The strategic situation for Israel turned 180 degrees in 2011, while the full impact of the rise of Arab dignity has not yet been felt, writes Ayman El-Amir.
As if the downfall of former Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak and its implications for the relationship with Israel were not enough, Israel has now to grapple with another challenge — the reconciliation between Palestinian Fatah and Hamas. Of all the revolutionary change currently sweeping the Arab world, the Egyptian people’s revolution of 25 January has stirred deep concerns in Israel. The overarching worry is that Israel can no longer count on the continuation of the status quo guaranteed by the Mubarak regime.
Under Mubarak’s submissive policy, Israel has expropriated and settled 40 per cent of Palestinian territory, killed thousands of Palestinians in Gaza, laid siege to and starved the Strip and bombed the Egyptian border on claims of destroying Palestinian-dug tunnels. In return, it expected and received little more than tepid bleating from Mubarak and his representatives. All this is bound to change.
In a matter of two months, Egypt has sent a number of worrying signals to Israel. Egypt does not accept the inhuman Israeli siege of Gaza and will soon reopen the Rafah Crossing permanently. A reconciliation agreement between Fatah and Hamas has been signed, which will pave the way for the establishment of a government of national unity and agreement on the modalities of Palestinian national elections.
A number of European countries, including France, Germany and Russia, have indicated preparedness to do business with a Palestinian government backed by Fatah and Hamas, which is an anathema for Israel that considers Hamas a “terrorist” organisation. Egypt is broaching the idea of an international conference on the settlement of the Palestinian problem, which is welcome neither to Israel nor to the United States. The Palestinian Authority has recently brandished the possibility of declaring a Palestinian state, much to the chagrin of Israel.
Some critical issues that had been taboo under the Mubarak regime include mounting pressure on Israel to declare its weapons of mass destruction and to join the Nuclear Non- Proliferation Treaty (NPT), the Egyptian-Israeli natural gas agreement which has come under severe criticism on charges of cronyism favouring Israel, and compensation for Egyptian prisoners of war who were killed by Israel in the 1967 war. To top it all, Egypt has declared that Iran is not an enemy state and that it looks forward to the resumption of diplomatic relations with Tehran at an appropriate time.
This train of developments should not have come as a surprise to Israel. For more than two decades since the brutal Israeli crackdown on the second Intifada the Egyptian public has resented Israeli killer policy against the Palestinians and the confiscation of their land for settlement expansion. The natural gas agreement enraged Egyptians who considered it a rip-off of Egyptian natural resources, favouring Israel and enriching one of Mubarak’s cronies, Hussein Salem.
After more than 30 years of the Egyptian-Israeli Peace Treaty, Egyptians still resist any form of normalisation of relations and anti- Israeli demonstrations are regularly organised in Cairo. A recent public opinion poll indicated that 54 per cent of Egyptians wanted the peace treaty abrogated. Regardless of the agreement, to the average Egyptian, Israel is not a friendly state but remains a hostile foe.
The overthrow of Mubarak unmasked his lopsided concept of national security. It rested on fostering a strong relationship with the US that depended on Israeli approval of his Middle East policies, particularly with regards to the Palestinians. He knew that the way to the heart of Washington passed through Tel Aviv and he behaved accordingly. If Israel saw Hamas as a terrorist organisation, so did he. He treated Hamas as a necessary evil, forgave Israel for its murderous campaigns against the Palestinians, and calmly played down incidents of Israel shooting Egyptian policemen in Sinai. He embraced Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas who vowed to pre-empt any act of military resistance against Israel. He joined a pack of moderates consisting of Egypt, Jordan and Saudi Arabia who espoused Israeli-driven US policy in the Middle East.
As a reward, Israel and the US turned a blind eye to Mubarak’s autocratic rule, violent suppression of the opposition and institutional corruption at home. It was no surprise that Israeli leaders heaped praise on Mubarak and his policy, and no coincidence that at the initial stage of the Egyptian people’s revolution, Israel pleaded with the US to side with Mubarak against the protesters.
In a policy reversal, the new Egyptian foreign minister, Nabil El-Arabi, called the Mubarak government’s attitude towards the siege of Gaza “shameful”. The reopening of the Rafah Crossing will be the first step in restoring balance in the relationship with Israel and to remedy the injustice the Mubarak regime inflicted on the Palestinians.
Egypt would be expected to take a firm position on the expansion of Israeli settlements in the Palestinian territories, including Jerusalem, and an active role in supporting a Palestinian government of national unity in Gaza and the West Bank. While Israel has thwarted peace negotiations, Egypt should work towards convening an international conference on the question of Palestine ultimately leading to mobilising support for the proclamation of a Palestinian state. In the new order of relations, Egypt should find ample space for differences of opinion and policy with both Israel and the US.
Nothing is more worrisome to Israel than marked improvement in Egyptian-Iranian relations. Israel has increasingly agitated for the isolation and even bombing of Iran on suspicion of the latter’s development of a nuclear weapons capability. However, Israel is more worried that the rising regional profile of Iran and its advanced weaponry arsenal would undercut Israel’s regional supremacy. Israel is worried stiff by the sense that, at one point, it may not be able to threaten everyone in the region into submission by its superior military power.
However, Egypt will have to hedge its bets by maintaining a delicate balance between improved relations with Iran and its pledge that the security of the Gulf Arab region is an integral part of Egypt’s security. The wiser course of action for Egypt is to play a catalyst role in building bridges between the Gulf states and Iran, particularly after the rise of tension between the two sides following the bloody events in Bahrain in March-April.
With the Arab world undergoing radical change, Israel will be increasingly seen as the archenemy. Binyamin Netanyahu’s extreme rightwing government has failed to persuade any Arab or Palestinian that it really means peace, primarily because of the policy of settlement expansion. Egypt as the major Arab state will maintain its peace treaty with Israel, but it will be a dead peace. It has a good deal of political, diplomatic, economic and cultural ammunition available to it. Israel has nothing to use but US pressure and military power.
By time the US will discover the limits of its capacity to twist the arm of the Arab world to yield to unjust and illegal Israeli ambitions. Should the Gulf Arab States, with the help of Egypt, overcome the fabricated illusion of Shia-Sunni confrontation and mend relations with Iran, the strategic direction of the Middle East will fundamentally change. This hinges on how relations between Egypt and Iran develop, how the Gulf Arab States choose to handle the Shia-Sunni issue, and what will be the next war Israel chooses to provoke in the region.
* The writer is former Al-Ahram correspondent in Washington DC.
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