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The uprising in Egypt that looks like it may sweep away President Hosni Mubarak’s 30-year-old regime threatens to deprive Israel of its most important strategic ally in the region.
Israeli leaders have been mostly silent about the events in Egypt and are powerless to affect the outcome. But they and the entire Israeli population are gravely concerned that the turmoil will ultimately bring to power a new government hostile to the Jewish state.
At a time when Israel’s relations with Turkey, its other traditional regional ally, have deteriorated sharply, and when Hizbullah is strengthening its grip in Lebanon, the developments in Egypt will likely deepen a sense of vulnerability among Israelis and strengthen the government’s determination to keep security its No. 1 priority.
There is also the danger of a domino effect. Challenges have been sparked to the monarchy in Jordan – the only other Arab country to have made peace with Israel – as well as governments throughout the Arabian Peninsula that control most of the world’s oil supplies.
Israel and Egypt fought four wars between 1948 and 1973, but signed a peace treaty in 1979. True, it was a “cold peace.” Mubarak refused to allow cultural or people-to-people relations to flourish, and he kept military ties between the Israel Defense Forces and the Egyptian military on a low level with no joint exercises. He also tolerated a media that has spewed offensive anti-Semitic and anti-Israeli rhetoric for years, ensuring that Egyptian public opinion remained hostile to Israel and Jews in general.
Still, this “cold peace” has been a tremendous strategic asset for both countries and a bulwark of stability in the region. Israel no longer had to plan for a two- or three-front war and could cut military spending, with a consequent boost to its economy. In the past year, the Egyptian military has made some efforts to disrupt weapons smuggling to Iranian-backed Hamas across its border with Gaza.
Of course, Israelis recognize that Mubarak has been running a corrupt, authoritarian regime that has held back progress in his country. On a strictly human level, Israelis understand that Egyptians should enjoy the same democratic rights they do and deserve the chance to build a better future. But the danger exists that what comes next will be infinitely worse, not only for Israel but for the Egyptian people themselves.
The nightmare scenario, of course, is a repeat of the Iranian revolution of 1979 when the pro-western shah, an Israeli ally and oil supplier, was replaced by an Islamic regime that openly calls for Israel’s destruction, denies the Holocaust and is engaged in an all-out attempt to build nuclear weapons.
The shah’s government no doubt was a cruel human rights abuser, but the Islamic fundamentalism of the ayatollahs that replaced him has been a thousand times worse and now threatens the peace of the world.
In Egypt, the best opposition organization is the Muslim Brotherhood, which has close links to Hamas and is ideologically quite hostile to Israel. Its leaders probably understand that abandoning the peace treaty with Israel would endanger the $2 billion in aid Egypt receives each year from the United States as well as critically damage Egypt’s important tourist trade. But their rank-and-file supporters are not as sophisticated and surely would place immense pressure on the leadership to change the country’s pro-Western orientation.
Still, Egypt is no Iran. Strategically and historically, the two are competitors and not allies. Iran is at the center of a growing “Shiite crescent” which is steadily bringing Lebanon into its orbit.
Probably the best solution for Egypt would be a peaceful and orderly transition to free and fair elections. But this is no panacea. Local elections held in Gaza in January 2005 brought the Iranian-backed, Islamic fundamentalist Hamas movement to power.
That was six years ago, and Hamas seems determined never to hold another election. In 2007 it brutally crushed the opposition Fatah organization and expelled its members. Last October, a poll by The Israel Project in Gaza found Hamas with only a 40 percent approval rating, trailing considerably behind Fatah – but Gazans have no opportunity to express their will at the ballot box.
Egyptians deserve a chance to build democracy and move their country forward. Israelis hope they get the chance to do so, knowing that peace and friendship works best between fellow democracies.
Alan Elsner is communications director for The Israel Project.
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