- Israelis are naturally sympathetic to grassroots movements for freedom and democracy in the Arab world. At the same time there is a fear that forces opposed to peace will be the beneficiaries.
- The departure of Mubarak ushers in a period of change in Egypt, rather than the culmination of a revolution. The outcome of this process is of major significance for Israel, since: peace with Egypt has been a cornerstone of Israeli security, and in recent years Egypt has helped to contain Iranian influence.
- It is not yet possible to tell whether the wider regional unrest will ultimately strengthen moderate or radical forces, but the uncertainty is likely to breed caution among Israeli policy makers.
- The instability in the region will bolster the case that any future peace agreement with the Palestinians will have to be premised on security arrangements which allow Israel to defend itself in an increasingly uncertain environment.
Introduction: Is democracy in Egypt good for Israel?
The changes in Egypt have very significant implications for Israel. The 1979 peace treaty with Egypt was the first step in the Middle East peace process. The removal of the powerful Egyptian armed forces from the circle of conflict between Israel and the Arab world turned the Arab-Israeli conflict, from the Israeli point of view, from an existential conflict into a manageable dispute. More recently, Egypt has been an important member of a loose alliance of pro-Western states in the region seeking to contain Iranian influence.
Simplistic depictions of Israeli responses to the events in Egypt have sought to portray Israel as an opponent of greater democracy in Egypt, and a backer of dictatorship. The truth, however, is more complex. As residents of a Middle East based democracy, Israelis have a natural interest in the extension of democratic rights and freedoms to other regional states. The Mubarak regime, while maintaining peace with Israel, tolerated a climate of widespread hostility to Israel in official and government-controlled media as well as in civil society.
But whilst many Israelis, like other residents of liberal democracies, are naturally warmed by the sight of people standing up for their freedoms, many are concerned that democracy will not bring forth liberal governments, but radical ones. The rise to power of Hamas in Gaza on the back of an open election in the Palestinian Territories is the case that Israelis do not want to see repeated. Israelis are also concerned that the instability might create opportunities for extremists in the short term.
Egypt’s uncertain future
What has happened in Egypt is not yet a democratic revolution. The regime in power in Egypt was not a Mubarak family dictatorship. Rather, it was, and remains, in many respects a military regime created by the Egyptian Free Officers in 1952. Mubarak may have been forced to resign, but Egypt is still dominated by the military elite and is now led by a septuagenarian general, Defence Minister Mohammed Hussein Tantawi. Even prior to the public demonstrations the army was opposed to efforts by Hosni Mubarak to prepare the way for an accession by his son, Gamal. This possibility has now been removed.
The military leaders now have the difficult task of moving Egypt towards a more representative government. The next stage is expected to be the formation of a transitional government, which must decide on the date for new elections and for constitutional reform. However, it is not clear how this will play out in practice.
Egypt has been governed under emergency laws since the assassination of President Anwar Sadat in 1981. The army also holds immense power over the Egyptian economy and the existing system highly benefits the military caste. One of the key factors underlying the unrest was the failure of the regime to develop the economy to the benefit of the population. This tension between the vested interests of the military elite and the demand for change of the protestors will remain as the various political and social forces act to shape the future of the country.The departure of Mubarak, therefore, represents the ushering in of an uncertain period of transition and reform in Egypt, rather than the culmination of a process of change.
Change in Cairo and Israeli security
Prime Minister Netanyahu was quick to welcome the statement of Tantawi, that Egypt’s international commitments, including its treaty with Israel, will be maintained. Few in Israel predict the nightmare scenario of a swift abrogation of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel. Egypt remains dependent on US aid to keep its economy afloat and to sustain its military. This factor in itself makes the maintenance of at least a formal peace probable.
However, real concerns remain. Egypt has served as a key player in efforts to combat the Iranian attempt to build power and influence across the region. Egypt also worked with Israel to contain the influence and spoiling power of Hamas, and promote the peace process between Israel and the Palestinian Authority led by Mahmoud Abbas. Whatever the eventual outcome of events in Egypt, it is likely that the pressure of domestic, social and economic issues will affect its ability to maintain its intense involvement in regional and Arab affairs.
Of immediate concern in Israel is that the period of transition could see a relaxation of security arrangements in the Sinai. Egypt has until now worked with Israel to counter terrorist activity and prevent Hamas from smuggling weapons into Gaza. Since the recent unrest there have already been reports of increased arms smuggling. Israel also fears for the security of its gas supplies from Egypt which pass through the Sinai.
The longer term fear is that the drive for democracy in Egypt will open the way for Islamists to become the dominant political force. Whilst the development of a stable functioning democracy is the desired outcome, it is by no means a certainty. Former Israeli Foreign Ministry Director-General, Professor Shlomo Avineri, writing in Haaretz, expressed a widespread concern when he noted that history is replete with examples of the toppling of despotic regimes, which have not in the end ushered in more representative replacements.
Though it is currently not possible to predict what a future regime in Egypt might look like, Israeli analysts and officials are wondering whether an Egypt in which the Muslim Brotherhood plays a prominent political role would more closely resemble Turkey under the AKP, or Iran. Either scenario would create new strategic challenges for Israel. Israel is deeply unpopular among the Egyptian public, a situation augmented by widespread antisemitism and anti-Israel propaganda in the media. In this context, there is a high risk that secular parties will adopt hostile rhetoric towards Israel in a bid to win popular legitimacy. For example, on Sunday 13 February, Dr Ayman Nur, a secular presidential hopeful, told Egyptian radio that the ‘Camp David accord is over’ and should be renegotiated.
Israel’s security policies have been built for thirty years on the basis of the peace agreement with Egypt. Peace with Egypt, and Jordan, allowed Israel to reduce its military spending and improve its economy. If the status of this agreement becomes in doubt it will force Israel to reevaluate its entire defence strategy.
Israel’s concerns at the wider regional implications
The events in Cairo, and those in Tunisia that preceded them, have made the Middle East a more uncertain and unpredictable place. It is not yet possible to know whether the long term outcome will be better or worse than the status quo for Israel, but there is considerable concern.
Protests are intensifying in Algeria, Yemen and Bahrain. In Jordan, a new Cabinet has been named, after King Abdullah II sacked former prime minister Samir Refai in response to popular discontent. Events in Egypt have also had a direct impact on Palestinian politics. The decision by the Palestinian Authority to reshuffle the cabinet, and call for elections in September, reflects a presumed need by the PA to reassert its own legitimacy. The chances of the Palestinian leadership dropping their preconditions on entering direct talks with Israel seem more remote than ever.
The concern in Israel is that unrest in Arab states may lead to the creation of regimes that are more hostile to Israel and Western influence in the region, and more susceptible to the influence of Iran and its allies. Iran has proven itself adept at projecting its influence into weak or unstable areas, including Gaza, Lebanon, Iraq and Afghanistan. A further concern is that the unrest in the region might distract international attention from pressuring Iran over its nuclear programme, or lead Iran to think it has more leeway in this area.
On the other hand, the wave of public protests need not only strengthen Islamist and anti-Western forces in the region. Protests against the government in Iran have been reinvigorated by events in Egypt. This has forced the regime to arrest opposition leaders, and triggered clashes between protestors and security forces. Hamas in Gaza could also find themselves under greater pressure to allow the holding of new elections, something they have rejected until now. It has also been argued that the apparent success of peaceful protests in the region undermines the case for violent militancy in the region. Israeli strategists, however, cannot assume that the overall change will be positive, at least in the short run.
Conclusions: Uncertainty likely to breed caution
Some in the international community are calling for swift progress on the peace process in the current climate, in the belief that this will help the cause of moderates in the region. Whilst the principle of the two-state solution is likely to retain majority support in Israel, there is an even greater awareness than before of the dangers involved. Israel’s territorial withdrawals from south Lebanon in 2000 and Gaza in 2005 brought violent Islamists to Israel’s borders. Now the future of Israel’s relations with other regional allies is uncertain, a situation that is likely to breed caution.
The strongest case against withdrawing from the West Bank before this wave of regional unrest was that it could fall into the hands of radicals opposed to peace with Israel. That fear is stronger now. Some in Israel are making the case that now more than ever Israel needs to secure its legitimacy in the region through the peace process. However, all recognise that any agreement must be premised on security arrangements which allow Israel to defend itself in an increasingly uncertain environment.