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Borderline

There are several good reasons why Israelis are pulling for the Mubarak regime to hold onto power in Egypt. But maybe they should be embracing change there, instead.

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A Hamas security agent closes a border crossing between Egypt and the Gaza Strip on Sunday. (Said Khatib/AFP/Getty Images)
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Burning Bush

The mass uprising in Egypt that seems set to overthrow the Mubarak regime is the latest test of George W. Bush’s Freedom Agenda. The U.S. and Israel are hoping it works out better than the previous three.

Never have so many Jews lost so much sleep over the fate of one ailing Arab dictator.

This would be the opening line to a Jackie Mason monologue if it wasn’t a pretty valid description of the way most Israelis spent their weekend. Judging by the extensive (if not borderline compulsive) manner in which the Israeli media has been covering the recent events in Egypt, one would be correct to assume that in a very strange, if not ironic, twist, Israel has come to see its own fate as tied to that of the waning regime of President Hosni Mubarak. Although Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his ministers to keep silent about the events in Egypt, a top government official present at the high-level security meeting called by the Israeli prime minister on Saturday night expressed what ordinary Israelis and policymakers alike seem to have been feeling this weekend: “We all want to believe that the steps taken by Mubarak will put a stop to the demonstrations.”

There are many reasons why Israelis are losing sleep over the fate of the ailing Egyptian autocrat and keeping their fingers crossed that the demonstrations simmer down. And although they are diverse, complex, and even contradictory, they all suggest that whether or not Mubarak actually makes it through this unprecedented challenge to his 30-year rule, Israelis are anxious about waking up in a new Middle East without him. Here are the four main reasons:

1. The Return of the Southern Front

With the signing of the Camp David peace accords with Egypt in 1979, Israel had a major weight—militarily and economically—lifted from its back. Having secured its vast southern border through diplomacy, it was able to commit the bulk of its military to securing its increasingly volatile northern borders with Lebanon and Syria, and, perhaps just as significantly, in the process it was also able to reallocate valuable resources and manpower from the military toward economic and social ends. More than anything else, the peace with Egypt—which had been Israel’s most formidable military foe in all its wars until that point—enabled Israeli strategic planners to focus on the ever-growing Iran-Syria-Hezbollah axis while constructing an elaborate defense strategy that relied upon one fundamental premise: that Israel’s southern border would remain quiet in the event of a regional war.

But this premise—long the backbone of Israel’s post-1979 strategic thinking—is now jeopardized. Without the assurances of an Egyptian regime dedicated to maintaining the Camp David accords, Israel will have to reorient its defense strategy while also finding a way to neutralize the extremely powerful Egyptian military—one that, courtesy of $1.5 billion from the United States each year, has acquired U.S.-made M1 Abrams battle tanks, Apache helicopters, and F-16 fighter jets. Not only would a hostile Egyptian regime potentially threaten Israel’s southern flank in time of war, but it could also cut off Israel’s access to the Suez Canal—a pivotal sea lane for Israeli submarines, which, in the event of war with Iran, would have to make their way to the Persian Gulf. Finally, one cannot forget that Israel’s most dedicated partner in isolating Hamas and maintaining the blockade on Gaza is the Egyptian Army. Any deterioration in this cooperation, which has successfully limited arms smuggling into Gaza, could further empower Hamas.

Taking all this into account, it’s not surprising that the reopening up of a southern front may be the closest thing to an existential threat that Israeli policymakers can foresee, with the exception of an Iranian nuclear weapon.

2. The Islamist Challenge

The peril of radical Islam has always been the Gordian knot that has tied Israeli and Egyptian security interests together. Under the premise that my enemy’s enemy is my friend, Israeli and Egyptian intelligence services have long cooperated in combating Islamic terrorism and curtailing Hamas—which, because of its close ties to Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is feared by Egyptians as much as by the Israelis. The possible collapse of a secular pro-Western regime in Egypt has always been so disquieting to Israelis precisely because of the chance that it could unleash latent radical Islamic forces and, in the process, create a fundamentalist Sunni regime in Cairo that would align with Hamas, Hezbollah, and Iran. Look at a map: This would, quite literally, encircle Israel in a ring of Jihad.

Based on a startling 2008 Gallup poll that found a whopping 64 percent of Egyptians in favor of making Sharia law into the exclusive source of their legal code, one can certainly understand concerns about the potential radicalization of the most populous Arab country.

Although the Muslim Brotherhood has so far maintained a conspicuously low profile in the ongoing demonstrations, taking a back seat to the secular democratic forces, the well-organized, well-financed, and politically savvy organization founded by Hassan al-Banna over 80 years ago may simply be biding its time and waiting for the opportunity to take advantage of a post-Mubarak power vacuum in order to make its move in a Bolshevik-style power grab.

3. The Arab Street

The rise of the Arab street and particularly its mercurial and unpredictable populist elements—which may very well be animated by a genuine democratic impulse—remains a paramount source of anxiety for Israelis. The experience of the past five years certainly proves why: With the exception of in Iraq, all recent popular democratic elections in the region have only eroded Israel’s national security. In Lebanon, the once-promising “Cedar Revolution” allowed Hezbollah to consolidate power and tighten its grip on the dangerously bifurcated country through political means; in the Palestinian territories, democratic elections empowered militant Hamas at the expense of a more moderate Fatah; and in Turkey, the end of the decades-long military control of civilian government has resulted in the ascension of populist forces such as Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party that has severely strained the longstanding friendship between Ankara and Jerusalem and helped turn the former allies into foes. With such a hostile Arab street, it’s quite clear why some of Israel’s best friends have repeatedly also been among the region’s staunchest enemies of democratic reform: Mubarak, King Hussein of Jordan, the shah of Iran, and the Turkish military brass. Haaretz political analyst Aluf Benn lamented over the weekend that “Israel now remains without any more friends in the Middle East.” That may be so, but only because with friends like these there was never any real chance of connecting with the Arab street in the first place.

4. The Loss of Israel’s ‘Special Status’

Finally, maybe the powerful, if unspoken, fear spurring Israelis to cross their fingers for Mubarak is the eventual loss of its special status as the “chosen nation,” a status afforded to it as the only free and democratic society in a region dominated by authoritarian dictatorships. When, over a century ago, Theodor Herzl was shuttling around European capitals looking to acquire a charter that would enable the Jewish settlement of Ottoman Palestine, he would often invoke the promise that the future Jewish State would serve as a “rampart for Europe” and an “outpost of civilization” that could preserve liberal-democratic traditions in the face of “barbarism.” As Todd Gitlin and Tablet Magazine’s Liel Leibovitz sketch out nicely in their new book, The Chosen Peoples, this idea of being a “chosen nation”—largely due to a regionally unique democratic character—continues to frame much of the contemporary political thought in Israel. Having become a staple of presidential and congressional talking points, Israel’s unrivaled position as the only democracy in a region that has known nothing but endemic repression and political injustice remains a priceless diplomatic asset. (Just last week, the French Philosopher Bernard-Henri Lévy chastised the boycott and divestment movement against Israel by saying that “one doesn’t boycott the only free society in the Mideast.”)

But if genuine democracy takes hold in Egypt—or anywhere else in the Middle East—it could also spell the end of Israel’s monopoly on righteousness and endanger this special status, along with the lucrative benefits that have come with it. Among them: gargantuan amounts of U.S. military aid (which Sen. Rand Paul has just proposed eliminating) and the U.S. veto at the U.N. Security Council, which has consistently parried any substantial attempts at condemning Israel in the world body. Finally, and possibly most disheartening for many Israelis, there is the chance that a genuine Arab democracy might raise the bar for Israel and prompt international calls for it to get its own democracy in order, end the occupation of Palestinian territories, and amend its discriminatory policies toward its Arab minority.

***

Israelis are right to be terrified by all these scenarios. The peace accord with Egypt is without a doubt the most important strategic contribution to their national security since the founding of the state. But there is also another way of looking at the tectonic political shifts reshaping the bedrock of the modern Middle East. A truly democratic Egypt might offer Israelis the chance to achieve what the “cold peace” with Mubarak never did—by actually establishing real and warm relations with a real and stable democracy. Over the years, Israelis have come to expect so little from the normalization of affairs with Egypt that they have forgotten what “normal” actually means.

Israel has often been forced to ignore the Mubarak regime’s persistent turning of a blind eye to—if not outwardly sanctioning—rabid anti-Semitic and anti-Zionist conspiratorial propaganda. By all accounts, middle-class moderates—and not Muslim radicals—are primarily responsible for the demonstrations we are witnessing across Egypt, at least so far. And although some of these elements are hostile to Israel, many of them aren’t. One recalls that among Israel’s dearest friends in the Arab world are still people like the courageous Egyptian playwright Ali Salem, who was ostracized by his colleagues for his visits to Israel and persecuted by the Mubarak regime.

That Israel was able to make friends like Salem under a regime that did not tolerate such friendships only suggests that in a free and open Egyptian society, Salem and his counterparts who support normalization with the Jewish state may become the norm rather than the exception. If Israelis can overcome their own myopic anxieties, they could yet come to realize that instead of facing a moment of grave peril, they might be looking at one of unprecedented opportunity.

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I really like the thrust towards optimism at the end of this article: a free and democratic Egypt could be the best thing that’s ever happened to the Middle East, assuming it is actually both those things. If the people of Egypt feel that the Muslim Brotherhood bet represents their interests, then we could e facing a major problem. As you point out though, theres reason to believe that the majority of protesters are not radical Muslims, but rather middle-class workers who are fed up with their dictator and the rising cost of living in their country. That doesnt sound so different than America’s own story. Perhaps instead of holding our breath and hoping for the “best” (I.e. The continuation of a pro-Western dictatorship), America and Israel should be supporting the struggle of the Egyptian peoples to form a real democratic state in the Middle East. After all, it was just that kind of reaction to the Iranian Revolution that allowed the Ayatollah to gain so much popular support. We need to show the people of Egypt that the Muslim Brotherhood is not their only option, that they have other allies against oppression. If America and Israel both want to cling to their country’s “exceptionalism” than this is the responsibility that comes with that. Otherwise we’re just hypocrites, and the rest of the world knows it.

A couple of points: The Egyptian public has been fed a steady diet of anti-antisemitism, so even if the Moslem brotherhood doesn’t take power, whoever does take power will probably be anti-Israel. Israel has alot to fear and it is not “myopic anxieties” Also nothing is more absurd to hear Egyptians harping out Palestinian rights when they are blockading Gaza and also occupied Gaza from 1948-1967 when it was supposed to be part of Palestine.
As for special status; what a joke. You write as if the only reason Israel is a democracy is to con money out of the USA. Everyone in Israel is fervently wishing that all our neighbors would be true democracies. Unfortunately, the only real democratic elections among our neighbors resulted in hamas taking power in Gaza. Funny how you didn’t mention that.

fred lapides says:

In the present power struggle, there is no clear-cut by the army to take a strong stance either way. There also is no clear alternative to the present leadership in Egypt. And that means the Brotherhood will make itself felt, one way or another. For those who believe that group is “moderate,” here is their position:

Khaled Hamza, editor of the Muslim Brotherhood’s official website, considered a voice of “moderation” within the party:

What about relations with Israel? What would the Brotherhood do regarding the situation between Israel and Palestine?
We think Israel is an occupation force and is not fair to the Palestinians. We do not believe in negotiation with Israel. As the Muslim Brotherhood, we must resist all this. They are an occupation force and we must resist this. Did you see what they do in Gaza, on the flotilla? Israel is a very dangerous force and we must resist. Resistance is the only way, negotiation is not useful at all.
So would the Muslim Brotherhood, if in a position of government, help groups like Hamas?
Yes, sure.
Do you recognize Israel as a state?
No.

S. Heilman says:

Unfortunately, thus far all the ‘popular’ uprisings in the region have not resulted in regimes friendly to Israel or interested in normalizing relations. The revolutions in Iran, Lebanon, Gaza, and even in Iraq (if there is anything that unifies the Iraqis) have yielded regimes that are even more hostile to Israel than ever. Israel has always depended on its powerful allies in the West to help them out, but now it is clear the state will have to make its own peace with its neighbors. Now, however, it will do so out of weakness rather strength, and that means the deal will be far less advantageous for the Israelis than it once might have been. The stalling by this Prime Minister and his government has turned out to be the worst strategy imaginable.

A.L. Bell says:

I think it’s important to be pro-peace, pro-democracy and pro-realism all at the same time, and to avoid making a choice between those goals in any situation involving hypotheticals.

People who feel confident optimism about the uprisings in Egypt and elsewhere are naive. Even if most of the protesters are nice, peaceful people, that doesn’t mean changes in governments in the Middle East will go well. The outcome of any change could be as bad for ordinary people in the Middle East as well as for Israel. .

But, at the same time, no matter how risky these uprisings are, and no matter how helpful officials in countries like Egypt and Tunisia are, how can we possibly stand up for presidents who use torture to stay in power for decades? What does it do for the “Jewish brand” if we intentionally, in the 21st century, with full knowledge of the concepts of torture and dictatorship, consciously support brutal dictatorships that happen to be “good for the Jews”?

So, I think the best strategy is to adopt roughly the same position that Obama has adopted:

- Express our support for democracy and the idea that all governments should respect basic human rights, including the right of people to assemble and seek redress of their grievances.

- Express warm support for all people in the Middle East and the rest of the world who sincerely want democracy, even if they may disagree with us on important issues. You shouldn’t have to sign a position paper to get us to acknowledge that you have the right to live in a free, just society.

- Make it clear that it’s really up to the people in other countries to decide what their governments will look like.

- Say we want a warm, respectful peace with all.

- Declare that, whatever the practical problems of the moment may be, we want to create a world where all children throughout the Middle East grow up with peace, good treatment and prosperity.

- Keep the Israeli military well-trained, well-armed and on the highest possible alert.

- Have the equivalent of an extra Day of Atonement, apologize to G-d for forgiveness for our many sins, and give more to charity, just in case that might help.

Ken Besig, Israel says:

I see Fromer another Left wing writer for the almost defunct Left wing rag Maariv, now lives in New York, safe and comfortable, and certainly in no danger from the possibility of another Egyptian war to destroy Israel.
From on Mount Olympus in New York Fromer gives us his Peace Now diatribe, if only those hard line and distrustful Israelis would believe in the wonderful peace loving Arabs, whether Palestinian or Egyptian, then they would see the greatness of peace, or some such blithering nonsense.
Fromer does admit that there is a chance that radical Islamic fundamentalists who have made no effort to conceal their wish to destroy Israel might just take advantage of the popular discontent in Egypt to overthrow Mubarak and take over in Mubarak’s place.
This could turn out badly, in fact even fatally, for Israeli’s like me who actually live here, but for Fromer in New York, this is hardly likely and I should really have more faith in the goodness of Egypt and embrace their revolution.
It seems like Fromer is either lethally naive, impossible stupid, or perhaps so deeply steeped in Left wing, Peace Now, secular Israel yordim ideology that he can no longer even think slightly realistically.
And the best part is that he is writing and preaching all this tripe from the safety of New York in the United States. Yeah yeah, he has family here, yaddah, yaddah, yaddah, blah, blah, blah but I see he isn’t putting his valuable skin on the line.

A quick note: It’s not the Cedar Revolution that allowed the Hezbollah to come back in power. The struggle for power existed before. It’s the assassination of Hariri that left a void and led to everything else….including the 2006 war that was literally a gift from Israel to the Hezbollah.

Can you tell me who are the “Israelis pulling for the Mubarak regime to hold onto power in Egypt”? I am in Israel. Heard nobody pulling for Mubarak to hold on to power. The Israelis, generally, did not comment one way or another, even if we are dead scared of another Islamist regime that will be elected (just like in Gaza and Turkey) and will get the “Kosher” certificate for being democratic. As for myself,I keep the old tradition of preferring the old Pharaoh , to which we are used, to a new unknown king . (see beginning of Exodus)

allan siegel says:

You’re a bunch of fence straddlers and come on guys lets grow up. Statements like this: “Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, is feared by Egyptians as much as by the Israelis” or “the only free and democratic society in a region dominated by authoritarian dictatorships” (seems to be referring to Israel her) should be less authoritarian but Israel is democratic (and only that) for part of the society plus how can a non-secular society be truly democratic? OR this statement: “But if genuine democracy takes hold in Egypt—or anywhere else in the Middle East—it could also spell the end of Israel’s monopoly on righteousness and endanger this special status, along with the lucrative benefits that have come with it.” This is a kind of self-righteous arrogance that has lead Israel into the corner it now occupies, no wonder people are trembling.

Derek Says interpretation of Yoav Fromer’s well presented article is a ray of hope. The statement ” ever have so many Jews lost so much sleep over the fate of one ailing Arab dictator.” is true. As my interests are with Israel, in the long run if a TRUE Democracy blossoms in Egypt,
there is a good chance our relationship could be a TRUE one.
Having grown up in a Democracy, one with a constitution and free press,
I offer an article by David Brooks in today’s NY Times as a positive view
on the longing for freedom. “The Quest for Dignity”
http://www.nytimes.com/2011/02/01/opinion/01brooks.html?hp
Sy Fort Lee NJ

Lesley Cohen says:

I like the comments from A.L. Bell. This is a precarious time for Israel and following the tactics Bell suggested may also help to reclaim legitimacy in the eyes of EU doubters, and the rest of the world.

Mark Jeffery Koch says:

Reuters is reporting that Israeli t.v. is saying “the United States as well as its major European allies appeared to be ready to dump a staunch strategic ally of three decades, simply to conform to the current ideology of political correctness.” If true, it is an absolute disgrace to make such a comment, as is Netanyahu’s continued support of Mubarak. The last thing any Jew anywhere in the world should ever do is support oppression and brutalization of another people.

It is not a matter of conforming to political correctness. It is a matter of liberty and freedom and people wanting to escape the jackboot of repression and Egyptians, as well as all Arabs, have the same rights to liberty as we have and they have the right to freedom of speech, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, and freedom of religion and if Israelis have a problem with this then the Israel that exists today is but a pale shadow of the light unto nations and land of milk and honey that people once loved and looked up to.

imiltonk says:

Not mentioned, but what is most important I think, is who is command of the Egyptian Army and what those politics are.

What a bunch of baloney. Egypt openly taught anti-Israel and anti-Jew indoctrination in all its schools. One could openly buy a copy of Mein Kampf or Protocols of theElders of Zion in any bookstore in Egypt. Their national TV just recently had anti-Jew series and no one said a word. The Arab Street hates Jews and Israel because like Germany they were indoctrinated to hate. I hope that all the Arabs get a fatal illness that only Jews have the cure and we don’t give it to them.

I never thought I would say this but I feel this is the beginning of Armageden. All the Arab countries are going to be lined up against Israel. Will Israel destroy its enemies? Not a chance. Israel, and I am an Israeli and lived there for 12 years and fought in the Golan, won’t use its weapons because they have lost their spirit and their bond with God. Ani loh Yehudi. Ani Israeli. How many times have I heard that garbage.

Bill Levy zev57@aol.com

All future governments in Egypt will continue to abide by the Peace Treaty with Israel. The reasons are:
1. It prevents Israel from engaging in raids against terrorists
by attacking Egypt as it does in Lebanon and Gaza;
2. No one in Egypt wants to have another war with Israel and die in it;
3. The focus of a new government will be economic development and the
restoration of civil rights. Both endeavors would be undermined by
a status of “war” with Israel.
This is not to say that the Egyptians love Israel or approve of its activities in Gaza, the WB, and East Jerusalem, but, nevertheless, they
do not want these issues to drag Egypt’s development down.

I just want to remind everybody that both Hamas and Hitler came to power through a democratic process. In other words, democracy is not always good for humanity and freedom and therefore Jews should’t blindly oppose dictators every time, in disregard to the situation on the ground, unless they want to dig a grave for themselves. Iranian Shah was also a dictator, by the way, and popular uprising against Lon Nol brought to power Pol Pot. I guess some Jews have very short memory.

I believe that there’s a vast territory between the cynicism that would have Israel support dictators in the name of realpolitik or see democracy as dangerous and a naive optimism that would leave us overly vulnerable. I feel that the very nature of the Israeli (and the US) response to the Democracy movement being born in Egypt will in large part determine the nature of the subsequent relationship with whatever new Egyptian governmant emerges. Obviously if Israel and the US are seen as supporters of Mubarak’s repressive, authoritarian regime up to the bitter end, any new regime — secular, Islamist or mixed — will see us as part of the problem — the enemy we cannot afford to be either practically or morally.

That is nonsense, Corey. Vast majority of Egyptians have already established their opinion about USA and Israel (based largely on propaganda, sermons of clerics and personal interactions) and no action will change it, either we support this movement or not.

Recent events in Tunisia, Yemen, Jordan and Egypt clearly illustrate just how volatile, unpredictable and unforgiving the Middle East can be. Lebanon, for example, Israel’s northern neighbor, has virtually fallen into Iran’s orbit with very ominous implications. Jordan, to the east, is also dangerously veering towards Iran’s magnetic pull. The fate of Egypt, Israel’s southern and most powerful neighbor, has suddenly become uncertain as well. Israel is surrounded by Arab states in flux. In the Middle East, there are no guarantees, no certainty and no mercy. This will only make it harder for Israel to maintain the delicate balance she needs to keep things quiet and even-keeled. If these seismic shifts occurring around her prove not to be a just passing phase but a permanent reshuffling of the deck, Israel will need rethink her strategies and get on the defensive to hold her own and survive.

So why then are the various “peace groups” such as Peace Now and others trying to sabotage Israel’s security at a time when she needs it most? By advocating for a “Two State Solution”, these groups are pushing for Israel to give up control over her most valuable land assets, Judea and Samaria (a.k.a “West Bank”). If these groups get their way, Israel will be left with INDEFENSIBLE borders. It doesn’t take too much of an imagination stretch to see that a new cataclysmic war would then follow.

Israel is an island of democracy, sanity and Judeo-Christian Western values in a sea of turmoil antithetical to the West and to peace. She has been correctly compared to the US’s largest “battleship” floating in an enemy-infested sea of intolerance. The last thing Israel and the West need are to be blindsided by these “peace groups” whose real agenda is only to undermine Israel’s security.

Repeat: Samaria (Shomron) is Israel’s most critically important real estate asset. Without it, her borders are indefensible. For a good, graphic look at Samaria, log onto:

http://shomroncentral.blogspot

Heck yeah bay-bee keep them coimng!

I’ve said that least 2350070 times. The problem this like that is they are just too compilcated for the average bird, if you know what I mean

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Borderline

There are several good reasons why Israelis are pulling for the Mubarak regime to hold onto power in Egypt. But maybe they should be embracing change there, instead.

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