Far more threatening to the Middle East peace process than the increase in bloody attacks by Islamic militants against Israelis are the recent strains in Egyptian-Israeli relations. For the last five months, notwithstanding the diplomatic niceties of their regular meetings, the Egyptian and Israeli leaderships have clashed publicly over a wide range of issues that have brought the two countries to the brink of crisis. The verbal war reveals deep insecurity, suspicion, and hostility. This dramatic turn of events raises disturbing questions not only about the future direction of Egyptian-Israeli relations but also about the long-term viability of the peace process itself.

The main point of contention is the character and composition of the new Middle East order and the roles of Egypt and Israel in it. Their competing visions struggle to shape the region's dynamics in their own images. Israel hopes to construct a new regional order that is Middle Eastern instead of Arab, in which Israel would be the dominant economic power. Thus, Israeli Foreign Minister Shimon Peres recently called for expanding the Arab League's membership to include Israel and other non-Arab Middle Eastern states.

Since the signing of their peace accord with the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) in 1993, the Israelis have pursued active economic diplomacy to lift the Arab economic boycott against Israel and establish links with various Arab states. Israel's campaign has led to important breakthroughs with Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia, and several Persian Gulf countries. The Arab boycott is being quietly and unceremoniously buried. Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin, Peres, and other ministers, leading a large team of Israeli businessmen at a major economic conference last October in Casablanca, Morocco, impressed on their Arab counterparts the mutual benefits of economic collaboration, promising high financial returns and incentives. But Peres, according to the Egyptian press, went further, poking fun at Egypt's failing political and economic record: "Egypt led the Arabs for 40 years and brought them to the abyss; you will see the region's economic situation improve when Israel takes the reins of leadership in the Middle East."

Peres' statement poured fuel on simmering Egyptian fears. Israeli actions and words confirmed Egyptian suspicions that Israel aims to dominate the area at the expense of Egypt's regional role. To an Egyptian leadership already beleaguered by a rising tide of Islamic extremism, the marginalization of Egypt in the Arab arena would do intolerable harm to the internal stability of the regime. Historically, Egypt has led the Arab interstate system, and Egyptian leaders have used their investment in Arab affairs to legitimize their power at home and obtain external assistance. For example, former Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser's pursuit of pan-Arab unity was designed to make Egypt a power to be reckoned with on the local and international stage. Likewise, the alliance that his successor, Anwar al-Sadat, forged with Saudi Arabia and Syria enabled him to go to war against Israel in 1973, thus salvaging his reputation and presidency. Sadat's signing of the 1979 Camp David peace treaty with Israel was such a radical departure from Egypt's previous regional policies that Egypt became a pariah within the Arab world. Egypt's isolation was short-lived, however. President Hosni Mubarak slowly but steadily reintegrated Egypt into the Arab fold. Mubarak has served as a moderate and reasoned voice in pushing his Arab counterparts to make peace with Israel. He hoped to capitalize on the current Israel-PLO peace process not only to regain Egypt's key position in the Arab arena but also to endear his regime to the United States.

The Egyptian ruling elite resents and mistrusts Israel's decision to bypass Egypt and establish direct ties with other Arab states. They feel that Egypt should continue to be the mediator between Israel and the other Arabs. Little wonder that Israel's bold economic diplomacy and lobbying tactics at the Casablanca conference elicited a strong response from Cairo. Egyptian Foreign Minister Amr Moussa made it clear that Egypt was opposed to the formation of a Middle East common market before a comprehensive political settlement is reached. By linking the normalization of economic relations between Arabs and Israelis to political progress, Egypt aimed to slow Israel's diplomatic offensive, which could undermine Egypt's regional and international standing and weaken its bargaining power. Mubarak himself had to intervene to allay the fears of Egyptian intellectuals: "Any assumption that Israel is capable of swallowing up Egypt is wrong. Egypt has always been, and will continue to be, a pivotal state in the region."

These tensions have made a cold peace downright arctic. Today, both of the two great breakthroughs in the Middle East peace process -- Camp David and the Oslo accord -- are at risk.


The Egyptian leadership also tied the peace process to the elimination of nuclear weapons in the Middle East by insisting that Egypt would not sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) when it comes up for renewal in April unless Israel also signs and opens up its nuclear facilities to international inspections. Egypt hoped to assert its leadership role by mobilizing Arab support and by showing Israel that Egypt would not tolerate any attempt to dominate the region. Given the heavy lobbying by the Clinton administration and other Western officials, Egypt will probably sign the NPT, but the nuclear question will remain, ready to be activated whenever clouds gather over the Israeli-Egyptian landscape.

Egypt's willingness to incur U.S. unhappiness reflected the Egyptians' frustration and their determination to regain the initiative by remaining fully engaged in the Arab-Israeli theater. As Ibrahim Nafie, the influential editor of the Cairo newspaper Al-Ahram, put it, "It is not our intention to create a future that allows Israel, as a reward for withdrawal, to make gains at the expense of Egypt's own position in the Arab world." Historically, the course of the Arab-Israeli conflict has been dictated by Egypt's pivotal position in the Arab world. The Arabs, for example, could not make war against Israel after Sadat left the Arab circle in 1975. In the same vein, Egypt wants to ensure that the Arab-Israeli peace process strengthens its national security, rather than weakening its regional influence.

In this context, Mubarak's December mini-summit in Alexandria with King Fahd of Saudi Arabia and Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad was aimed at coordinating a common Arab policy toward Israel along the lines advocated by Egypt. These included explicit support for Syria's and the PLO's negotiating positions with Israel, postponing the normalization of Arab relations with Israel until a comprehensive political settlement is reached, and refusing to sign the NPT unless Israel agrees to international inspections or the establishment of a formal structure to discuss a nuclear-free Arab-Israeli theater. This and other steps signaled a new activist phase in Egyptian regional policy: Egypt would check Israel's ambitions in the area by drawing a line in the sand beyond which Israel could not go. Cairo would also seek a return to the principles laid out in the 1991 Madrid peace conference. As a result, Egyptian officials have become more critical of Israel's stand on the peace process, which they argue fuels terrorist attacks by Islamic militants, and have become more vocal in blaming Israeli intransigence for delaying a compromise with Syria.

Israeli officials and opinion makers publicly expressed their dismay and anger at Egypt's new unfriendliness. Rabin himself accused Egypt of "extremism" on the nuclear issue and in its support for Syria. The Israeli prime minister expressed doubt about the stability and viability of the Egyptian political system by implying that a hostile Islamic government might come to power in Cairo and warning that Israel must prepare itself for a war against the Arab states. Moreover, an Israeli Foreign Ministry position paper recommending that Egypt be "punished" was leaked to the influential Israeli newspaper Ha'aretz, which concluded that if Egypt continued its negative policy, Israel should take strong punitive measures. These include Israeli intervention in Washington to reduce U.S. aid to Egypt, criticism of Cairo's alleged human rights abuses and violation of U.N. Security Council sanctions against Libya, and the relocation of Israeli-Palestinian talks currently being held in Cairo.

The Israeli pronouncements stirred up an outcry in Egypt's foreign policy circles and media. Mubarak himself described as "regrettable" Rabin's statement about the need for Israel to remain on a war footing. "Dropping hints about the possibility of war is very grave indeed," he warned. "This makes us feel concern about signing the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty." His senior political adviser, Osama al-Baz, was blunter: "Israel's brandishing of the war option would not scare the Arab states because they trust the effectiveness of their military apparatus." In the same vein, Moussa called on Rabin to cease questioning Egypt's long-term stability. A member of the Egyptian parliament accused Israel of trying to suffocate Egypt by undermining its role in the region.


Most segments of Egypt's civil society have expressed deep mistrust of Israel. Most intellectuals, trade unions, and cultural and religious figures have called on the government to refuse normalization with Israel and even to reassess its position on the peace process. For example, the grand sheikh of al-Azhar, Egypt's most important center for Islamic learning, refused a request to meet Israeli President Ezer Weizman during the latter's visit to Cairo last December, saying that "the climate was wrong because of the continuing Israeli occupation of Arab countries and of Jerusalem." The Coptic pope, Shanouda III, attacked Israel's "expansionist" policies on the West Bank and claimed that competing Israeli and Palestinian claims on Jerusalem represent "a major obstacle that probably could not be overcome except through war." He added that he was against making peace with Israel while it still occupies Arab territories, and praised Syria for its insistence on total Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights.

Although much of this verbal war is mere rhetoric designed to test the other nation's will and commitment, the fundamental political differences between Egypt and Israel should not be minimized. These disputes revolve around Israel's and Egypt's political and economic roles in the new Middle East order and the lack of progress on both the Israeli-Palestinian and Israeli-Syrian fronts. Given their political and military weights and geostrategic positions, Egypt's and Israel's interests are bound to clash in the new Middle East. The challenge for both will be to keep their competition in check and prevent their cold peace from turning into cold war.

The frightening thing is that this verbal escalation finds deeper and more hostile echoes within the public opinion of both Egypt and Israel. A poll conducted by Al-Ahram Weekly last December found that for most Egyptians the "psychological barrier" with Israel is still very much in place 15 years after the signing of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. The poll, which sampled the views of 1,505 Egyptians 18 years of age and older, showed that the public was opposed to formal ties with Israel. Asked whether they would buy Israeli goods and whether they would like to visit Israel, 71 percent and 63 percent of respondents, respectively, said no. An even greater majority -- 75 percent -- said no to the eventuality of industrial cooperation with Israel.

Although a majority expressed little faith in the ability of the peace process to restore Palestinian rights, the poll revealed much greater dissatisfaction about Egypt's relations with Israel. According to Al-Ahram Weekly, the results indicate that "the Egyptian public felt it had its own ax to grind with Israel." Ironically, the upper strata of society, which are expected to have more crystallized and enlightened views, were highly represented in the poll. In a similar vein, Israeli public opinion polls reveal a hardening of views about concluding peace agreements with the Palestinians and Syrians. Israel's disillusionment with the Oslo accords has been accompanied by a spate of articles in the Israeli press fretting about the state of relations with Egypt and calling for retaliatory measures against the Egyptians.


The deterioration of Egyptian-Israeli relations has been paralleled by a crisis in Cairo's dealings with Washington. Last December, a series of articles in the U.S. press criticized Egypt's domestic and foreign policies, alleging that Cairo was violating U.N. sanctions against Libya. The Washington Post went further, calling on the Clinton administration to give Egypt "a blunt warning to drop a pact with the devil that President Mubarak has forged with Colonel Qaddafi." The Egyptians believe that the attacks on Egypt in the American media were orchestrated by the U.S. government or by what they see as "the powerful Zionist lobby." Their suspicions were reinforced when senior administration officials pressured Egypt to vote for an indefinite extension of the NPT. Some members of Congress also have hinted that they might seek to reduce the $2 billion in annual foreign aid that Egypt receives unless Egypt stops vacillating on such key issues as the nuclear treaty, Israel, and Libya.

For all these reasons, the besieged Egyptian leadership is convinced that U.S. foreign policy is aimed at curtailing, not augmenting, Egyptian influence in the region. It accuses Israel and its supporters in the United States of poisoning the atmosphere between Washington and Cairo and of subtly threatening to have U.S. foreign aid to Egypt cut off. Egyptians strongly defend their ties with Libya on the grounds of national security. Libya employs tens of thousands of Egyptian workers, who send their remittances home; it is also the largest Arab investor in Egypt. Egyptian officials feel that they cannot sever economic links with Tripoli without further damage to their economy and society.

Egyptian officials warn the United States against using a double standard and dancing to the Israeli tune. Senior diplomats contend that the U.S.-Egyptian relationship is based on mutual interests, not dependency. Far from being a "satellite" or "proxy" of the United States, Baz warned, "Egypt is a superpower in the Middle East. It will not bow down before any country." The Egyptian ruling elite feels that Washington has failed to give due credit to Cairo for its constructive role in the peace process and its fight against terrorism in the Middle East. They had hoped that Arab-Israeli peace would secure U.S. aid to Cairo, which would help ensure the survival of their regime against the Islamists. Instead, U.S. and Israeli criticism of Egypt has coincided with the escalation of the Islamists' threat to the Mubarak regime. It is little wonder that Mubarak's frustration with the Clinton administration has reached the boiling point. The U.S. government, he claims, is holding secret talks with the Islamist "terrorists" who are waging a bloody campaign to topple his government. Egyptian officials blame the deterioration of U.S.-Egyptian relations on Israel's refusal to sign the NPT and on U.S. "interference in certain questions, including the question of human rights."


Egypt's foreign policy elite seem to have reached a consensus that the current peace process will further erode their country's power vis-à-vis other regional players, particularly Israel. They already sense this subtle shift of fortunes in the "unseemly rush" by Persian Gulf and Maghreb Arabs to do business with Israel without any coordination with Egypt. In the post-peace era, Egyptian mediation between Israel and the other Arab states will no longer be needed, since Israel will have direct access to other Arab states and Egypt cannot compete with the more dynamic Israeli economy. In Egyptian eyes, Israel's access to advanced Western technologies, coupled with substantial U.S. support, will enable it to dominate the new Middle East economic order. Such an eventuality, which would undermine Egypt's leadership of the Arab world and inflict material and political damage at home, would tip the balance of power in favor of the Islamists and threaten the very survival of the Egyptian government.

But the Islamists do not represent the only real threat to Mubarak. More menacing is the inability of the Egyptian economy to take off, provide employment for the army of college graduates, and feed a fast-growing population. Egyptian officials' reassessment of their role in the peace process reflects a deep fear of economic uncertainties. They now realize that Egypt is unlikely to receive any peace dividend and that Israel's integration into regional Arab economies will come at the expense of their country. They have even resigned themselves to the likelihood that U.S. aid to Egypt will soon be reduced or cut entirely.

The need to protect its national interests has prompted Cairo to confront Israel vigorously and to mobilize the Arab world against further normalization with the Jewish state. For now, Egypt has convinced the important Persian Gulf states to postpone establishing ties with Israel and to refuse to sign the NPT unless full peace is established in the region and Israel signs the nuclear treaty. The two regional summit meetings attended by Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and the PLO in Cairo and Washington in February failed to resolve the fundamental political differences between Egypt and Israel. This crisis in relations threatens to unravel the peace process and pit the two states against each other in a new, destructive rivalry that might escalate out of control.

The Egyptian-Israeli rivalry would also worsen if the Israel-PLO agreement collapsed. Such an outcome would further erode Egypt's trust and confidence in the peace process, heightening the tensions between Cairo and Jerusalem. Mubarak has already warned Israel that failing to implement its agreement with the PLO will have dire repercussions for the entire Middle East peace process: "We will not only be back to point zero, but the situation will be even worse than before." The collapse of Oslo, Mubarak argues, would strengthen the region's extremists and weaken moderates like him. Egypt's leadership would be forced to bow to public sentiment not only by distancing itself from Israel, but by severing its political ties with the Jewish state. But Mubarak emphasizes that Egypt would not contemplate returning to the Egyptian-Israeli belligerence of the 1948-73 period. A more likely scenario would be escalation of the political confrontation between Egypt and Israel, plunging the region into another era of instability.

The United States has an enormous stake in the Cairo-Jerusalem axis; it has invested heavily in the two countries, making them by far the largest recipients of U.S. foreign aid. Israel and Egypt receive $3.2 billion and $2.1 billion, respectively, each year. Since 1979, Cairo has been a close ally of Washington -- initiating the peace process, serving as an interpreter between Israel and the other Arabs, and legitimizing the U.S.-led coalition against Iraq. Although the Egyptians initially hoped to draw the United States into the arena, they have been disappointed by Washington's embrace of the Israeli position. U.S. interests lie in bridging the gap between its two friends by acting as an impartial mediator. Without formally endorsing either the Egyptian or Israeli vision of the new Middle East order, the Clinton administration needs to reassure Mubarak about its commitment to the economic development of Egypt and to show sensitivity to Egyptian concerns about nuclear weapons and the lack of political progress on the Palestinian and Syrian fronts. Alienating Cairo will irreparably damage the cause of peace in the region. Egypt holds the key to the Arab world. Without its consent and active participation, Arab-Israeli peace agreements will remain just so much ink on paper.

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  • Fawaz A. Gerges, who spent January in Egypt, is a Visiting Fellow at the Center of International Studies, Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs, Princeton University, and a faculty member at Sarah Lawrence College. He is the author of The Superpowers and the Middle East:Regional and International Politics.
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