Over a quarter-century Israel fought Egypt in the 1948 Independence War, the 1956 Sinai War, the 1967 Six-Day War, the 1967-1970 War of Attrition, and the 1973 Yom Kippur War. Since then, for 37 years, Israel and Egypt have not fought. This may have been made possible mainly by the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian Peace Treaty; or it may be that Egypt, deterred by having lost the wars and desiring realignment with the West, would have kept the peace in any case.
Given the stark difference between the 1948-1973 epoch and the 1973-2011 epoch, Israel has reacted to the current crisis in Egypt without foolishness—heard elsewhere in the West—about the supposed moderation of the Muslim Brotherhood or its ally Mohammed ElBaradei. Israelis are alarmed across the political spectrum.
Left-of-center Haaretz columnist Aluf Benn writes that “Barack Obama will be remembered as the president who ‘lost’ Egypt…. If [a superpower] abandons its allies the moment they flounder, who would trust it tomorrow?” Another left-of-center Haaretz columnist, Ari Shavit, writes harshly that “Obama’s betrayal of Hosni Mubarak is not just the betrayal of a moderate Egyptian president who remained loyal to the United States…. Everyone grasps the message: America’s word is worthless; an alliance with America is unreliable; America has lost it.”
And President Shimon Peres, who not long ago believed in “the New Middle East” and was a central figure in Israel’s dovish turn, said that “We still have great respect for Mubarak. Not everything he did was right, but he worked to keep peace in the Middle East.” And regarding possible developments in Egypt: “A fanatic religious oligarchy is not better than lack of democracy.”
Israelis know that Mubarak’s “peace” (since 1981, when he took over from his assassinated predecessor Anwar Sadat) was cold, that Egypt continued treating Israel as an enemy in international forums, and that its society remained intensely anti-Israeli and anti-Semitic. At the time the crisis broke out last week, there appear to have been only a few hundred Israeli tourists—out of an Israeli population of seven million—in neighboring, officially “friendly” Egypt.
But Israelis also know that, in addition to keeping the guns quiet, Egypt in recent years has acted as a tacit ally against the radical Middle Eastern axis of Iran, Syria, Hezbollah, and Hamas. Israeli intelligence helped Egypt quash a dangerous Hezbollah espionage ring in 2009. Egypt has reportedly been doing a lot more to stop the smuggling of weapons to Hamas in Gaza.
Israel is right, then, to urge the U.S. and other countries to stop pressuring Mubarak and appreciate the relative moderation of his regime—compared to much worse alternatives. Still, for Israel, the crisis can only have a deeply sobering effect.
It was with the advent of formal Israeli-Egyptian peace that the term “Arab-Israeli conflict” came to be replaced by the term “peace process.” The tripartite signing of the treaty by the Israeli, Egyptian, and American heads of government was seen by many in the West—and particularly in Israel—as having near-messianic significance. The quest for similar consummations with the Palestinians and Syria—supposed to lead to Israel’s ultimate acceptance by the Middle East—became a tremendous political and academic obsession and industry.
In recent years it has been much harder for Israelis to sustain such visions. The “process” with the Palestinians has led to deadlock at best and terror at worst. Another former regional ally, Turkey, has turned openly hostile under Islamist rule, while Lebanon sinks further into Hezbollah’s grip. The specter of Egypt becoming, again, a frontline country—necessitating a huge and costly reorientation of Israel’s military deployment—haunts Israelis who understand that the only strong, organized force among the regime’s opponents, whatever crowds may be roiling in the streets of Cairo, Suez, and Alexandria, are the Islamists.
But the instability of the region, the fragility of “peace” as a goal, has implications beyond Israel. As Aluf Benn wrote on Monday in a follow-up article:
When Obama and his advisers look at a map of the region, they see only one state they can count on: Israel. The regime is stable, and support for America is well-entrenched. Obama may dislike Netanyahu and his policy toward the Palestinians, but after losing his allies in Turkey, Lebanon and Egypt, and with the uneasiness gripping his friends in Jordan and the Gulf, Washington can’t afford to be choosy.
Egypt may not be lost yet. If it is, Israel will stand as the one strong horse in the region aligned with the West against the radicals.