Despite the fluidity and uncertainty surrounding the political situation in Egypt, one thing seems clear: Egypt and indeed the Middle East will not be the same after January-February 2011. This will apply even if those in Israel and elsewhere who are pushing for continued military, as opposed to civilian control, and for "democracy with exceptions" - i.e., Islamists not allowed - manage to carry the day. (One hopes they will not .) Those governing Egypt will henceforth have to be more responsive to the public will.
The package of regional policies pursued by the Mubarak regime lacked popular legitimacy. This included the closure imposed on Gaza, support for the Iraq war and for heightened bellicosity toward Iran, and playing ceremonial chaperone to a peace process that became farcical and discredited. Part of the democracy deficit is also a dignity deficit, as these policies appeared undignified to the Egyptian public.
Insisting on Egyptian adherence to the peace treaty with Israel is a legitimate position, has international support, and also accords with both Israeli and Egyptian interests. The treaty has saved lives on both sides, neither of which relishes the prospect of renewed military conflagration. The Israeli-Egyptian peace has neutralized any serious Arab military option vis-a-vis Israel, although the same cannot be said in reverse. Since signing the accord with Egypt, Israel has conducted several large-scale military campaigns against Lebanon and against the Palestinians, launched bombing raids against Syria and Iraq, and conducted high-profile assassinations in Jordan and the UAE - and that is only a partial list.
To the 1978 Camp David Accords was attached an annex entitled "A Framework for Peace in the Middle East," which included a commitment to withdrawal from the Palestinian territories and to negotiating final status within five years. That of course never happened. What did happen is that the 10,000 Israeli settlers living in the West Bank when that accord was signed have become over 300,000 today.
Indeed, whether by design or not, the peace treaty with Egypt ushered in the era of the Israeli "free hand" in the region. Even though it has not delivered real security and has encouraged an Israeli hubris that can be both dangerous and self-destructive, that era of hegemony is something that Israelis are instinctively uncomfortable about losing. It is equally understandable why such a regional disequilibrium, one that became more deeply rooted under Mubarak's Egypt, would be both unpopular and unacceptable to a majority of Arab public opinion.
Maintaining the peace treaty has morphed over time into maintaining a peace process that has ultimately entrenched occupation and settlements and made a mockery of its Arab participants. Post-transition Egypt is unlikely to continue playing this game. And without Mubarak's enthusiastic endorsement, the process itself is likely to further unravel. It is hard to imagine other Arab states leaping into this breach, or the Palestinians accepting 20 more years of peace-process humiliation, or indeed Syria adopting the Egyptian model and signing a stand-alone peace agreement with Israel. Israel's strategic environment - notably the capacity it provides to avoid making choices and to disguise the status quo as progress - is about to change.
So how should Israel respond to the changed environment? Thus far we have been offered two broad approaches by Israeli establishment voices. One has been to dig in, to convince the West that we are its outpost of stability in a sea of hostility, and to attempt to make our favorite adage of being the only democracy in the Middle East an aspiration rather than a lamentation. In the words of Prime Minister Netanyahu, "might" is the answer. The second approach advocates an urgent return to the peace process. Neither will work. The first will exacerbate Israel's predicament, and the second is too little too late.
Israel has a third option, albeit one that is dramatic and out of synch with today's zeitgeist. It would be perhaps our best and last chance for a two-state solution, one that would guarantee our future in this region. While it would involve cutting our losses, it would also have the potential of unleashing huge benefits - economic, security and more, for an Israel accepted as part of the tapestry of a democratic Middle East.
Broadly speaking, this option has three components. First, an Israeli withdrawal to the pre-1967 armistice lines almost without preconditions or exceptions (minor, equitable and agreed-upon land swaps and international security guarantees could fall into the latter category ). Second, Israel should undertake an act of genuine acknowledgement of the dispossession and displacement visited on the Palestinian people, including compensating refugees where appropriate, and thus set in motion the possibility of reconciliation. Third, there needs to be a clear Israeli commitment to full equality for all of its citizens, notably including removal of the structural barriers to full civil rights for the Palestinian Arab minority.
Admittedly, this is a path less traveled and one likely to remain so, and while the alternatives to this path may well include democracy in the region, they could preclude a future for the State of Israel.
While Israeli-Egyptian peace has often been described as a cold peace, it could perhaps be more accurately framed as a pyramid peace - in which only the very tips of the respective societies met and forged narrow common interests. It is high time to reverse that equation and build a democratic peace between the bases of those pyramids. In truth, the onus is on Israel to make this happen, and one key will be to take a more honest and dignified approach to our Palestinian neighbors and co-citizens and to belatedly implement that regional peace annex from Camp David.
Daniel Levy directs the Middle East Task Force at the New America Foundation and is an editor of the Middle East Channel at foreignpolicy.com.
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