Israelis divided on how to respond to Egypt turmoil
As Israel faces what many fear could turn into its most serious national security threat in decades, fault lines are widening over how it should respond and some critics say the government appears ill prepared.
With the resignation Friday of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, who was widely seen as Israel’s most predictable Arab ally, a quiet panic is spreading here as Israelis debate their next move.
“This whole situation is making Israel’s hawks more hawkish and the doves more dovish,” said Yossi Alpher, a former government peace talks advisor and co-editor of Bitterlemons.net, a Middle East political research firm.
Critics say Israel’s leaders have so far seemed surprisingly unprepared to react to leadership change in Egypt, whose landmark 1979 peace treaty with Israel has long been a cornerstone of Israel’s stability.
Even as late as Thursday, many Israeli officials were still confidently predicting that Mubarak would survive until at least September. An Israeli lawmaker telephoned Mubarak on Thursday afternoon to offer words of encouragement.
“They allowed themselves to go into denial,” said Daniel Levy, a former Israeli Justice Ministry advisor who is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation in Washington. “Now they’ve got no strategy and their options just narrowed.”
Levy said Israel had relied heavily on Mubarak to defend its regional policies regarding peace talks with the Palestinians and the security cordon around the Gaza Strip, and now will have difficulties adjusting to a more democratic Egyptian government.
“You can’t be a friend of Arab democracy if you’re an enemy of Palestinian freedom,” Levy said. “In that sense, they are as out of touch with Middle East reality as Mubarak was.”
Israeli government officials declined to comment Friday evening.
George Friedman, chief executive of Stratfor, a global political research firm, said, “Israel focused on the Mubarak government as if it were eternal.”
“Israelis have obsessed over lesser threats like Hezbollah [in Lebanon], Hamas [in the Gaza Strip] and the notional threat of Iranian nuclear weapons, but they took for granted the relationship with Egypt, which is a much greater threat to Israel’s survival.”
Friedman said Israel has relied too heavily on the United States and the international community to protect its interests. “What is Israel’s national strategy to maintain the peace treaty with Egypt?” he said. “There are things they could do, but they don’t want to do them.”
In Israel, familiar camps are forming over how the country should act. On one side, many conservatives are pushing Israel to circle the wagons, bolster its defenses and lobby the international community to ensure that Egypt’s next government is as friendly toward Israel as the current one.
Others say that now is the time to try to make friends in the region, by attempting to restore soured relations with Turkey, pursuing a peace deal with Syria and ending the occupation of the West Bank.
Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s right-wing government so far has focused its official statements on warning against an Islamist takeover of Egypt. In a speech Tuesday to European leaders, Netanyahu sounded an alarm that Egypt could “go the way of Iran.”
Behind the scenes, Israeli officials have argued to the United States that, in the volatile Middle East, stability should trump democracy. They advocated that Mubarak’s close aides or the military should take power rather than handing control over to a civilian body or opposition coalition. According to a newly released WikiLeaks cable, Israeli officials told U.S. officials in 2008 that they viewed Omar Suleiman, whom Mubarak recently made his vice president, as a suitable replacement for Mubarak.
Israel seems to be betting that whatever power takes control in Egypt, it probably will opt to honor the 1979 treaty rather than risk resumed hostilities with Israel. Nevertheless, Israel’s military is preparing to boost its defenses along its southwestern border with Egypt, accelerating construction of a security fence.
Regarding stalled U.S.-brokered peace talks, most expect Netanyahu’s government to adopt a harder line, particularly when it comes to territorial concessions.
“The new situation will push Israel to be much more obstinate in demands from Palestinians,” said Zvi Mazel, another former Israeli ambassador to Egypt. “We will need a lot of guarantees.”
Israeli President Shimon Peres is among those countering that Israel should move aggressively to reach an agreement on a Palestinian state to bolster its moderate allies in Egypt.
“These dramatic events increase the necessity of removing the burden of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict from the regional agenda,” Peres told a gathering of opinion makers at the annual Herzliya Conference.
Some believe a deal for Palestinian statehood would increase support for moderates in Egypt and Jordan, who have paid a political price in recent years for working with Israel even amid its controversial military offensives in Lebanon and Gaza. Jordan’s King Abdullah II, whose country signed a 1994 peace treaty with Israel, recently distanced himself from Netanyahu, citing the lack of progress on peace talks.
Others suggest that Israel should revisit its rejection of the 2002 Arab League peace initiative, which offered Israel normalized relations with Arab nations in return for an end to the occupation.
“Rejecting the Arab peace initiative was a grave mistake,” said Moshe Maoz, a professor of Islamic and Mideast studies at the Harry S. Truman Institute for the Advancement of Peace. “We are becoming much more isolated. This may be our last chance.”
Critics scoff at the notion that resolving the Palestinian problem would suddenly end hostility toward Israel, saying the poor relations are rooted in anti-Semitism or a refusal to recognize Israel’s right to exist. After three decades of a “cold peace” with Egypt, Israeli businesses complain that their attempts to bolster trade have been rejected. In 2010, the countries traded about $500 million worth of goods, a relatively small amount considering Egypt’s size.
“We tried everything [to make peace with the Arab world],” former ambassador Mazel said. “They are not ready to accept us.”
Alon Liel, a former director general of Israel’s Foreign Ministry, said Israel must decide whether it wants to try to reach out to the Arab world. He said that a decade ago, Israel had diplomatic relations with nine Muslim countries that have all since closed their offices or withdrawn representatives. Egypt, he warned, may be next.
“Israel has been ousted from the Middle East,” Liel said. “The Israeli government seems to be in this mood that says, ‘All right, if the Middle East is lost for now, we can do without it.’ … Now we have to think about our action plan. We have two choices: accept it, or try to change it.”
Batsheva Sobelman of The Times’ Jerusalem Bureau contributed to this report.