international analysis and commentary

The Egyptian revolution from Israel’s perspective

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On the day of Mubarak’s resignation, the Israeli Defense Forces’ outgoing Chief of General Staff, Gabi Ashkenazi, showed concern about what he called the thickening “fog in the Middle East’s skies”. On the Israeli military radio station Galatz he said, “Our duty is to keep the State of Israel strong and ready, and guarantee that we won’t get caught unprepared once more.” As an immediate reflex to the uncertain situation, the Knesset increased the military budget by about 140 million euros. Just one day earlier, in a last attempt to save former Egyptian President Mubarak, the Netanyahu government sent out letters to the US and European governments which, as reported by Israel’s most influential newspaper Ha’aretz, stated that the “Americans and the Europeans are being pulled along by public opinion and aren’t considering their genuine interests.” According to the newspaper, the letter went on to say, “they have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the reactions in the West, how everyone is abandoning Mubarak, and this will have very serious implications.” Subsequently, in the wake of Mubarak’s fall, Obama dispatched his chief of staff to Israel, as well as to other Middle Eastern countries considered allies, to assure them of continuing US support.

In fact, the Egyptian regime had closely cooperated with Israel regarding its biggest security challenges: Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas. Egypt closed down its border with Gaza to isolate Hamas and would have proved a stable ally even in the case of an Israeli attack on Iran. Furthermore, Mubarak acted as a broker between the Israeli government and the Palestinian Authority and so Israeli President Shimon Peres claimed in front of visiting members of the European Parliament that Mubarak’s contribution to peace “will never be forgotten.” This constant repetition of peace with Egypt as “a primary strategic asset for Israel” was the most heartfelt mantra in the last days. Mubarak was a cornerstone of Israeli-Egyptian relations and the collapse of this foreign policy pillar worries the political establishment, not least because – as Emily Landau, a nuclear arms control expert at the Israeli Institute for National Security Studies, pointed out – Egypt has a civilian nuclear power program. The crucial question for Israelis therefore is: what happens if Islamist forces take over the Egyptian government following free and fair elections?

Ynetnews, an English-language Israeli news website, for example, voiced the fear that “Mubarak and his people understood something that 100 Obamas will not understand even 50 years from now: Mubarak and his regime were apparently the last obstacle in a conflicted world facing an Islamist tsunami, a predator that is already devouring some European states and turning the world into an increasingly less comfortable place to live in.” In contrast, a growing Israeli blog project based in Tel Aviv, called +972, wrote that the “Islamists’ role has been greatly exaggerated in Western discourse, and nowhere more so than in Israel.” Even Mig News, a daily Israeli newspaper in Russian language, representative of a community usually perceived as more hawkish, commented that the revolution in Tahrir Square was “motivated by Arab pride, not Islamism” and that “it did not seek to turn the country into an Iranian satellite.”

In a similar vein, Israeli Minister of Defense Ehud Barak rejected the idea that the uprising resembled the 1979 Iranian one and said – as reported in the Jerusalem Post – that the Egyptian revolution was “something which emerges very genuinely and in a spontaneous manner. It was not something that was organized by extremist groups of Muslim radical origins.” The online version of Yedioth Achronot, Israel’s most read newspaper, went even further and argued that the demonstrators are not burning Israeli flags and that with democratic Arab countries “it would finally become possible to speak a common language with them. After all, democracy is the rule of the people, and when the people engage in conversation with their neighbors, they will decide in favor of the broad interest, that is, in favor of peace.” Other observers  doubt that Egypt will turn into a real democracy. Ma’ariv, a right-leaning Israeli daily newspaper, argues that the chances of true freedom “are not high. All that remains for us is to watch patiently and not do anything stupid.”

Palestinian commentators, on the other hand, pointed out that not all Islamic movements were necessarily anti-democratic. One of the most outstanding Palestinian commentators, Ghassan Khatib, wrote on bitterlemons.com, a web-based Israeli-Palestinian political dialogue magazine, that “there are two schools of thought among the Islamic movements in the area: one is completely committed to the democratic process, and the other is less explicit but leaves the door open to transforming the regime into an Islamic one. It is time for the Islamic movement in the region to make its commitment to the democratic process very clear.”

Beside the analyses and opinions, there have been practical repercussions in Israel and the Palestinian territories. Arab-Israeli citizens all over Israel were celebrating the fall of Mubarak, as were people in the occupied Palestinian territories. For example, hundreds of demonstrators marched to Al Manara Square in Ramallah in support of the Tahrir Square revolution, chanting in Arabic “Egyptians are Palestinians. Tunisians are Palestinians.” The protest was suppressed by the Palestinian Authority, like so many Egyptian pro-Palestinian demonstrations had been quelled by former President Mubarak in the past. In the wake of the freedom movements in many Arab countries, the Palestinian Authority also felt forced to act and is now thinking about changing the government and initiating the long over-due presidential and parliamentary elections in September of this year. Israeli newspapers reported that the chances of Hamas in these elections were low and also commented on the meaning of these changes for the Israeli-Palestinian peace process. The Jerusalem Post wrote that Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad had expressed hopes that the new situation in the Middle East would increase the possibility of founding a Palestinian State; Ha’aretz reported that Shimon Peres urged Prime Minister Netanyahu at the annual Israeli security conference in Herzliya “to move quickly toward a solution in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process in light of the crisis that has wracked Egypt over the last two weeks.”

The wave of popular calls for freedom in the Middle East has flooded away many certainties in Israel and the whole region. However, while the doors of comfortable arrangements with autocracies are closing, windows of opportunity are opening up for Israel. The new calls for freedom are also hitting the streets of Damascus, Tehran and Gaza, and Israel might now have the chance to pursue real peace. Instead of brokering peace treaties which are autocratically imposed on its neighboring people, Israel could begin making agreements with these people directly – meaning that now there could finally be a sliver of hope.