CAIRO – Despite their long-established relations, at least on the official level, Egypt-Israeli affairs have never faced fatal threats as they do in 2011.
Since signing their peace treaty in 1979 under the full support of the United States, Egypt-Israeli official relations have resisted all major tests over more than three decades, including Israel’s attack on the Iraqi nuclear reactor in Baghdad (1981); the invasion of Lebanon (1982); two Palestinian intifadas; and various military operations in Lebanon, the West Bank, and Gaza, plus military tensions across borders. However, Egypt managed to maintain most of the articles in the military part of the treaty and helped softening the heat in the Arab-Israeli discourse, especially the Israeli-Palestinian issue.
With Egypt having toppled the Mubarak regime and passing through a transitional period to rebuild its political system with uncertainties on its future and foreign policies, Israel faces the most critical challenge to its relations with Egypt, which have always been the cornerstone for stability and peace — even if cold — in the Middle East. Taking into consideration the recent deterioration of its diplomatic and economic relations with Turkey — the second most important ally after Egypt in the region — and the Arab Spring popular uprisings, it is no exaggeration to conclude that the whole region will be reconstructed soon on different pillars and bases where Israel should “act” instead of “react” before it is too late.
The killing of five Egyptian security guards on the border possibly by Israeli gunfire, which was followed by demonstrations in front of the Embassy of Israel in Cairo, is believed by many analysts to be a normal, even if not accepted, reaction after three decades of Egypt’s unpopular peace treaty. If the treaty benefited U.S. through affirming its hegemony in the Middle East (which was contested by the then Soviet Union) and guarded Israeli existence by excluding Egypt from the Pan-Arabism which confronted Israeli existence, many Egyptians believe the treaty failed to offer similar advantages to their country.
The treaty promised Egypt that peace entailed economic growth and political reform. However, it ended up marginalizing Egyptian influence in the Arab World for the sake of other regional powers, such as Iran and Turkey, while domestically, neither growth nor political reform was achieved.
People-to-people relations have never been normalized due to anti-Israeli sentiments in the Egyptian street over continued Israeli violence against Palestinians, but at least government-to-government relations have had a strong push during Mubarak’s regime based on growing economic cooperation between the two nations. Now with Egypt and many other Arab countries starting a new phase in their history, three facts are to be recognized:
(1) The real weight in decision-making will be for people, not for politicians. Even if the peace treaty survives, it will have no value if people-to-people relations remain hostile.
(2) Muslim brotherhoods’ gaining power in Egypt will not be the only cause to make relations with Israel deteriorate further. Any political force that comes to power in Egypt will not be able to keep relations intact as they were during the Mubarak regime. Differences, if any, towards Israel will be only as to what extent each political force will get tough.
(3) While Egypt’s army is keen to keep the current relations, including the peace treaty, intact to maintain peace and security in the region, they cannot resist pressures to be hard on Israel under the current frozen peace situation. Maintaining the legitimacy that they gained from people after Jan. 25 will limit their choices to deal with Israel.
Therefore, Israel should abandon the “react” policy, which depends mainly on its strategic alliance with the U.S. and other western powers, and start to “act” positively towards securing its existence through building a real and just peace in the area.
If Israeli politicians keep their current policies of delaying peace, building settlements and awaiting the Arab Spring to end, then they are playing it the wrong way. If uncertainties now are great, there are more to come after the transitional period ends with many other Arab nations expected to turn to a democratic phase in their history. Israeli “act” actually means:
First: Consider Egyptian demands to amend the peace treaty, especially on the military section that demilitarizes Sinai Peninsula.
Second: Avoid any attack on Gaza, which would actually strengthen hardliner political power in Egypt as well as other Arab nations.
Third: a genuine freeze to the settlement projects coinciding with practical measures to sit with Palestinians to negotiate on the basis of the Arab Peace Treaty (2002).
President Sadat was brave to be the first Arab leader visiting Jerusalem to build peace and stop bloodshed in the region, a step that Egypt has paid much for. The Middle East now needs another brave Israeli leader to start building the devastated confidence and put a just peace plan into practice.
Ahmed Abd Rabou is assistant professor of comparative and Asian studies at Cairo University.
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