Avigdor Lieberman April 3, 2012 (Emil Salman)
Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman Photo by Emil Salman
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Israel’s controversial Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman has a long track record of diplomatic flare-ups with Egypt. He once threatened that Israel would bomb the Aswan Dam. On another occasion, he told the Knesset that then-Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak should “go to hell.”

This week, Lieberman annoyed the Egyptians once again by warning Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that Egypt should be a cause of greater concern to Israel than Iran. Sooner or later, he reportedly wrote the prime minister, the leadership in Cairo will divert Egyptian frustration away from the country’s economic woes and towards renewed hostilities with its old enemy, Israel.

As in Aesop’s “Boy Who Cried Wolf” fable, Lieberman’s past provocations towards Cairo probably detracted from due consideration of his current dire predictions.  As a matter of both personal outlook and political expediency, Lieberman has perfected the art of painting worst-case scenarios, which in the Middle East, unfortunately, often turn out to be sober assessments. His alarm bells should therefore not be dismissed, unlike his remedy: Lieberman has reportedly suggested the deployment of three or four army divisions to the IDF Southern Command, a move that would only add fuel to already burning embers and turn his warnings into a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The suspension of the Israeli-Egyptian gas agreement, though it is being portrayed as a “commercial conflict”, as well the emergence of the Sinai as a “Wild West”, as Netanyahu described it this week, are simply slight and very early tremors of what may turn into a very dangerous earthquake.  One can hardly downplay the import of a diversion of significant IDF resources at a time when it is concentrating on the Iranian nuclear threat or of the heavy burden that such a realignment of forces might place on the Israel’s sorely stretched budget. And no one should harbor any doubt that a breakdown of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty will constitute nothing less than an unmitigated strategic disaster, not only for Israel but also for the moderate Arab world and the United States as well.

Unfortunately, the 30th anniversary of the completion of the Israeli withdrawal from the Sinai came and went this week with very little fanfare, though it might have provided a good opportunity to reflect on the revolutionary impact of the 1979 Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty and of the landmark Big Bang visit of the late Egyptian president Anwar Sadat that preceded and enabled it. In the current fatalistic climate of “the world is all against us” and there’s nothing we can do about it, it would have been useful to ponder how much worse things could have been without the treaty, and, if good men continue to do nothing, how bad they might still become in the very near future.

In regional terms, lest we forget, while Sadat may have been condemned, ostracized and murdered for his courageous warp-speed leap into the future, most of the Arab and Muslim world eventually followed in his footsteps: without him there would be no peace treaty with Jordan, no political framework with the Palestinians, no acceptance of Israel in the Arab and Muslim world no Saudi regional peace offer - with which successive Israeli government, unfortunately, refused to engage - and no polar opposite to stand up to Iranian extremism and fundamentalism.

An abrogation of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty would signal the death knell of any hope for any peace process, now or in the future. It would choke Israel in a vise of animosity and rejection and return it to the dark days of the “three no’s” of Khartoum. It would create the kind of mistrust and tension that would exponentially increase the risk of miscalculation of the kind that left thousands of Israel’s best and brightest dead on the battlefields in the 1973 Yom Kippur War. It would signal final, stinging defeat for the moderates, and resounding and decisive victory for fanatics everywhere. It would be extraordinarily pleasing news for Iran, Syria, Hamas and Hezbollah.

For most Israelis and their current government, such developments will reinforce the view that Israel has no “partner” in its quest for peace and will thus strengthen their resolve not to make any more concessions that might once again yield disappointment and danger. Very few will realistically consider where Israel might be today if it had not been for the concessions that it made 30 years ago. Fewer still will ask themselves how much more difficult it would have been for even the most malevolent Egyptian leadership to whip up public resentment against Israel, as Lieberman predicts, had Israel reached an accommodation with the Palestinians - or at least had it behaved in a manner that might have convinced more than just itself, U.S. Jews and American Republicans that it sincerely wished to.

The late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin agreed to accept the Oslo Accords because he believed that Israel’s number one priority was to surround itself in a “ring of peace” that would serve as a bulwark against Iranian fundamentalism and rejectionism.  Despite the many failures along the way, Rabin’s basic logic still holds true.

Alongside the need for careful and considered American and Israeli policies aimed at swaying the Egyptian rulers, whoever they shall be, from escalating tensions with Israel, with both sticks and carrots, as well as the obligation to weigh prudent military steps to prepare for all contingencies, as Lieberman suggests - a rational and self-confident Israel would also try to mend as many fences as possible with the Palestinians, while it still can, if only as a matter of self-interest and national security.

A bold and creative Israel might even pledge its allegiance to Sadat’s statement in the Knesset on November 22, 1977 that there will never be a durable peace with the Arab world “without a just solution to the Palestinian problem.” It would try to coopt Egypt into taking an active role in the peace process and continuing the work of “rewriting history” that Sadat promised, by sponsoring peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, with or without the Hamas, and by increasing Cairo’s presence and influence in Gaza. It would try to engage and commit Cairo diplomatically in any way that it possibly could – on the assumption, of course, that it if and when push came to shove, it would also be willing to make the sacrifices necessary to reach an agreement.

There is good reason to suspect, of course, that this is not what Lieberman had in mind, exactly, nor is it a course that Israel’s current coalition might contemplate, though stranger things have happened. The famous maxim “if you want peace, prepare for war”, widely ascribed to the Roman military theorist Vegetius, should properly have a flip side which might prove highly relevant if Egypt continues to slip away:  “If you want to avoid war, prepare for peace.”

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