Israel Could Be the One Thing All Egyptians Agree On

Hostility to Israel, which is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian consciousness and supported by a growing identification with Islam, could become a bond between the various opposition elements and the army.

Dan Eldar
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Dan Eldar

It was a distorted peace from the time it was made more than 30 years ago. Egypt's "peace" strategy, which was only intended to recover the Sinai and obtain generous American support, was from the start fraught with hostility and suspicion toward us. Aside from nonbelligerence, the Egyptians did not imbue the treaty with any element of full and sincere peace with its former enemy.

Popular feelings of hostility toward Israel, Zionism and the Jewish people are still widespread among the Egyptian people. Public opinion makers, including liberal intellectuals, and the media, which until now were controlled by the authorities, have for years not hesitated to demonize Israel and its leaders, to anti-Semitically demonize the Jewish people, and incite hatred of Israel, in complete defiance of the spirit of the peace treaty.

Egypt gave the peace with Israel the most limited meaning possible. Its leaders and policy-makers, from Anwar Sadat onward, viewed the peace process with Israel primarily as a means of shrinking it to its "natural size," meaning the pre-1967 borders, and depriving it of strategic assets.

Egypt under Hosni Mubarak's rule preferred to slow the process of peace and normalization between Israel and the rest of the Arab world as much as possible, in order to preserve inter-Arab legitimacy for its diplomatic activity as the sole regional mediator.

Mubarak played a significant role in thwarting the Israeli-Palestinian talks at Camp David in 2000. With the support of both the Egyptian media and the clerics, he warned Yasser Arafat that he would be considered a traitor if he accepted the proposals raised at the talks and denied him the legitimacy he would have needed to make decisions on Jerusalem.

Egypt thus contributed to the outbreak of the second intifada, which provided it with a kind of war of attrition against Israel via the Palestinians. That was the Egyptian paradigm of peace with Israel: indirect control of a low-intensity confrontation.

The combination of Egypt's grim day-to-day domestic reality and its policy of minimal peace with Israel over the years makes for a grim prognosis for the future of relations between the two countries. In negotiations with the Egyptian opposition over the future of the regime, the army may well have to become more tolerant of Islamist trends, if only to preserve its status as an arbiter and stabilizer.

Hostility to Israel, which is deeply ingrained in the Egyptian consciousness and supported by a growing identification with Islam, could become a bond between the various opposition elements and the army. If the Muslim Brotherhood is part of the next government, that could accelerate the deterioration of relations with Israel, to the point of abrogating the peace treaty, despite the army chiefs' recent statements.

The Egyptian army, which is not necessarily loyal to a secular ethos like the Turkish army is, could change its orientation toward the peace treaty with Israel. Its training program still treats Israel as the main threat. The slide toward an atmosphere of saber-rattling could proceed gradually from strident anti-Israel rhetoric by legal opposition parties through demands in UN forums for changes in the demilitarization arrangements in Sinai to demands for inspections of the nuclear weapons Egypt claims Israel possesses.

Israel's policy toward Egypt, from left and right alike, adjusted over the years to the parameters of the cold and distorted peace dictated by the Mubarak regime, even as it maintained an exaggerated assessment of Egypt's regional importance. Now, with Mubarak's removal, it seems the time has come to update this policy and prepare every diplomatic and security tool at Israel's disposal for the possibility of negative developments to the south.

The writer, a former senior Mossad official, is currently a researcher on the Middle East.

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