The Arabist

The Arabist

By Issandr El Amrani and friends.

The US, Egypt, Israel and the revolution(s)

One of the big media memes of the toppling of Hosni Mubarak is what it means for Israel and US policy in the region (which for the last 20 years has largely been about Israel). Some see a huge change coming, with the idea being that the poor, vulnerable Jewish state will once again be at the mercy of bloodthirsty Arabs who, deprived of tough leadership, will revert to their irrational hatred of all things Semitic. 

Well, hold on to your horses. First of all, a lot of this meme is based on the idea that Israel is weak and helpless, which might justify insane amounts of money spent on it by US taxpayers but simply isn't true. Israel has probably one of the top five armies in the world, is perfectly capable to defend itself in the unlikely event of an Egyptian attack (because that worked out so well for the Egyptians before) and, rather scarily, has both a massive nuclear arsenal and a gnawing inferiority complex fed by guilt at having rather nasty policies towards its non-Jewish neighbors. Secondly, Egyptians have have other problems right now.

Nonetheless, it's worth thinking about the opportunities for a better Egyptian foreign policy at this juncture. The military council now in charge indicated early that it will respect all international agreements, which was basically a guarantee that Camp David still holds. I have a tough time seeing any government, even a Muslim Brotherhood one, wanting to declare war on Israel. But the next government does have some opportunities:

  1. Start being tough on Israel on the settlements, notably taking a leadership role in international institutions;
  2. Push for the current Middle East peace process roadmap to be abandoned and replaced by a more coherent, fair framework;
  3. Stop collaborating with Israel's blockade of Gaza (which doesn't mean that Egyptian concerns about Hamas go away — but they can be managed a lot better);
  4. Encourage real Palestinian reconciliation, even at the expense of US support for the peace process, which hasn't led anywhere anyway;
  5. Work towards the return of full Egyptian sovereignty in Sinai.

The last one is the one that many Egyptians will find the most exciting. Ever since Camp David was signed, limits on Egyptian military deployments along the border with Israel have gnawed at national pride. It is a long-term, if unacknowledged, goal of the military. The current chaos in Sinai gives it plenty of opportunity. But it needs to be done carefully, notably by not causing the Israelis to panic. I don't see General Tantawi making an address to the Knesset anytime soon, guaranteeing the peace while exercising Egypt's natural right to full sovereignty over its territory.

I don't know if that day will come anytime soon. But in the meantime, it's worth thinking about how Camp David and the American security umbrella over Israel, while providing peace between Egypt and Israel, has been tremendously damaging to the rest of the region and particularly prospects for peace in Israel/Palestine. I don't have to do it because two great writers have already done so:

Obama's Choice — FMEP - Henry Siegman writes:

Israel’s indifference to popular outrage throughout the region over its 44-year occupation was sustained by its belief that authoritarian Arab regimes, whose survival depended to a considerable extent on the US security umbrella, would keep their subjects’ rage in check. The regimes’ deference to the US was responsible for the stability of Egypt’s and Jordan’s peace accords with Israel and for the historic Arab Peace Initiative, agreed in 2002, which committed all Arab countries to full normalisation of relations with Israel, provided a peace accord with the Palestinians was reached.

But America’s credibility and influence had begun to be eroded even before the popular eruptions in the region, in part because of Obama’s capitulation to Netanyahu. Whatever willingness there may have been among Arab regimes to join Israel and the US in an anti-Iran coalition, it will be weakened by the fall of Mubarak. Iran’s influence in the region will be strengthened. The enmity of most Arab regimes towards Iran is not shared by their citizens, primarily because they saw Iran as having assumed leadership in the struggle against Israel’s occupation of Palestine that their own leaders abandoned.

After the revolution, the future of the (de)stabilizing Israel-Egypt peace treaty by Patrick Seale | The Middle East Channel

By removing Egypt -- the strongest and most populous of the Arab countries -- from the Arab line-up, the treaty ruled out any possibility of an Arab coalition that might have contained Israel or restrained its freedom of action. As Israeli Foreign Minister Moshe Dayan remarked at the time: "If a wheel is removed, the car will not run again."

Western commentators routinely describe the treaty as a ‘pillar of regional stability,' a ‘keystone of Middle East diplomacy,' a ‘centerpiece of America's diplomacy' in the Arab and Muslim world. This is certainly how Israel and its American friends have seen it.

But for most Arabs, it has been a disaster. Far from providing stability, it exposed them to Israeli power. Far from bringing peace, the treaty ensured an absence of peace, since a dominant Israel saw no need to compose or compromise with Syria or the Palestinians.

Instead, the treaty opened the way for Israeli invasions, occupations and massacres in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, for strikes against Iraqi and Syrian nuclear sites, for brazen threats against Iran, for the 44-year occupation of the West Bank and the cruel blockade of Gaza, and for the pursuit of a ‘Greater Israel' agenda by fanatical Jewish settlers and religious nationalists.

In turn, Arab dictators, invoking the challenge they faced from an aggressive and expansionist Israel, were able to justify the need to maintain tight control over their populations by means of harsh security measures.