Israel's Stakes, Egypt's Streets

The Strategic Interest

By Yossi Alpher

Published January 31, 2011, issue of February 11, 2011.
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With Hosni Mubarak’s autocratic, pro-Western regime under threat from the angry Egyptian masses, it appears we are witnessing a new dawn for the power of the “Arab street” in Egypt, Tunisia and potentially elsewhere. This is going to be a profound challenge for Israel, whose only diplomatic or even clandestine relationships with Arab states have been with undemocratic autocrats (there is no alternative type of regime in the Arab world, outside of perhaps Lebanon). When it comes to Egypt in particular, Israel — which in recent years has developed a high degree of strategic cooperation with Cairo in dealing with shared Islamist enemies — has a lot to lose as a consequence of almost any change.

The current reality in Egypt is a classic revolutionary situation that is constantly evolving. The outcome is impossible to predict — just as the very outbreak of the unrest was not predicted anywhere. To better understand what is at stake for Israel, we have to look at possible scenarios for future developments, even if such an exercise is speculative at this point.

A truly worst-case outcome of the unrest in Egypt is frightening to contemplate. It might go something like this: The current situation leads, through a process of resignations, external pressures and interim governments to free elections in which the Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest and best-organized opposition group, wins the day. The Brotherhood, which opposes Israel’s very existence, cancels Egypt’s peace treaty with the Jewish state, declares Hamas (an offshoot of the Brotherhood) an ally, denounces the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, demands that international forces leave the Sinai Peninsula and asserts Egypt’s right to send heavy forces into the presently demilitarized territory. The Suez Canal is abruptly closed to passage of Israeli naval ships that have been disrupting Iranian-Hezbollah-Sudanese arms smuggling in the Red Sea.

All these events spark serious unrest in Jordan, where the local branch of the Muslim Brotherhood espouses a similarly hostile line toward Israel, and in the West Bank, where a Hamas uprising threatens the rule of the Palestine Liberation Organization. (Even before the current wave of unrest, the absence of a meaningful Israeli-Palestinian peace process over the past two years has prompted Jordan’s King Abdullah — whose country has a large Palestinian population — to issue dire warnings about regional deterioration and even to flirt with Iran, signaling to Israel and the West his growing discomfort.)

Thus, in this worst-case scenario, Israel is surrounded by hostile Islamists. The entire region goes on a war footing.

This state of affairs would pose grave strategic and military challenges to Israel. The advent of peace with Egypt some three decades ago enabled the Israel Defense Forces to radically reduce its overall force size and deployment levels in the south, lower the age at which reserves are mustered out and generally downgrade its armored warfare and large-scale offensive exercises. Instead, the army developed tactics for dealing with Palestinian unrest and countering guerilla challenges by non-state actors like Hamas and Hezbollah. The only active Israeli military leaders who remember what it’s like to fight Egypt are Defense Minister Ehud Barak and the army’s outgoing chief of staff, Gabi Ashkenazi. The Egyptian armed forces, on the other hand, have never stopped “fighting” Israel in their annual military exercises.

What, alternatively, would a best-case scenario in Egypt look like? From Israel’s standpoint, this essentially means the status quo, perhaps with Egypt’s new vice president, Omar Suleiman, taking the reins of power. Suleiman has worked closely with Israel, knows its leadership and is at least as committed as Mubarak to strategic cooperation against militant Islam, to quarantining Hamas in Gaza and to working against Iran’s regional designs.

These two speculative scenarios are the extremes. Out of the current unrest, we’re more likely to see a situation emerge that falls somewhere between these two poles.

Egypt’s Islamists might be given a secondary role in government, where they would have relatively minor but still negative (from Israel’s standpoint) influence. Even the secular Egyptian opposition, if coopted by the regime in the hope of quelling public protests and satisfying pressure from the Obama administration, might exact some sort of anti-Israeli price. Indeed, a secular regime cleansed of military influence and relying on a relatively narrow popular support base might become as anti-Israel as the Islamists in the hope of currying favor with the Muslim Brotherhood’s supporters.

Where does all this leave Israel today? Hawks in Netanyahu’s government will almost certainly argue that Jerusalem is wise not to get too deeply involved in a peace process which could require it to make territorial concessions that it might regret tomorrow, in a very different Middle East. Others — myself included — would counter that the very absence of a peace process could encourage the next rulers of Egypt and possibly Jordan to turn their backs on Israel tomorrow. But we all agree that tomorrow is now totally unpredictable.

Yossi Alpher is co-editor of the bitterlemons family of Internet publications. He is former director of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies at Tel Aviv University.


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