Can Israel only make peace with dictators?
The implicit understanding has been that it is easier for a dictator to meet Israel's fundamental conditions and a near-impossible task for a democratically elected Arab government.
"Peace you make with your enemies." This nonsensical, overused slogan, repeated over and over again by the more vocal of the Israeli "peace camp," should, truth be told, be replaced with "peace you make with dictators."
This sad truth comes to mind as we watch events unfolding in Egypt and wonder if our peace treaty with Cairo will hold even if President Hosni Mubarak is toppled.
The ugly facts are that the two peace treaties that Israel concluded so far - the one with Egypt and the other with Jordan - were both signed with dictators: Anwar Sadat and King Hussein.
What's more, the negotiations that for a while held some promise of reaching a peace agreement - with Syria and with the Palestine Liberation Organization - were also conducted with unsavory dictators. Anyone that turned up his nose at these negotiation was reminded that "peace you make with your enemies."
Had the option been open to Israel, Israel would, of course, have preferred to make peace with a democratic neighbor, but that option was never even on the horizon, considering the state of affairs in the Arab world in the years since Israel was established.
The question that Israelis ask themselves at this moment is, if Hosni Mubarak's regime were to be replaced by a democratically elected government in Egypt, would this government continue to maintain the nearly 32-year-old peace treaty with Israel.
Even though territorial concessions by Israel have been touted as the major element of any agreement with an Arab neighbor, actually, two fundamental requirements have always been a necessary condition for Israel.
The first condition was that the agreement should put an end to any further claims on Israel. In other words, that the peace agreement with Israel would constitute the end of the conflict. The second condition was that the Arab signatory have the capability to effectively combat any terrorist activities that might be directed against Israel from its territory.
These are conditions that a dictator, if he so wishes, could conceivably satisfy. His insistence that the conflict has been terminated could be made to dominate the public discourse on the subject in his country, while his police force and intelligence services could be trusted to suppress any terrorist activity that might be directed against Israel.
Sadat's and Mubarak's Egypt met that requirement, as did Jordan under King Hussein and his successor, King Abdullah.
It was rightly assumed during the negotiations with Hafez Assad of Syria and the PLO's Yasser Arafat that they also could meet these conditions. After all, they were both dictators and had shown on occasion that they knew how to wield absolute power when they wished.
It turned out, though, that Assad's territorial demands could not be satisfied by an Israeli government, and Arafat had no intentions of reaching an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
Israeli governments have never insisted that they would negotiate only with a democratically elected Arab government. The implicit assumption probably was that it would be easier for a dictatorship to meet Israel's fundamental conditions, but this would be a near-impossible task for a democratically elected Arab government.
So where does this leave us with Mahmoud Abbas? Does he have the authority and capability to bring about an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? Any realistic appraisal of his position among the Palestinian population in Judea and Samaria and Gaza leads to the conclusion that he cannot meet this condition.
The most obvious indication of this is that he does not speak for the population in Gaza, which is ruled by a "democratically" elected government - Hamas. His position in Judea and Samaria is also tenuous.
As for suppressing terrorist activity directed against Israel, he obviously does not have that capability. Although Abbas hardly passes the test of democratic governance, would we prefer a Palestinian dictatorial regime? Would we wish that on the Palestinians?
It looks like the first test of the influence of democratic rule in the Arab world on the peace process may come in Egypt. We will be waiting in suspense to see the results if democracy actually breaks out.