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Watching Egypt Burn: An Israeli Perspective

Like the rest of the world, Israel doesn’t know what to think about the revolution in Egypt. We aren’t even sure if it really is a revolution. We certainly don’t know if it’s good or bad. And we have absolutely no idea what the eventual outcome will be. Unlike the rest of the world, what is happening now in Egypt has immediate and potentially disastrous consequences for the Jewish state.

Even before the country exploded into unprecedented social unrest last week, Egypt was something of a mystery to Israelis. It is not an enemy, but it is not a friend. They are not at war with us, but they do not like us. They were the first Arab country to make peace with us, but that peace has always been half a peace: better than war, certainly, but not quite the new era we had hoped for in 1978. Its government was even more of a conundrum: It was authoritarian, but not totalitarian. Its leader, Hosni Mubarak, was brutal and ruthless, but not a bloodthirsty sadist like Saddam Hussein. He could be counted on to keep his word, but there was something cold, distant, and vaguely hostile about him; somewhat like the master chess player sitting across the board from you. You do not hate him, but you never let yourself forget of what he might be capable.

Now, it seems that government and that leader are on the brink of collapse. The Egyptian people have taken to the streets in what looks very much a people’s revolution. Protestors are talking about democracy and freedom, about a genuine Arab spring spreading from Tunisia to Cairo and then into the rest of the Arab world. Some are celebrating, some are skeptical. In Israel, we simply don’t know what to think.

In many ways, this is what we have always hoped for. Behind the mask of cold pragmatism adopted by many Israeli leaders and analysts, there has always lurked the hope that our neighbors might someday change: That they might become more liberal, more democratic, more peaceful, more friendly, and, as a result, more open to us and our existence. It was a pipe dream, but a beautiful one; and it seemed at times to be the only way to achieve a genuine and lasting peace in the region.

At the same time, Israel has been burned by the vagaries of Arab politics more than a few times. We have watched friendly leaders like Abdullah in Jordan assassinated for their willingness to make peace with our existence. We have watched former allies like Turkey turn their backs on us. We have seen friendly regimes like Iran — admittedly a Persian and not an Arab state — fall to popular revolutions that then became theocratic nightmares. We have seen leaders like Gamal Nasser make potentially genocidal war on us, lose, and then find themselves carried back to power by an Arab street that never seemed to lose its enthusiasm for the war with the Jewish state.

The result has been that most Israelis have long since given up hope that the Arab world can or wanted to change. Things were the way they were and we would have to accept that. As a result, two schools of thought developed: One held that, since the Arabs would never change, we would have to reach peaceful reconciliation with the situation as it was, however difficult and unstable. The other claimed that peace with such neighbors was ultimately impossible, and that Israel should hunker down, make itself as close to militarily invulnerable as possible, and look to its own prosperity and development. This situation has held for decades, and even the American push for democratization during the war with Iraq did not change things. Most Israelis considered it misguided idealism at best and dangerous naivete at worst.

Now, there is suddenly the possibility — just the possibility — that things really are changing. No one in Israel was prepared for this, and no one has really processed it in any meaningful way. At the moment, it may be impossible to do so. No one knows what is going to happen over the next few days. Mubarak may not fall in the end, which means Israel will have to continue dealing with him and it would be best not to get on his bad side by sympathizing with his opposition. But there is now a very strong possibility that Mubarak will fall, in which case Israel will be facing a new Egyptian government, one that will be very very different from the regime that has ruled the country since the Free Officers overthrew King Farouk in 1952.

At the moment, most Israeli commentators are considering the nightmare scenarios. This is understandable. Pessimism is always the smartest attitude to take in the Middle East, and previous revolutions in the Arab world have tended to have rather nasty outcomes for Israel. Ever since the Yom Kippur war in 1973, Israel’s leaders have tried to err on the side of the worst case scenario. In this case, that would be the takeover of Egypt by the Muslim Brotherhood or a coalition of radical Islamic parties. Such a government might well abrogate the 1978 peace treaty, removing a cornerstone of regional stability and of Israeli defense strategy. Another war, much worse than anything since 1973, might follow. Even worse, a domino effect could follow, leaving Israel essentially alone against a Middle East that has been given over entirely to the totalitarian fantasies of radical Islam.

A secular, even democratic government, however, could present its own problems. It could prove to be equally hostile to Israel, given the massive popular sentiment against the Jewish state on the Arab street. It could also take a far more active role in pressuring Israel on behalf of the Palestinians, in whom Mubarak was always largely uninterested. Where Mubarak merely made gestures toward solidarity with the Palestinians, a new secular government could well make the issue one of its primary concerns; if only to shore up its legitimacy at home and in the Arab world at large.

Most important, however, is the simple fact that such a government, unlike Mubarak, will be an essentially unknown quantity. And should it prove to be even a vaguely liberal or democratic government, it will also be something for which Israel is completely unprepared. Israel has never had to deal with an Arab country that is similar in governance to itself. It may well take us some time — and time will be of the essence — to figure out how to respond to it. In many ways, real peace can be as traumatizing as war; it presents political, cultural, economic, and intellectual challenges that can be surprisingly daunting. No one should be shocked if, in the event of a best case scenario in Egypt, Israel spends some time in a state of more or less complete confusion.

It must be said, however, that the pictures now coming out of Egypt are as intoxicating for us as they appear to be to the rest of the world. We may have made peace with the Egyptian dictatorship, but we have never forgotten what it is. And if Mubarak never really warmed to us, we never really warmed to him either. No one will be personally sorry to see him go. And one cannot help but sympathize with the intensity of hope at work on the streets of Cairo. We would like to believe that, beneath the longstanding enmity between Israel and the Arabs, the hopes of the protestors are not unlike our own: We hope for a different and better Arab world. Whether that is, in fact, what is to come, they and we do not — cannot know at this moment.