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.