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Watching Egypt Burn: An Israeli Perspective

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.