The revolution unfolding in Egypt and other Arab lands has set Israeli hearts racing with anxiety. There are so many ways in which regime change in Egypt could prove calamitous for Israel that it’s hard to know where to begin. And yet, the very fact that Israelis have to spend their nights worrying about what comes tomorrow in a country with which they signed a peace treaty more than 30 years ago, shows the danger of relying on unelected dictators in the quest for peace.
“Never trust a government that doesn’t trust its own people,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner and Soviet dissident Andrei Sakharov used to say.
Israelis had complained about the “Cold Peace” they had with Egypt, worried about the poisonous anti-Israel sentiment that President Hosni Mubarak did little to stop in his country. The standard reply was that Cold Peace is better than Hot War. No question about that.
But the anti-Israel conspiracy theories that wafted in the winding alleys of Arab bazaars came with the encouragement of dictators throughout the Middle East, who needed, as every dictator knows, an external enemy to keep them in power. The dark sentiment raised the danger that any relationship Israel developed with an Arab country could collapse the day the hated dictator fell. And everyone knew that sooner or later the people would say Enough! to the despots ruling over them. Then what?
Now the whole world wonders what’s next. In Israel, the question has a life-and-death ring.
Mubarak, for all his faults, kept his country at peace with Israel. He helped block dangerous weapons reaching Hamas, the Palestinian branch of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, and worked for regional stability.
Will the Brotherhood, the only organized entity outside of government, now take over? Probably not, at least not in the short term. But the group, one of whose leaders just told an Iranian television station that Egypt should prepare for war with Israel, will undoubtedly play an important role in the future.
Even if Egypt emerges as a true democracy, with open multiparty elections, the relationship with Israel and with the United States will become completely different. Most Egyptians, even secular ones, have grown up hearing twisted tales about evil Israel.
The uprising shows that the fate of Palestinians, about three percent of the world’s Arab population, were not the foremost concern on most people’s minds despite what the West was led to believe. And yet, most people do have exceedingly negative feelings towards Israel ― and the U.S.
In last year’s Pew poll, only 17 percent of Egyptians said they had a positive image of America. Clearly, this revolution has dramatically undercut America’s influence in one of the world’s most important regions. America has become a less powerful country. And Washington’s loss of influence is bad news for Israel, especially when the future looks so uncertain.
When Israelis look to their borders, what they see is rather chilling. To the north, they see Hezbollah, all but in control of Lebanon. To the east, they see ― they can almost touch ― the Palestinian Authority-governed West Bank, and Jordan. The West Bank is within walking distance of large Israeli cities. Israelis imagine what would be happening now if a State of Palestine were undergoing Egypt-style turmoil, at Israel’s doorstep. To the south, there is Hamas, about to become stronger, and Egypt, the Arab country with the biggest population and the most powerful army.
Suddenly, the worst-case scenarios for the future brings back memories of the pre-Camp David days, when Israel, smaller than New Hampshire, found itself surrounded by massive enemies on all sides.
Before gloom overpowers the country, it is worth remembering that Egypt could, in fact, emerge as a democracy. As a democracy, it might look like Turkey, a Muslim country with a mildly Islamist government that is not exactly friendly with Israel, but is not its overt enemy. Egypt has a strong, respected and responsible military. If Egypt ends up becoming an Iran-style Islamist dictatorship, it could prove disastrous not just for Israel but for the United States and its allies. But Egypt has pressing economic needs and it does not have oil like Iran. It needs the world.
If real democracy emerges, Israel could start building, difficult as that will be, a new relationship on more solid ground; not peace with one man or one regime, but real, lasting, peace with an Arab country and with its people.
Frida Ghitis writes about global affairs for the Miami Herald. Readers may send her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org. ― Ed.