When turmoil erupts in the Middle East, it is understandable to ask about the impact of events on Israel, on its treaties with Egypt and Jordan, and on its overall security. Given Israel’s ever-precarious security situation, the changing geopolitics of the region tends to have a magnified impact on Israel’s political and security perspectives. Such is the case today with the fluid situation in Egypt.
A year ago, most Israelis expressed concern over the accession of Mohamed Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood to power. The Brotherhood has a long history of deeply rooted ideological antipathy to Zionism and the State of Israel, and thus there was reason to fear that the Brotherhood would distance itself from Israel and start to unravel the peace treaty.
Not only did this not occur, but Morsi and his government proved to be far more beneficial to Israeli security interests than even optimists could have anticipated. Largely because of its own concerns about lawlessness in Sinai and the possibility of Sinai’s becoming a permanent launching pad for attacks against Israel, Egyptian security authorities were dispatched to try to restore some semblance of order. This extended to Gaza, where the Egyptian authorities started to flood the tunnels that had been used for smuggling arms as well as all other kinds of consumer goods. And, in November, Morsi led the diplomatic effort to end the latest round of violence between Israel and Hamas.
To be sure, the Egyptian military stood behind many of these Egyptian actions, intent as it has been for decades to ensure that the peace treaty with Israel remained intact. It appeared throughout the year, however, that Morsi had clipped the wings of the military, and thus Egypt’s policies seemed to reflect Brotherhood pragmatism and not just the military’s interests.
All of these perceptions and illusions were shattered last week with the military’s decision to push Morsi from power and oversee a transition to something else, still undefined. Egypt’s defense minister, Gen. Abdel Fattah al-Sisi, appointed to his post by Morsi last summer, turned on the president in the name of the millions of Egyptians who had taken to the streets demanding change. Morsi dug in, arguing that the democratic election that had brought him to power immunized him from the popular protests. In the end, the raw power of the military and the police prevailed.
Throughout these events, Israel has correctly understood where its interests lie. Israel’s public statements have been kept to a minimum, thus not providing any ammunition for Egyptians to argue that the Israelis are playing into their domestic politics. Press reports indicate that security cooperation between the two countries has continued unchanged during Egypt’s political crisis, including ongoing Israeli willingness to allow Egyptian military deployments in Sinai that technically violate the terms of the treaty.
Perhaps most important for Israel, although less clear in the short term, is the impact of events in Egypt on Hamas. Although the Morsi government had had troubled relations with Hamas, there was an underlying assumption that the Muslim Brotherhood mother ship and its Palestinian offspring would find a way to work together against Israeli interests. Now, however, Hamas is finding itself under increasing pressure, as Egyptian security forces crack down against the lawlessness in Sinai, which has been fed and nurtured by Palestinian militants from Gaza. Almost immediately after Morsi’s ouster, Hamas complained that Egypt had shut down the Rafah crossing between Gaza and Sinai.
In the midst of all this, many Israelis are also questioning the priority the United States has assigned to trying to advance the peace process between Israel and the Palestinians. Indeed, this issue was reflected in the title of a panel at the recent Israel Presidential Conference in Jerusalem entitled, “Should Israel sit and wait it out, or should it take the initiative?” The strategic choice for Israel is not whether to intervene in some manner in the situation in Egypt (or elsewhere), but rather whether to hunker down during this period of Arab turmoil, or move boldly toward a peace breakthrough with the Palestinians.
Neither option is without risks. Hunkering down has the advantage of focusing on security at home and on the borders, without taking risks involved in territorial withdrawal. Moving boldly in the peace process has the advantage of dealing with momentous issues while Palestinians and its Arab state supporters are in a weakened position. The United States has assessed this as the time for some risk-taking for peace; Israel (and the Palestinians) have yet to decide on their policies.
As a participant in the conference panel, I joined with Meir Dagan, former head of the Mossad, in pushing back against those who argued that this was not the right time for Israel to engage in peace talks with the Palestinians. On the contrary, Dagan and I argued, this is exactly the moment when Israeli proactive diplomacy could have a huge impact on its security and political well-being. But the exchange I found most remarkable occurred between Dore Gold, an adviser to Prime Minister Netanyahu, and Dagan. Gold argued strenuously that Israeli withdrawal from the Jordan Valley in the context of an agreement would be dangerous and make Israel’s borders indefensible. Dagan replied that the Israeli army could be counted on to defend any borders decided by the Israeli government, and that Israel should act now for peace before the situation in the territories deteriorates further.
Israel’s options regarding the upheavals in Egypt are limited at best. Its options regarding advancing the peace process with the Palestinians — thereby potentially impacting broader Arab attitudes — are far more ample and very far-reaching.
Daniel Kurtzer, former U.S. ambassador to Egypt and to Israel, is professor of Middle East policy studies at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University.