Why Israel fears a free Egypt

By Aaron David Miller Sunday, February 6,

Veteran negotiator on why Israel fears a free Middle East

Having dealt with the Israelis for the better part of 40 years, I have learned never to dismiss or trivialize their foundational fears. As both former prime minister Yitzhak Rabin and current premier Binyamin Netanyahu reminded me on different occasions, Israelis don’t live in some leafy Washington suburb, but in a much tougher neighborhood.

And today, it is impossible to overstate the angst, even hysteria, that Israelis are feeling about their neighborhood as they watch what is unfolding in the streets of Cairo.

Israel prides itself on being the Middle East’s only true democracy, so most Israelis may be loath to admit their fear of self-government spreading to Egypt, their most important Arab ally. But by their calculation, freedom in Egypt is bound to morph into venomous anti-Israeli attitudes and actions.

Among Israel’s most dire fears: Would a new Egyptian government be taken over by radical Islamists? Would it break the peace treaty between the two nations? Would it seek to go to war again? All Israeli prime ministers since the treaty was signed in 1979 have carried such fears in the back of their minds, yet they gambled that in giving up the Sinai Peninsula, the country had exchanged territory for time, perhaps in the hope that a different relationship with Egypt and their other Arab neighbors would emerge.

It’s hard to imagine any of these fears materializing. Egypt’s new leaders, whoever whomever they are, will be beset by huge internal challenges, none of which could be diverted by confronting Israel. The new Egypt will need billions of dollars from the United States and much help from the international community. And violating Violating the treaty and threatening war with Israel wouldwill be the last thing the Egyptian military needs during the an uncertain transition after President Hosni following Mubarak’s departure.

But there’s no doubt that a new Egyptian government and president, more responsive to public opinion – indeed, legitimized by the public in free elections – will be, by necessity or inclination, far more critical of Israeli actions and policies and far less likely to give Israel the benefit of any doubts. Will the new Egyptian leadership monitor smuggling across the Egypt-Gaza border as carefully? Will it be more supportive of Hamas and less understanding of Israeli concerns about Hamas’s acquisition of rockets and missiles? And how will a newly elected Egyptian president interact with an Israeli prime minister? (Mubarak met regularly with Netanyahu; it’s hard to imagine a new Egyptian leader doing so without demanding concessions for Palestinians or progress in the peace negotiations.)

Take a tour of the neighborhood through Israeli eyes, and you’ll understand why such worries have taken on new urgency. To the north in Lebanon, Hezbollah is now the dominant political force, reequipped with thousands of rockets and backed by Syria and Iran. To the east there’s Jordan, with which Israel also has a peace treaty and whose government was just changed after protests sparked by the revolts in Tunisia and Egypt. In the West Bank and Gaza, there’s the Palestinian national movement, which thanks to the Hamas-Fatah split is a veritable Noah’s Ark with two of everything – prime ministers, security services, constitutions and governments. And then there’s Iran, whose determination to acquire nuclear weapons may force Israel one day to live under the shadow of an Islamic bomb.

Israel, nuclear weapons or not, and despite its shortsighted and harmful settlement policies, must be understood as a remarkable country living on the knife’s edge. The old adage that Israelis fight the Arabs during the day and win but fight the Nazis at night and lose may be dated, but it still reflects fundamental and enduring security concerns as well as the dark side of Jewish history – both of which make Israelis worry for a living.

The inevitable hardening of Egyptian attitudes will not just constitute an Israeli problem but will pose significant concerns for Israel’s major ally: the United States. The old devil’s bargain in which Washington relied on Cairo for support in its war and peacemaking policies, in exchange for giving Egypt a pass on how it is governed, is probably dead. And perhaps it’s just as well. The Egyptian people deserve better, and that deal didn’t produce a peaceful, stable and secure Middle East, anyway – just look around.

For Egyptians, who hunger for freedom and better governance, democracy will probably secure a brighter future. For America, Egyptian democracy, however welcome in principle, will significantly narrow the political space in which U.S. administrations operate in the region. On any number of fronts, a more representative Egypt will be far less forgiving and supportive of Washington. On U.S. efforts to contain Iran, on the Middle East peace process, on the battle against terrorism and Islamic radicalism – especially if Egypt’s own Islamists are part of the new governing structure – there is a great deal of uncertainty about how much cooperation we can expect.

The irony is that the challenges a new Egypt will pose to America and Israel won’t come from the worst-case scenarios imagined by frantic policymakers and intelligence analysts – an extremist Muslim takeover, an abrogation of peace treaties, the closing of the Suez Canal – but from the very values of participatory government and free speech that free societies so cherish. In a more open Egypt, diverse voices reflecting Islamist currents and secular nationalists will be louder. And by definition, these voices will be more critical of America and Israel.

Events in Egypt represent not just the end of the Mubarak regime but a point of departure in Arab politics. In Tunisia and Egypt, the brush was dry and ready to burn because of deep-seated, long-held grievances – and it’s hard to imagine that more sparks won’t fly. Every Arab state is unique, but in many, two common conflicts persist: an economic division between the haves and the have-nots, and a political divide between the cans and the cannots – those who participate meaningfully in shaping their political systems and those who are excluded. It’s hard to predict what will happen next, but change is more likely in places like Jordan, Libya and Algeria, where vulnerabilities abound, than in the Persian Gulf region, where ruling families can use cradle-to-grave benefits to co-opt opponents and preempt change.

I’d like to believe that democratic change will be peaceful, orderly and evolutionary – not hot, mean and revolutionary. But the region, penetrated for years by foreign powers and dominated by corrupt authoritarian governments, is teeming with pent-up humiliation, frustration and rage. And we can never underestimate the repressive capabilities of authoritarian regimes that tighten their grips even as power slips from their hands. The Mubarak regime’s campaign to send its agents to provoke violence and to kill, wound and intimidate the opposition and the news media reflects only a fraction of its latent power. And the Syrian reaction to domestic unrest might be far worse.

In the middle of all this turmoil sits the United States, unable to extricate itself from the region yet probably unable to fix these problems or alter its policies, along with Israel, which looks at the possible transformation of the Middle East not as an opportunity but as a moment replete with risks. (In this environment, to believe, as some analysts have argued, that any Israeli government would negotiate a conflict-ending agreement with the Palestinians to preempt further radicalization in the region is to believe in the peace-process tooth fairy.)

Without Egypt, there can be neither peace nor war, and for 30 years Israelis had the first and avoided the second. Peace with Jordan, the neutralization of Iraq and the U.S.-Israeli relationship all left the Israelis – despite their constant worries – fairly confident that they could deal with any threats to their security. But now, with Egyptian politics in turmoil, Iran emerging as a potential nuclear threat and the prospect of trouble in Jordan and elsewhere, they’re not so sure. That Mubarak is falling not by an assassin’s hand but because of a young generation of tweeters is hardly consolation. This is one pharaoh that Israelis wish had stayed on the throne.

Aaron David Miller has advised several U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process and is the author of the forthcoming “Can America Have Another Great President?” He is a public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars.

February 6, 2011 | 13 Comments »

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13 Comments / 13 Comments

  1. In the wonderful tourist mecca of Iran, I hear that are hanging about 60 people a month. Maybe on my next vacation I will go over there and “hang out”. Once they start the hanging in Egypt with their new revolution, I will go surfing and “hang ten”. I will of course bring my family, and my kids can play “Hang Man” on the plane during the long flight.

  2. What could I possibly add to the eyes-wide-open wisdom of the previous comments? They see through Mr. Miller with clear 20/20 vision. Anything more would be redundant.

  3. ArnoldHarris says: When — no longer if — the Ilkwan comes to power in Egypt, one of their first acts will be to tear up the peace treaty and almost certainly start remilitarizing the Sinai.

    The MB ( or whoever replaces Mubarak) will encounter a much poorer Egypt, so the US should condition the continuation of economic support on their upkeep of the peace treaty.Peace is up to you, USA !

  4. Egypt and every other Muslim nation in the Middle East will be free when every city has a Comedy Club. You can’t talk, negotiate, or live comfortably and at peace with people that have no sense of humor.

    I am going to help solve this problem by becoming the first Orthodox Jewish-Christian-Muslim Rabbi. I will go around saying, “Oy Vey, covert the Jews-Muslims, and kill the Jews and Christians”.

    I will fast till my teeth turn black, carry around a big cross, and then blow myself up. That should make everyone happy!

  5. I saw Miller being interviewed by Huckabee the other night. Miller looked like he was going to burst into laughter at any moment; imagine holding an “eight high” in your hand and successfully bluffing the world into believing you’ve got a straight flush.

    yamit, it’s a variation of Gresham’s Law; perennial bullshitters like Miller drove out those who long ago realized the futility of the “peace process” and found legitimate work.

  6. Since all The Millers and Dennis Ross’s have made careers on the Israeli / Arab conflict, written books and toured the world with VIP speeches at 50-100k per event, curious nobody says hey, wait a second these guys have always been wrong and all their forced on Israel agreements have turned to crap; why then should anyone listen to these non expert failures? Yet some do and here they are again. They all seem to prove once again how true Einsteins definition of insanity is.

    Who is the more insane those like Miller or those after all these years of failures, still accord them respect and positions of influence and still heed their pearls of wisdom (sarc)?

  7. 6. Egypt will end up incorporating Gaza, and I believe that will actually benefit Jewish Israel. It permanently severs Gaza from the West Bank, and makes it more likely that the West Bank will eventually join Jordan, so that there will never be a state of “Palestine”.

    No Fistel; Keep the Land dump the Arabs.

  8. No SF,

    An Ilkwan-controlled Egypt incorporating Gaza will pose the same endless dangers to Israel that it did until June 6. 1967, when the Egyptian forces in both Gaza and Sinai were smashed and broken by Zahal, followed some years later by the treaty of peace between Israel and Egypt that totally demilitarized the Sinai.

    When — no longer if — the Ilkwan comes to power in Egypt, one of their first acts will be to tear up the peace treaty and almost certainly start remilitarizing the Sinai.

    The only difference from 43 years ago is that the United States has pumped scores of billions of dollars into the Egyptian armed forces, so that wiping out a 2011 or 2012 model Egyptian army in the Sinai may prove far more difficult and even hazardous than it was in 1948-1949, 1956, 1967 and 1973. For example, will the Israeli air force be able once again to destroy the entire Egyptian air force while it is still on the ground? Without that, the blitzkrieg falls apart almost before it begins.

    I am not interested here in arguing the finer points of who annexes whom regarding Gaza, Shomron and Yehuda. It is time now to focus solely on the defense of Israel in the war with Egypt that is almost certain to come, based on the political dynamics of events now sweeping much of the Arab world. Israel, now more than ever, needs defense in depth. That can only be achieved by annexing territories now under Israel’s control, or, in the case of Sinai and southern Lebanon south of the Litani River gorge, conquering, de-populating and annexing neighboring territories which pose a permanent military threat to Israel. In the Middle East, there is no substitute for deserts under one’s own control on each side, as barriers to any enemy force other than small gangs of infiltrators who can be rounded up or killed by border guards or light military patrols.

    Arnold Harris
    Mount Horeb WI

  9. A “free” Egypt?

    1. Egypt has 80 million people. It has limited arable land and cannot feed itself. It has little industry and cannot compete with east Asia. Its per capita GDP is between $4,000 and $6,000.
    2. There is simply not enough to go around.
    3. So there is only one possible type of government: a small group of rich people in control, a small middle class, and masses of poor people just scraping by. The rich people have to buy the loyalty of the security forces to keep in power, and every so often one type of dictator will be replaced by another type.
    4. That’s all you can have in poor third world countries, which includes every arab state outside of arabia.
    5. So the dictator Mubarak will be replaced by another type of dictator, perhaps from the muslim brotherhood (like Hamas in Gaza). Obama and Israel have no real control of the outcome.
    6. Egypt will end up incorporating Gaza, and I believe that will actually benefit Jewish Israel. It permanently severs Gaza from the West Bank, and makes it more likely that the West Bank will eventually join Jordan, so that there will never be a state of “Palestine”.

  10. Shy Guy…You hit the nail right on target.

    Miller says;

    Having dealt with the Israelis for the better part of 40 years,

    What does that mean and why is this chorus of anti-democracy voices rationalizers just singing now when post 9-11 the tune was all together different. I know a couple families who lost boys in Iraq who are scratching their heads over this one. I mean I thought that is what the war ballet in Irag was all about? Actually, I thought when Bush elevated a denier of the shoah to a “MAN OF PEACE” that too was about democracy?!!
    Do you remember that PHONY ORCHESTRATED so called “HISTORICAL VOTE” in the PA was freaking all about “DEMOCRACY” Ditto for the U.S. sponsored quartet for peace which insanity was hatched in the oval office of George Bush along with the millions thrown at the PA to make a security force for democracy!! remember the picture of the democratic PA security force marching to the NAZI GOOSESTEP?? Ditto for the millions thrown upon the Palestinians and for that matter Lebanon and Egypt. All about Democracy??

    Well, lots of people on my side are scratching their heads at the enormity of the flip flop going on where what was VALID before when our guy was in office is no longer accepted by the same group that placed their stamp of approval on the whole deal!!

    I can not say which way this will go. Who knows, maybe it will go bad. I do know the amount of hypocrisy I am hearing now is beyond belief. Sadly, no amount of rationalization proves the doom and gloom I am hearing. from all the experts on Israel ; -)

  11. “Egypt’s new leaders, whoever whomever they are, will be beset by huge internal challenges, none of which could be diverted by confronting Israel. ”

    I disagree. Israel is so unpopular in the Arab / Muslim world, it’s always tempting to go against her. It’s like a lame stand-up comedian who senses that his routine is bombing and starts making lawyer jokes.

  12. I Immediately understood who this fool was when he he said “Israels shortsighted & harmful settlement policies” blah,blah,blah…….
    this creature from the Washington Establishment also mumbled some nonsensicle stupidities about the Arab masses “Yearning to be free”.
    (1)Why should Jews building homes on ancient Jewish land be harmful?Is Mr.Miller perhaps caving in to his Court Jew tendencies?
    (2)Does this fool really believe that freedom,democracy,& the nobility of Humanity can co-exist with Islam in the same society at the same time?What is he smoking?
    The real victims of all of this foolishness are,we the people,,the real people,who pay the price for most of this stupidity.When the policies generated by these “great minds” come to a failed end it is all of us “nobodies” who have to go into poverty or into war to try to straighten out the mess left behind by the Millers of the world!

  13. But of course. Israel fears everything. Everything is Israel’s fault. Israel wants this. Israel doesn’t want that. Israel. Israel. Israel. But of course.

    The bottom line states that the author has “advised several U.S. secretaries of state on the Middle East peace process”? It shows.