Feb 15th 2011

The Egyptian Uprising: the Lessons for Israel

by Alon Ben-Meir

A noted journalist and author, Dr. Alon Ben-Meir is professor of international relations and Middle East studies at the Center for Global Affairs at New York University. Ben-Meir holds a masters degree in philosophy and a doctorate in international relations from Oxford University. His exceptional knowledge and insight, the result of more than 20 years of direct involvement in foreign affairs, with a focus on the Middle East, has allowed Dr. Ben-Meir to offer a uniquely invaluable perspective on the nature of world terrorism, conflict resolution and international negotiations. Fluent in Arabic and Hebrew, Ben-Meir's frequent travels to the Middle East and meetings with highly placed officials and academics in many Middle Eastern countries including Egypt, Israel, Jordan, the Palestinian territories, Syria and Turkey provide him with an exceptionally nuanced level of awareness and insight into the developments surrounding breaking news. Ben-Meir often articulates

While much is unknown about the ultimate implications of the Egyptian uprising for Israel, one lesson can already be drawn: The missed opportunities to achieve peace with the Arab states could have disastrous impacts. Of course, many Israelis see the unraveling of the once vaunted Egyptian government and argue that the increasingly precarious nature of the Arab regimes means that any peace agreement with them would be equally precarious. But rather than serve as an excuse not to make peace, the events in Egypt and the uncertainty they create for Israel should serve as a warning-missing opportunities to establish a status quo that offers Israel peace and security will instead lead to a status quo of regional instability, threats, and conflict.

Indeed, if Israel had accepted the Arab League's Peace Initiative and established normal relations with all 22 members, the anxiety that grips Israel with regard to the critical Israel-Egypt peace treaty would have been significantly diminished. Instead, today it is faced with-and must prepare for-three possible scenarios: 1) an Egypt influenced greatly by the Muslim Brotherhood which rejects Israel in principle, 2) the establishment of a largely secular government, though not as friendly as the Mubarak government, or 3) since the Egyptian military has been behind the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty, a continuation of similar bilateral relations may not be ruled out. Because of the still unfolding events, however, it can be assumed that any of the three scenarios could play out. Israel must therefore recalibrate its policies toward the Arab states because what happened in Tunisia, and especially Egypt, will impact other Arab countries in one way or another and the Middle East will never be the same.

The Muslim Brotherhood remains the only significantly organized opposition group in Egypt, strengthened by its network of social services provided throughout the country. While the Muslim Brotherhood is viewed as a political movement, it has served to influence and provide a common foundation for many Muslim extremists in the region, including its offshoot cousin, Hamas. Israel-rightly-is deeply concerned that the Brotherhood's head-start on other groups in political organization could allow it to have significant influence in a democratic Egypt-or even lead it. If the Brotherhood had such a prominent role in the largest and most influential Arab state, there would be fears of potential gains for Islamists in other nations, including in Jordan. Such fears may include the possibility that Islamist Sunni and Shiite groups might coalesce around a common enemy-Israel-potentially gaining backing from Iran and unraveling the nascent support Israel has enjoyed from some Arab states in its efforts to stop Iran's nuclear pursuit. Furthermore, the possibility for a dramatic recalibration of Egyptian policy toward the Gaza Strip would require Israel to divert significant amounts of military resources to a border with Egypt that has been relatively calm for over thirty years. Plus, an end to the high level of intelligence cooperation with Egypt would require a great investment by Israel to keep tabs on a nation that was once hostile, but is now open, to engaging Islamist movements in the region. Finally, a hostile Egypt would likely cease the delivery of energy resources, which Israel has increasingly become dependent upon to meet its needs.

These fears are already beginning to be expressed by Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, who in his press conference with German Chancellor Angela Merkel indicated his concern that the Egyptian revolution could take the shape of the Iranian one in 1979. "Our real fear is of a situation that could develop ... and which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself-repressive regimes of radical Islam," he told reporters. Meanwhile, many are pointing out that the uncertainty that now grips the Arab world makes peace agreements seemingly impossible to maintain with certainty, even with repressive dictators. The rise of influence of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt could exacerbate this anxiety, leaving Israel paralyzed while the status quo in the region crumbles around it.

The second more hopeful scenario from Israel's perspective would be the rise of a secular democratic Egypt that would maintain the peace treaty with Israel and good relations with the United States. The hope for this scenario rests with the Egyptian army and its desire to maintain a semblance of stability in the transition from the Mubarak regime to a truly democratic Egypt, void of significant influence from Islamists. Any new government would feel the impact of an end to the $1.5 billion in aid the United States sends to Egypt each year, largely as a result of the maintenance of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The Egyptian military has long maintained cooperation with Israel, keeping its forces out of the Sinai Peninsula and never violating the peace treaty-until Israel granted the Egyptian military permission to enter the Sinai during the protests of the last week. The prospect that Egypt's military would seek to maintain the aid it receives from the United States, while fully cooperating with the Pentagon as well as the intelligence cooperation it shares with Israel, provides hope that a democratic Egypt could eventually look more like Turkey than Iran.

That said, once the dust settles in Egypt and regardless of who or what political party or a coalition of parties rise to power, Israel should make it abundantly clear that it intends to observe and respect the bilateral peace agreement with Egypt. Israel should invite the new Egyptian government to play a significant role, as Israel did its predecessors, in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians. Interestingly enough, throughout the uprising, Israel has not been particularly blamed for the Egyptian government's shortcomings, which may bode well for the future relations between the two countries.

Should Israel-Egypt and US-Egypt relations be largely maintained, Israel must still be concerned about the reverberations of the protests. Egypt's role as the center of Arab culture is likely to cause a wave of reform throughout the region. Other Arab leaders are already working to stay one step ahead of the waves of protest-King Abdullah of Jordan has dismissed his cabinet, including Prime Minister Samir Rifai, and Yemen's President Ali Abdullah Saleh declared he will not seek reelection nor will he hand power to his son when his term ends in 2013. To what extent such changes will satisfy the masses, and whether other governments will fall, remains to be seen.

In either scenario, Israel will need to be prepared to address a region in change. It will not be able to base its policies on the events happening in one country at a time-herein lies the opportunity of the current moment. In addition to seeking to maintain its peace with the newly shaped Egypt, Israel should also pursue bilateral tracks with Syria, the Palestinians and the Lebanese. Indeed, there is never truly an ideal moment to make peace; there will always be great uncertainty and a measure of risk. However, the risk of not achieving peace, or of achieving bilateral peace agreements which leave other conflicts unresolved, is simply unacceptable at a time when Israel is facing the rising threat of Islamic radicals, whether in the form of Iran to the east, Hamas to the south or Hezbollah to the north.

The Arab League's peace initiative offers a way to mitigate risk and receive a maximum reward: normalized relations with its 22 nations. Indeed, the greater the number of Arab states with which it forges a peace agreement, the less threatened it will be. Should one Arab country violate such an agreement it would be a violation of peace reached with all other Arab nations, not just Israel. The stakes therefore would be raised for all involved, and the resulting agreement would be all the more secure because of it.

Of course, whether the Arab Peace Initiative (API) itself will survive this period of turmoil remains to be seen. Israel should ensure that it does not miss the opportunity to utilize the Initiative once and for all. It can begin to do so by embracing the API, signaling its intention to engage Egypt and Jordan, the co-chairs of the Arab League's committee on the Arab Peace Initiative, and indicate its willingness to accept the principles of the Initiative as a basis for negotiations with the Palestinians and the Arab world at large. It must signal that it is prepared to support Egyptian democracy, work with the Egyptian government that is ultimately formed to maintain and even enhance Israel-Egypt relations and, most importantly, meaningfully address the Palestinian question. Former Israeli Prime Minster Ehud Olmert and Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas came very close in 2008-2009 to forge an Israel-Palestinian accord, there is no reason why Israel, with the support of the Obama administration, should not resume negotiations from where they left off.

The Egyptian revolution has the potential for many great and positive developments, though of course there is always the possibility that the revolution may usher in a prolonged period of instability. Under any circumstances, Israel must remain focused on making peace and must invite the Egyptians to be an integral part of creating this peace. This would also send a powerful message that Israel is prepared to proactively establish a new, sustainable status quo in the Middle East based on peaceful relations and mutual security with all its neighbors.

A version of this article was originally published by the Jerusalem Post on 2/11/11, and can be accessed at http://www.jpost.com/Magazine/Opinion/Article.aspx?id=207648

Browse articles by author

More Current Affairs

May 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " Would the United States be prepared to risk a catastrophic war with the People’s Republic of China to protect the Republic of China, better known as Taiwan? "
May 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Human history, ancient and contemporary, is replete with instances of genocide – that is, the effort to eradicate a people, erase their history, denigrate their culture, and destroy their physical presence. Many of these atrocities have been recognized by the victims and other nations who support them. But, with the notable exception of the German acknowledgment of the Holocaust, rarely have the perpetrators of these crimes accepted responsibility and offer recompense "
May 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "The best way to defend liberal democracy is to practice it at home and abroad with the “courage and self-confidence” that Kennan touted at the dawn of the Cold War. This is also the best way to ensure the survival of our own conception of human freedom. And survive it will."
May 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Ann Arbor (Informed Comment) – Sammy Roth at the LA Times/ Boiling Point Newsletter reports that California’s main power grid was powered for several hours last Saturday by 90% renewables. For just four seconds that day, the grid, which covers 4/5s of the state, reached 94.5% generation by green energy. California is the world’s fifth largest economy. The main grid does not cover Los Angeles County. On the other hand, these figures do not include the electricity generated by the Diablo Canyon nuclear plant, which is not counted as renewable but which is also very low-carbon."
Apr 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "It is no accident that there has been an economic divergence in Central and Eastern Europe. Those countries that have joined the European Union have improved their economic governance, and GDP has begun to converge with Western Europe. Between 2014 and 2019, Hungary, Poland, and Romania grew at an annual average rate of 3.9%, 4.1%, and 4.7%, respectively. Meanwhile, Belarus and Ukraine experienced minimal growth during this period, and Russia’s economy expanded at an average annual rate of just 0.7%. Though Russia had a higher per capita GDP (in terms of purchasing power parity) than Croatia, Poland, Romania, and Turkey as recently as 2009, all of these countries have since overtaken it. Russians today are shocked to learn that they are worse off than Romanians and Turks. Among EU member states, only Bulgaria is still poorer than Russia. With its close proximity to the EU single market, Russia could have had higher growth if it had pursued sound economic policies. Instead,..... "
Apr 22nd 2021
EXTRACT: "As far as anyone can tell, the US military is not on the verge of an internal breakdown, let alone primed to stage a coup d’état. But few predicted anything like the US Capitol riot before protesters equipped with body armor, stun guns, and zip-ties breached the building. Before the US is blindsided again, its leaders must act resolutely to root out extremism in the military."
Apr 17th 2021
EXTRACT: "The new report on 2020 by the International Renewable Energy Agency reveals that the world’s renewable energy generation capacity increased by an astonishing 10.3% in 2020 despite the global economic slowdown during the coronavirus pandemic." .... "In 2020, the global net increase in renewables was 261 gigawatts (GW). That is the nameplate capacity of some 300 nuclear power plants! There are actually only 440 nuclear power plants in the whole world, with a generation capacity of 390 gigwatts. So let’s just underline this point. The world put in 2/3s as much renewable energy in one year as is produced by all the existing nuclear plants!"
Apr 16th 2021
EXTRACT: "When we examined the development of nations worldwide since 1820, we found that among rich Western countries like the United States, the Netherlands and France, improvements in income, education, safety and health tracked or even outpaced rising gross domestic product for over a century. But in the 1950s, even as economic growth accelerated after World War II, well-being in these countries lagged.
Apr 11th 2021
EXTRACT: "Some presidents indulge in the “Mount Rushmore syndrome” making an obvious effort to achieve greatness. Normally soft-spoken and apparently modest Biden is making his own bid for immortality."
Apr 9th 2021
EXTRACT: "New ways of thinking about the role of government are as important as new priorities. Many commentators have framed Biden’s infrastructure plan as a return to big government. But the package is spread over eight years, will raise public spending by only one percentage point of GDP, and is projected to pay for itself eventually. A boost in public investment in infrastructure, the green transition, and job creation is long overdue."
Apr 7th 2021
EXTRACT: " One can, and perhaps should, take the optimistic view that moral panics in the US blow over; reason will once again prevail. It could be that the Biden era will take the sting out of Trumpism, and the tolerance for which American intellectual life has often been admired will be reinvigorated. This might even happen while the noxious effects of American influence still rage in other countries. For the sake of America and the world, one can only hope it happens soon.  "
Mar 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "By refusing (despite having some good reasons) to end electoral gerrymandering, Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., has directly enabled the paralyzing hyper-partisanship that reached its nadir during Donald Trump’s presidency. By striking down all limits on corporate spending on political campaigns in the infamous 2010 Citizens United decision, he has helped to entrench dark money in US politics. And by gutting the 1965 Voting Rights Act in Shelby County v. Holder, Roberts has facilitated the racist voter-suppression tactics now being pursued in many Republican-controlled states."
Mar 24th 2021
EXTRACT: "the UK’s tough choices accumulate, and the problems lurking around the corner look menacing. Britain will have to make the best of Brexit. But it will be a long, hard struggle, all the more so with an evasive fabulist in charge."
Mar 15th 2021
EXTRACT: "Over the years, the approach of most American policymakers toward the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been Israel-centric with near total disregard for the suffering endured by the Palestinian people. The architects of policy in successive US administrations have discussed the conflict as if the fate of only one party (Israel) really mattered. Israelis were treated as full human beings with hopes and fears, while Palestinians were reduced to a problem that needed to be solved so that Israelis could live in peace and security.  ..... It is not just that Israelis and Palestinians haven’t been viewed with an equal measure of concern. It’s worse than that. It appears that Palestinians were judged as less ​human than Israelis, and were, therefore, not entitled to make demands to have their rights recognized and protected."
Mar 8th 2021
EXTRACTS: "XThere’s a global shortage in semiconductors, and it’s becoming increasingly serious." ...... "The automotive sector has been worst affected by the drought, in an era where microchips now form the backbone of most cars. Ford is predicting a 20% slump in production and Tesla shut down its model 3 assembly line for two weeks. In the UK, Honda was forced to temporarily shut its plant as well." ..... " As much as 70% of the world’s semiconductors are manufactured by just two companies, Taiwan Semiconductor (TSMC) and Samsung."
Mar 5th 2021
EXTRACT: "Back in 1992, Lawrence H. Summers, then the chief economist at the World Bank, and I warned that pushing the US Federal Reserve’s annual inflation target down from 4% to 2% risked causing big problems. Not only was the 4% target not producing any discontent, but a 2% target would increase the risk of the Fed’s interest-rate policy hitting the zero lower bound. Our objections went unheeded. Fed Chair Alan Greenspan reduced the inflation target to 2%, and we have been paying for it ever since. I have long thought that many of our economic problems would go away if we could rejigger asset markets in such a way as to make a 5% federal funds rate consistent with full employment in the late stage of a business cycle."
Mar 2nd 2021
EXTRACT: "Under these conditions, the Fed is probably worried that markets will instantly crash if it takes away the punch bowl. And with the increase in public and private debt preventing the eventual monetary normalization, the likelihood of stagflation in the medium term – and a hard landing for asset markets and economies – continues to increase."
Mar 1st 2021
EXTRACT: "Massive fiscal and monetary stimulus programs in the United States and other advanced economies are fueling a raging debate about whether higher inflation could be just around the corner. Ten-year US Treasury yields and mortgage rates are already climbing in anticipation that the US Federal Reserve – the de facto global central bank – will be forced to hike rates, potentially bursting asset-price bubbles around the world. But while markets are probably overstating short-term inflation risks for 2021, they do not yet fully appreciate the longer-term dangers."
Feb 28th 2021
EXTRACT: "To be sure, calls to “build back better” from the pandemic imply some awareness of the need for systemic change. But the transformation we need extends beyond constructing modern infrastructure or unlocking private investment in any one country. We need to re-orient – indeed, re-invent – global politics, so that countries can cooperate far more effectively in creating a better world."
Feb 23rd 2021
EXTRACT: "So, notwithstanding the predictable release of pent-up demand for consumer durables, face-to-face services show clear evidence – in terms of both consumer demand and employment – of permanent scarring. Consequently, with the snapback of pent-up demand for durables nearing its point of exhaustion, the recovery of the post-pandemic US economy is likely to fall well short of vaccine development’s “warp speed.” "