Beneath western praise for the Egyptian people’s stunning victory over autocratic rule runs a deep concern about how these events will impact America’s and Britain’s most treasured ally in the region; Israel. From Washington to Whitehall, pro-Israeli pundits have already begun sowing seeds of anxiety, warning that Egypt could tear up its peace treaty with Israel and/ or go the way of Iran and embrace clerical rule.
It’s time for a little perspective. It is far from certain that the Muslim Brotherhood will be voted into power (indeed it’s a wide open question whether the military government will even allow elections). But let’s assume for argument’s sake that the Muslim Brotherhood is swept into office by popular vote. It is unlikely that they will follow in Iran’s footsteps because the Brotherhood is not compromised primarily of clerics but professional men who embrace a profitable business climate as much as the Koran.
The yearning among Egyptians religious and secular for a more prosperous future is likely to ensure the peace treaty with Israel will continue to be honoured. Egypt has nothing to gain from invading Israel—the Sinai was returned after all. Moreover, the first whiff of aggression toward Israel would invite at best crippling economic sanctions and at worst, bombs. And don’t forget who’s been supplying Egypt’s armed forces. Most of their hardware and software is American. If it chooses, Washington can shut down the Egyptian military machine with a flip of the proverbial switch.
Of course, none of what I’ve written so far is terribly insightful. Even casual observers of Middle East affairs are familiar with these facts. So why all the scare mongering about clerics and broken treaties? The answer is simple. Israel does face a serious threat from Egypt’s revolution, but not the one the hawks in Tel Aviv would have us believe.
For six decades, Israel’s powerful propaganda machine has portrayed Arabs as violent, irrational and therefore incapable of summoning the civility and restraint a functioning liberal democracy requires. As the last line of defence against these lesser evolved societies, Israel demanded blanket support for any actions taken in the name of security. The events in Egypt this week have blown this myth wide open. The revolution launched by the young protestors in Tahrir Square was largely peaceful. If the military transition does midwife free and fair elections, Tel Aviv will lose its claim to being the only nation in the region that shares western liberal values — especially if Egypt elects a secular minded leader. Not only would Cairo emerge as the civil and moral equal of Tel Aviv, it would have the political clout to pursue what has eluded the greatest powers on earth for decades; a credible Middle East Peace solution.
This is the real threat to Israel. Hosni Mubarak supported Israel’s apartheid policies toward the Palestinians out of deference to his American pay masters and fear of Hamas emboldening Egyptian Muslim groups. A democratically elected Egyptian government would not have such constraints. Indeed it is far more likely to reflect the will of its people. I would not be surprised if a civil government in Cairo were to fully restore the flow of goods and services over the Rafah border crossing thereby ending Israel’s blockade of Gaza.
Israel would no doubt raise the alarm and ask America to support maintaining the blockade. In the past, that would happen without question. But Egypt’s revolution is altering the rules of the game. It would be unwise of Washington to alienate a democratic Egypt in order to defend an Israeli policy that is illegal under international law. And if other Arab nations follow in Egypt’s footsteps, the US will face even greater pressure to end its blind endorsement of Israel’s colonialist policies. Imagine if Oman embraces democracy. The Straits of Hormuz are of far greater strategic importance to America than any slice of real estate in Israel.
The US and Britain need to break with the past and prove they are capable of being fair brokers in the Middle East. Failure to do so will risk ceding influence to a new hegemonic power. Remember, China already controls the port at Gwadar, Pakistan on the Arabian Sea—an asset it gained through diplomacy and economic incentives. Washington and Whitehall should put real pressure on Israel to pull back settlements that encroach on Palestinian lands (a suspension of credit lines should do the trick), appoint a credible envoy the Arabs can trust (Tony Blair’s appointment was tantamount to making Osama bin Laden mayor of New York City in my view) and insist that Israel free jailed Palestinian political figures capable of uniting the West Bank and Gaza. Marwan Barghouti, Palestine’s Nelson Mandela, comes to mind.
Israel will probably resist any significant changes in US Middle East policy. Perhaps that’s the biggest threat of all posed by Egypt’s revolution. Old-style hawkishness can no longer guarantee Israel’s security and indeed, could run counter to it. In the new Middle East, a just and lasting peace between Israel and Palestine is the best way to ensure the Jewish state survives.