The revolt against President Hosni Mubarak in Egypt invokes fear and anxiety among Israelis. Mubarak, Israel’s oldest neighbor, is suddenly moving out, and Israelis are afraid of the consequences: Who will be the new tenants next door? Will they keep the long-standing peace treaty with Israel? Is a new Iran emerging across the border, with the long-forgotten southern front coming back to life? To a nation built around survival, these questions are extremely worrying.
True to form, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has highlighted those fears in public, particularly the threat of Egypt turning into a new Iran. Yet a more optimistic analysis suggests that the Israeli government could leverage the Egyptian crisis to seek new opportunities -- a window to restart the peace process with the Palestinians or Syria, or a chance to support the spread of democracy in the region. Israel's establishment, however, has thus far opted for entrenchment.
For three decades, Mubarak has been a fixture of Israel’s geostrategic landscape. Israel replaced eight prime ministers, fought several wars, and engaged in peace talks with multiple partners, and Mubarak was always there. He personified regional stability.
To be sure, Mubarak has kept his distance from Israel. Unlike his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, who came to Jerusalem to make peace, Mubarak stubbornly refused to pay an official visit to Israel, coming only once to attend Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s funeral and insisting at the time that "this is not a visit." Mubarak’s governments were vocally critical of Israeli policies vis-à-vis the Palestinians and waged endless diplomatic campaigns against Israel's nuclear program.
But Israeli leaders were willing to accept these minor insults, knowing that Israel had no better ally than Mubarak on big-picture issues. They could go to war in Lebanon and Gaza and expand the West Bank settlements, freed from having to devote a substantial force to the southern front.
Yet as Mubarak grew older, Israel's leaders began worrying about who would succeed him. Given the obvious sensitivities -- Israel could not speculate openly about an ally's coming demise -- the issue was rarely discussed in public or even among diplomatic circles. When asked about it, Israeli officials hinted at Omar Suleiman, intelligence chief (and now Egypt’s vice president), or at Gamal Mubarak, the president's son and heir apparent, as their preferred successors to the aging leader. The alternatives to these comfortable candidates left many Israeli leaders unsettled. They believed that Mubarak and his police state were barriers to chaos that, if removed, would be succeeded by an Iranian-style Islamic Republic--one directly neighboring Israel and armed with state-of-the-art U.S. weaponry.
In the Israeli collective memory, 1979 marks a major strategic turning point. Until then, Iran was Israel's key regional ally and energy supplier, and Egypt its chief adversary. In the span of six weeks that year, however, the Shah's regime in Iran gave way to the rule of the fiercely anti-Israel Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and Israel signed its peace treaty with Egypt. Thus, Iran and Egypt switched roles, with the former becoming Israel’s enemy and the latter turning into its strategic ally and energy supplier. "There was a country that we had peace with, an extraordinary de-facto peace," Netanyahu told a gathering of Israel's ambassadors in December 2010. "Meetings between leaders, security and economic cooperation. This country was named Iran. It is still named Iran. And one day, one day, it changed." The same happened with Turkey, added Netanyahu, "not overnight, but it changed very fast due to domestic changes unrelated to us." The lesson, according to Netanyahu, was that all alliances are temporary and might collapse as a result of uncontrollable domestic forces.
Israel's regional ties have always been with the ruling elites, the military commanders, and the intelligence communities. Public opinion in the Arab world has been traditionally hostile to Israel. Civil society groups in Egypt and Jordan, in particular, largely reject their countries’ respective peace treaties with Israel. Israelis, for their part, hardly cared about people-to-people contacts; not many Israeli Jews bother to learn Arabic and immerse themselves in the neighboring culture. Most Israelis viewed the peace process as a means for bettering relations with Europe and the United States and not as a channel to regional acceptance.
It is little wonder, then, that the Israeli political-military establishment has viewed Arab democracy as a dangerous adventure. The mainstream belief is that if allowed to choose, the Egyptian public would bring the Muslim Brotherhood to power -- and throw the peace treaty with Israel to the shredder. Hamas’ victory in the Palestinian election of 2006 and its subsequent takeover of Gaza serve as the most compelling evidence for this mindset. Israeli leaders saw U.S. President George W. Bush’s support for democratization in the Middle East as the ultimate expression of American naiveté.
Netanyahu has in the past called democracy the ultimate foundation of peace, arguing that Israel cannot relinquish territory to nondemocratic countries because they are untrustworthy. But given the slim chances of a true democracy appearing in Israel's neighborhood, his argument was interpreted as an appealing -- if unconvincing -- excuse against territorial compromise. In recent years, however, following the electoral rise of Hamas, Netanyahu changed his tune. He stopped calling for Arab democracy and, like his predecessors, learned to appreciate the familiar dictators. Indeed, after returning to office in 2009, Netanyahu enthusiastically befriended Mubarak. The two met frequently to discuss their concerns about Iran and Gaza and Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations. It was not an unequivocal love affair: according to a cable released by WikiLeaks, Mubarak described Netanyahu as elegant and charming, but unable to keep promises. Yet the two leaders forged a good working relationship that seemed likely to endure. Netanyahu wanted his friend to stay in power as long as possible.
The Tunisian tempest that has nearly ousted Mubarak took the Israeli government by surprise. Even after the Tunisians overthrew their despot, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, Israel's intelligence chiefs and Arab affairs experts argued that the Egyptian regime was stable. When reality swept away the rosy predictions, Netanyahu begged Western leaders to lend a hand to his besieged friend Mubarak. At first, they would not listen, but after several days the Obama administration appeared to heed the Israeli call and opt for a gradual transition in Egypt.
As his nightmare of losing Mubarak came true, Netanyahu warned of an Islamic takeover in Egypt. He demanded that the international community call on any Egyptian government to abide by its peace treaty with Israel. The undertone of his message reflected a growing doubt among Israeli policymakers about the value of U.S. pledges of support. If the United States was so willing to abandon its longtime Egyptian protégé, Israelis are wondering, can its commitments be trusted? And if Israel’s oldest and strongest peace treaty, that with Egypt, cannot withstand a change in government, how could Israel sign similar land-for-peace agreements in the future?
Netanyahu's warning notwithstanding, an Egyptian repeat of the Iranian ally-to-enemy scenario is unlikely. Mubarak's successor would likely cool off the alliance with Israel. But rather than follow Khomeini and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad, the next Egyptian leader could imitate Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan: keep the formal structure of relations with Israel, do away with the strategic alliance, and criticize Israel's treatment of the Palestinians and its use of force. This policy has bought Erdogan immense popularity with the Arab public, even as Israel's embassy in Ankara remains open and Israelis travel freely to Istanbul.
Even if Egypt’s new leadership takes this more moderate path, Israel faces a difficult security dilemma. Rebuilding a large ground force to anticipate the possible resurrection of an Egyptian adversary is both costly and risks an unwanted arms race. Neglecting to do so, however, could be risky if the Muslim Brotherhood assumes power in Cairo. And even if Egypt abides by the current security structure -- a demilitarized Sinai -- Israeli uncertainty over its behavior would limit Israel's freedom of action in other fronts. Netanyahu is unlikely to bomb Iran's nuclear facilities if he cannot trust the Egyptians to look the other way, as they did when Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin bombed the Iraqi nuclear reactor at Osirak in 1981.
Mubarak's departure would strip Israel of its most important regional ally. But it would also leave the United States without a trustworthy "pillar of stability" in the region. This friendless situation could push Obama and Netanyahu into closer cooperation, despite their rocky relationship to date.
The Egyptian revolt also opens up new opportunities for peacemaking elsewhere. Israel wants to break away from its growing diplomatic isolation, having just lost its Turkish alliance last year, and now watching its Egyptian alliance hang in the balance. Its interlocutors in Syria and the Palestinian Authority are afraid that they are next in line to face popular revolts. Peace deals can serve both sides' interest, with the added strategic bonus for Israel of preventing encirclement on multiple fronts.
Israel could offer new peace proposals to the Palestinians and Syria, or demonstrate renewed interest in the 2002 Arab Peace Initiative, which hinged a comprehensive settlement between Israel and the Arab world on the creation of a Palestinian state. By proposing a serious blueprint to Palestinian statehood and pulling Syria away from Iran's orbit through negotiations, Israel would not only defuse animosity against it in the Arab street, but also take part in the rebuilding of the Middle Eastern community in the wake of Egypt’s unrest.
Alas, such ideas are far from the minds of Israel's current leaders. The instinctive and expected Israeli reaction to the upheaval in Egypt has been to try to preserve the status quo for as long as possible while planning a defense budget increase. A collapse or cooling of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel would bolster the right-wing argument that Arabs cannot be trusted and that peace with the Arab world is impossible. A more sober analysis could leverage the current crisis into a new opportunity for Israel. This, however, entails a change from the siege mentality underlying Netanyahu's foreign policy.