Israel’s post-Mubarak fear

by Gwynne Dyer

LONDON — In his first public comment on the unfolding drama in Egypt, Benjamin Netanyahu, Israel’s prime minister, worried aloud last week that the right analogy may be the Iranian revolution of 1979: “Our real fear is of a situation . . . which has already developed in several countries including Iran itself, repressive regimes of radical Islam.”

The nonsectarian, nonparty protesters in Egypt who have driven President Hosni Mubarak to the brink of resignation, suggests Netanyahu, may lose control of their revolution just as the Iranians lost theirs to the ayatollahs.

The Muslim Brotherhood, an Islamist party that is particularly strong among the poor, might gain a dominant position in the new Egyptian government. The Muslim Brotherhood have always condemned the peace treaty that Egypt signed with Israel 32 years ago, so they serve as a sort of shorthand in Israeli politics for the nightmare scenario in which Egypt cancels the peace treaty.

In fact, you don’t even need the Muslim Brotherhood to make the scenario credible: a majority of Egyptians dislike the treaty and would like to see it canceled.

Cancellation of the peace treaty is not likely to lead to war between Egypt and Israel. It would certainly cause a huge rise in Israeli military spending, but the threat that a post-Mubarak regime would pose to Israel is more political than strictly military. As is the threat from Iran.

The Iranian regime has never attacked any other country, but it does support the Hezbollah organization in southern Lebanon, whose militia fought the Israeli army to a standstill in 2006. The Hamas movement, a Palestinian party modeled on Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood, could become equally formidable militarily with support from Cairo.

Hamas controls the Gaza Strip, which shares a border with Egypt. With Egyptian backing, it might also overthrow the Palestinian Authority that currently controls the West Bank, for that body has been discredited by its corruption and its long collaboration with Israel.

Even without a war, therefore, an elected Egyptian government would greatly compound Israel’s security problems. Hamas could end up in control of all the occupied Palestinian territories, and Jordan would have great difficulty in preserving its peace treaty with Israel. No wonder Netanyahu is concerned.

But Netanyahu’s own policy, which boils down to avoiding serious negotiations with the Palestinians and hanging onto the West Bank indefinitely, is not sustainable in the long run. Palestinians are moving toward the view that no “two-state” solution is possible, and that the right strategy is to accept the unity of all of the former British mandate of Palestine.

The Israeli army effectively unified all of that land in 1967 and has dominated the Palestinian-majority parts of it ever since. But the Palestinian birthrate is considerably higher than the Jewish population growth rate, even though the latter benefits from massive immigration, so the day is not far off when Arabs will outnumber Jews within the old borders of mandatory Palestine, i.e. all the lands between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

When that day arrives, say the proponents of the “one-state” solution, Palestinians need merely demand the vote throughout that territory, and Israel as we know it will be finished. It will become a civil rights issue in which Israel is cast as a new apartheid regime, and support for it will drain away even in the United States. Significantly, this is the implicit strategy of Hamas.

If a new Egyptian government adopts this policy, Israel will not just have a bigger security problem. It will face an existential problem, albeit one that will only play out over several decades. What can Netanyahu (or any Israeli leader) do to avoid this outcome?

There is going to be a new Egyptian government very soon. It will probably not be dominated by the Muslim Brotherhood, at least in the early days, for they cannot claim credit for the revolution. So there may still be a window of opportunity in which an Israeli offer to allow a Palestinian state on all the land beyond the country’s pre-1967 borders could revive the “two-state” option.

It is unlikely to remain open for long, however, and it is hard to see how the Israeli electorate could be persuaded to jump through it in time. Netanyahu, given the character of his governing coalition, certainly could not do it, and it’s not clear whether any other coalition of Israeli parties could either.

At a time when bold steps are called for, Israeli politics is effectively paralyzed. But then, it has been effectively paralyzed by the settlements issue for several decades, and most of the time available for implementing a “two-state” solution has already been wasted.

Given that the emergence of two legitimate and universally recognized states in former Palestine, the larger of which would be Jewish, should be Israel’s main security goal, it has been extraordinarily negligent of its own interests. And now it may be too late.

Gwynne Dyer’s latest book, “Climate Wars,” is distributed in most of the world by Oneworld.