teheran: “The Iranian regime is not interested in seeing an Egypt that protects the rights of individuals, women and minorities. They are not interested in enlightened Egypt that embraces the 21st century. They want an Egypt that returns to the Middle Ages. They want Egypt to become another Gaza, run by radical forces that oppose everything that the democratic world stands for.” Alluding to a concern here that Western government might recognize a new Egyptian government that reneges on the Camp David Accords, Netanyahu added that “We expect any government of Egypt to honor the peace. Moreover, we expect the international community to expect any government of Egypt to honor the peace. This must be clear, along with the discussions about reform and democracy.”
The coming days, and perhaps hours, will determine the outcome of these developments, all fraught with dangers for the State of Israel.