Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations *

Academic journal article Current Politics and Economics of the Middle East

Israel: Background and U.S. Relations *

Article excerpt


Response to the Situation in Egypt1

For more than 30 years, the United States and Israel have based their core assumptions about the basic stability of the Middle East and the absence of major Israeli-Arab conventional warfare on the cornerstone of the March 1979 Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty (see text box). The Israeli government is concerned that its quiet, though cold, peace with Egypt may suffer as a result of ongoing political change in Cairo. Some Israelis believe that a more pluralistic government in Egypt might revisit aspects of Egypt's cooperation with Israel and the treaty itself, particularly if the Muslim Brotherhood gains influence. It is unlikely that any transitional or new Egyptian government would abrogate the peace treaty altogether, but popular sympathy for Palestinian rights and challenges to Egyptian control of the Sinai Peninsula could make it difficult for Egypt to continue restrictions and counter-smuggling efforts at its border with the Gaza Strip. In addition, it is uncertain if the next president of Egypt would try to serve as an intermediary between Israelis and Palestinians and between the Palestinian Authority and Hamas. The structure and constitutional order of a new Egyptian government may remain unclear for some time. In the future, Egypt may behave more as Turkey has over the past year and take a more confrontational approach with its neighbor Israel, which could have uncertain consequences for U.S. regional interests.

Initial Israeli responses to the protests in Egypt were measured. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reportedly has told his cabinet and spokespeople to avoid commenting on the situation in Egypt to avoid linking Israel with the events. In a meeting on January 30, Netanyahu urged his cabinet to "show maximum responsibility and restraint" and expressed his hopes that peaceful relations with Egypt will continue. As the protests wore on and it became clear that a transition in Egypt was imminent, the Foreign Ministry reportedly asked Western governments to tone down their criticisms of Mubarak and later asked that they demand that any new Egyptian government uphold its existing agreements with Israel.2 In a speech to the Knesset on February 3, Netanyahu expressed his support for a democratic transition in Egypt, stating that -It is clear that an Egypt that rests on these institutions, an Egypt that is anchored in democratic values, would never be a threat to peace. On the contrary, if we have learned anything from modern history, it is that the stronger the foundations of democracy, the stronger the foundations of peace. Peace among democracies is strong, and democracy strengthens the peace." He also expressed concerns that Iran might seek to exploit the situation in Egypt to expand its regional influence:

However, this is not the only possible scenario. Because far away from Washington, Paris, London-and not so far from Jerusalem-is another capital in which there are hopes. In this capital, there are leaders who can also see the opportunities that change in Egypt could bring. They also support the millions who took to the streets. They too speak about the promise of a new day. But for the people in this capital, the promise of a new day is not in its dawn but in the darkness it can bring. That capital is Tehran, and I assure you, that the leaders in Iran are not interested in the genuine desires of Egyptians for freedom, liberalization or reform, any more than they were interested in answering similar calls for freedom by the Iranian people, their own people, only 18 months ago.

Netanyahu and other prominent Israeli cabinet members also have reaffirmed their commitment to the Palestinian peace process in the wake of the crisis, and some observers think that uncertainty about Israel's future relationship with Egypt and Jordan could lead to a renewed commitment to the Palestinian track. For example, former Defense Minister and senior figure within the opposition Kadima party Shaul Mofaz has argued that, "Because of the strategic change in our region, we have to move forward with the Palestinians. …

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