Fall of Mubarak Means Decision Time for Netanyahu

Egypt has taken advantage of recent unrest situation and redeployed their army in the demilitarized Sinai. No future government in Cairo will return this force to the other side of Suez.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was right in warning that peace agreements will be at risk if the governments that signed them become unhinged and lose power. He was right in his assessment that Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak was a crucial ally of Israel, and in his concerns of what would happen to Egypt in a post-Mubarak era. Netanyahu was also right to insist on paying more attention to securing Israel's southern border. The thousands of immigrants who came to Israel from Africa, through Egypt, highlighted Cairo's growing difficulty in imposing its will and sovereignty on the Sinai peninsula.

But coming up with analyses and predictions isn't enough; now the prime minister has to deal with the implications of his accurate assessments. He has no luck: Mubarak essentially collapsed on his watch. Of all the world leaders, the Egyptian president was the one who was closest to Netanyahu, and the two often met. Only four weeks ago they met at Sharm el-Sheikh. Now all that's left is nostalgia and the pressing need to formulate a new policy.

The upheaval in Egypt has already led Netanyahu to make a dramatic decision: allowing two Egyptian army battalions to go into Sharm el-Sheikh, for the first time since Israel withdrew from Sinai. Netanyahu has argued for years that Israel needs stringent security arrangements as an insurance policy backing up the peace agreements. And he was the one who had to decide what was more important: adhering to the principle of demilitarization, regardless of what happens, or helping Egyptian authorities put down Bedouin unrest in Sinai.

The Egyptians view the restrictions to their sovereignty in Sinai that were established in the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty as a painful blow to their national pride. Now they have taken advantage of the situation and redeployed their army in the demilitarized peninsula. No future government in Cairo will return this force to the other side of Suez. The ideologue in Netanyahu would certainly have advocated holding steadfast to the letter of the treaty and condemned the "soft" Israeli government that gave in to Egypt. But Netanyahu the statesman opted to sideline the demilitarization arrangements, fearing what would happen if angry masses took over the Straits of Tiran and were in a position to threaten Israel's freedom of navigation to Eilat.

If Netanyahu's gloomy predictions come true and Egypt becomes a new Iran, Israel will be faced with a much more difficult dilemma: Should it go back to the strategic situation that prevailed before the peace agreement? Should it prepare for confrontation on all fronts, expand the ground forces and increase defense expenditures accordingly? Or should it make peace in the east and the north and concentrate its force against a new enemy in the south?

The instinctive reaction to the sight of the enormous demonstrations in Cairo is to barricade ourselves behind a tower-and-stockade mentality, behind a belief that the Arabs can never be trusted. But such a policy comes at a price: budgetary deficits, depressed growth, higher taxes and more military service. Is Israeli society ready to pay such a cost and give up on the dream of a Western economy? And who exactly will be serving in this expanded army - the ultra-Orthodox and Arabs, who are more or less exempt from conscription? Or maybe the immigrants from Eritrea and Sudan, who already know the lay of the land?

The peace treaties are not an expression of leftist messianism, as argued by the right wing. Diplomacy is an alternative to force. Peace with Egypt saved Israel enormous resources that had previously been invested in deterrence and wars, granting Israel economic well-being and enabling it to tighten its hold on the West Bank and focus militarily on Syria, Lebanon and Iran. Menachem Begin understood this, and gave up Sinai to establish 100 settlements in the territories. If an Islamic republic takes hold in Egypt, Netanyahu will face a reverse situation and will be forced to decide whether to withdraw from the West Bank and the Golan Heights in an effort to stabilize the eastern front and concentrate a deterrent force on the southern front.

In recent weeks, Netanyahu has been exploring the possibility of a diplomatic breakthrough with the Palestinians and the Syrians that would reverse Israel's diplomatic isolation. His silence over the revelations by Al Jazeera and Ehud Olmert on the negotiations that the Kadima government conducted with the Palestinians signals that Netanyahu is ready to be flexible. The events in Egypt have caused him to stop and think anew, but he will not be able to hesitate forever. If Mubarak falls, Netanyahu will have to decide between holing up in a citadel and signing peace accords.