The Egyptian Revolution and Israel's Fears

AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner
By Lorenzo Piras

In the Knesset, as well as in the streets of Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, there is high concern about the recent events that set Tunisia on fire and are now modifying, apparently for good, the political face of Egypt. 

Although Prime Minister Netanyahu forced the members of his cabinet to avoid official statements on the Egyptian situation, the fears of the Israeli political leadership are quite easy to guess.

At the moment, Israel can choose between two different strategies. It could support, even if only silently, the tide of change which is shaking the basis of Mubarak’s regime, thus turning into concrete action its long-time commitment to the ideal of a democratic Middle East, capable of dealing with Jerusalem as an equal partner. Alternatively, Israel could use its influence to back Mubarak, who is the heir of the same regime that signed the first, historical, peace treaty with the Jewish State, more than three decades ago.

Apparently, however, in Israel there is little trust in a political change that would both liberate Egypt from an authoritarian regime and, at the same time, ensure the security and safety of the southern Israeli border. Analysis and comments, even those published on more liberal and left-wing newspapers, seem dominated by a high degree of scepticism. Moreover, according to a news item published by Haaretz, the Israeli Ministry of Foreign Affairs sent a series of cables to its embassies in the US and in the most important European states, ordering its diplomats to put pressure on the host governments, so that they do not forget how important the stability of the Egyptian regime is for the maintaining of regional peace.

Concerns in Jerusalem are centred on a realpolitik-based assumption. Hypothetical elections, in a completely democratic Egypt, would probably not be decided by the well-educated Cairo bourgeoisie, nor by university students, but by the scores of poor, uneducated and disaffected peasants. And their vote is more likely to go to the Muslim Brotherhood, the ultimate bugbear to the eyes of Israeli observers, than to figures, such as Mohammad ElBaradei, who are perceived to be more moderate. This is certainly the heart of the matter, but the outlook gets darker, from an Israeli standpoint, if we consider other events taking place in the wider regional context.

First of all, since the first days of the uprising in Cairo, the Egyptian Police has not been controlling its border with the Gaza Strip, whose southern border posts are now run exclusively by Hamas. Looking further east, in Jordan the demonstrations started almost simultaneously to those in Tunis, and even if they are highly unlikely to overthrow the regime, they still represent a potentially destabilizing element for the country ruled by the Hashemite Monarchy, the only other Arab state which signed a peace treaty with Israel.

At the same time, the majority of the Lebanese Parliament voted its support to a new Prime Minister Najib Mikati, who presented himself as the Hezbollah candidate, thus realizing one of Jerusalem’s worst nightmares, an Arab neighbour state ruled by a terrorist group. In addition, the Syrian President Bashar Al-Assad claims that it was Mubarak’s close relationship with the US and Israel that alienated the Egyptian population from the government, ultimately leading to the uprising. Meanwhile, in Tehran, Iran’s leadership advocates an Islamic revolution throughout the whole Middle East.

Looking at the whole picture, then, it is understandable why the Israeli society and political leadership revitalized their decades-long phobia of an Arab encirclement openly hostile to the Jewish State. Islamism seems to be playing a key role in the political scenario that is being shaped in these hours, and this is likely to remain the case in the near future. Therefore, many in Israel start to question the belief that a democratic Middle East is the only setting which could foster a long-lasting and stable peace, and instead, are turning to a more realistic approach, thus considering the value of authoritarian regimes and conservative oligarchies as means of preserving the region’s stability.

It is useful, however, to investigate whether Israel’s concerns are based more on objective data or on half-irrational projections. Despite the claims coming from Damascus and Tehran, appears clear that the Egyptian uprising has little to do with Mubarak’s ties with Israel. The demonstrations have a strong social, economical and political dimension, and although some anti-Israeli positions have been voiced, they are the expression of a tiny minority. The Egyptian Muslim Brothers are undoubtedly important, but are acting together with many other movements within an extremely diverse coalition. They are also fully aware of the fundamentally socio-economical nature of the uprising, and realize that the prevalence of an anti-Israeli message would alienate their many international supporters. As for Jordan, the most likely scenario, after the King Abdullah’s dismissal of Prime Minister Samir Rifai, is some sort of inclusive manoeuvre by the Hashemite Monarchy, which will envisage a pack of controlled social, political, as well as economical reforms. In Beirut, Hezbollah is likely to look for the widest consensus possible, among the various Lebanese factions and clans. In fact, albeit considered by Jerusalem as a mortal enemy, the Party of God, just like the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood, is aware of its inability to rule a country like Lebanon in complete autonomy, especially in case it adopted a policy of open hostility towards Israel.

The Israeli decision to support, as much as possible, the falling regime in Egypt, might turn out to be counterproductive, if interpreted as a sign of Jerusalem’s general hostility towards popular movements in the Arab world. Since spotting Mossad plots is probably the favourite hobby in the Middle East, Israel should consider sticking to a strict non-intervention policy, but at the same time trying to get the best out of the recent wave of upheaval, without being afraid of it.


Lorenzo Piras is a writer and analyst. His articles on the social, political and economical dynamics of the Middle East, as well as on security and intelligence issues, have appeared in a number of blogs and news sites. He holds a BA in International Affairs from the University of Bologna, and is currently undertaking an MA in Intelligence and International Security at the Department of War Studies, King's College London. 


5 February 2011


Photo Credit: AP Photo/Sebastian Scheiner


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