Thursday, February 17, 2011

Breathing space for Palestinians

Arab Palestinians ( in Nazaret ) hold flags and pictures 
of late Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel-Nasser as they 
celebrate the ouster and resignation of Hosni Mubarak

The exit of Hosni Mubarak has set Tel Aviv off balance, though doubtless to the benefit of the Palestinians, writes Khaled Amayreh in occupied Jerusalem;
    While Israel is trying to put on a brave face on losing what it calls a "huge strategic asset" as a result of the Egyptian revolution, leaders, intellectuals and media pundits are slowly coming to terms with the fact that the post-11 February Middle East is markedly different from that which existed before the demonstrations starting 25 January that deposed Egyptian president Hosni Mubarak.

    Israeli leaders have also been assuring Israelis that relations with Egypt won't undergo any deep change. This comes after frantic but failed Israeli efforts to convince Western capitals to shield Mubarak from the anger of his own people. The possible ascendancy of the Muslim Brotherhood in the "New Egypt" constitutes a source of anxiety for Israel.

    This week, Israeli Defence Minister Ehud Barak reportedly telephoned his Egyptian counterpart, Field Marshal Hussein Tantawi, to thank him for reasserting Egypt's commitment to the Camp David Accords and associated peace treaty. Following the brief conversation, Barak pointed out that Israel-Egypt relations were not at risk in the wake of Mubarak's ouster. "I don't think that relations with Egypt are under any risk or that there is any kind of operational risk awaiting us," said Barak.

    But Barak did invoke the spectre of the Muslim Brotherhood, saying that they could be the "real winners" in any elections in Egypt. "Usually in revolutions, if they are violent, there is an eruption of idealist sentiment at the first moment," Barak told the US TV network ABC. "But later on, sooner or later, the only group which is coherent, focussed, ready to kill and be killed if necessary, takes over."

    Earlier, Binyamin Ben Eliezer, a former army general who describes himself as a long-standing friend of Mubarak, spoke bitterly about the American "abandonment" of the now ex-Egyptian leader, saying the Americans didn't realise what they were doing. "When I watched his [Mubarak's] speech in which he said he would step down, it pained me to see his collapse. He stood by our side for 30 years; he was a strong leader, he kept proudly to [Anwar El-] Sadat's commitments and followed in his path. He always emphasised the strategic importance of peace with Israel, and that this peace was the basis for stability in the Middle East."

    Ben Eliezer said he spoke with Mubarak on the phone a few hours before the latter's resignation. He said the former Egyptian president was embittered and angry at the United States for pursuing the "democracy agenda" in Egypt and the Arab world. "He mentioned Iran and how the US sacrificed the Shah only to have Khomeini at the helm of power in Iran. He also mentioned Hamas. He seemed certain that the Egyptian people and other Arab-Muslim peoples of the Middle East were not ready for real democracy."

    The Egyptian revolution also seems to have enforced upon Israel a certain degree of modesty. Writing in Haaretz newspaper before the ouster of Mubarak, Yitzhak Laor reminded Israelis that Israel was not the centre of the world, and not even the centre of the Middle East. "Nobody knows where the revolution will end up. In an Iranian style republic? In something along the Turkish lines? Or perhaps something new, the likes of which we've never experienced? At the moment, there is no need to reply, but only to think and remember this: It doesn't all revolve around us. And in the face of the Egyptian people's heroism, we should bow our heads in humility."

    But the problem for Israel seems to go beyond the psychological factor. In truth, the Israelis are not worried about the presumed abrogation by the new Egyptian regime of the peace treaty of Israel. Israel, many would argue, would enlist Western powers to pressure Egypt to rule out this possibility. Nor is Israel truly worried about the new Egyptian regime moving eastward towards Iran. There is no possibility that Egypt would adopt a vilayat-e faqih -style ideology, a concept that doesn't exist in Sunni Islam in the first place. It is likely that alluding to these scenarios is part of a pre-emptive Israeli propaganda campaign to warn Egypt's new rulers against going too far in undermining Israeli interests.

    The main source of worry in Israel over possible ramifications of the Egyptian revolution has to do with Egypt's stance with regards to the Palestinian issue. Israel is worried that the new rulers in Cairo might reverse the Egyptian role, from an asset for Israel and liability for the Palestinians to an asset for the Palestinians and liability for Israel. One Israeli journalist intimated that the most important thing Israel wants from Egypt is to "remain outside the Israeli- Palestinian formula". In other words, Israel wants to have carte blanche in dealing with the Palestinians, without fear of Egyptian interference.

    In a nutshell, Israel wants to be left alone with the Palestinians, no matter what it does to them, without the Egyptians raising eyebrows. But is this possible under the new regime in Cairo?

    This is not to say though that Israel doesn't have other worries, such as the possible escalation of arms smuggling into the Gaza Strip. Some Israeli generals are already warning that Israel might resort to reoccupying the small strip of land between Rafah and the Egyptian border. But such a step would be a clear provocation for Egypt and might speed up the formation in Cairo of a hostile attitude towards Israel, something that Israeli leaders are not eager to see at this stage.

    For the time being, it is likely that Israel will be reluctant to provoke or wage an onslaught against the Palestinians, in order not to prematurely pique sensitivities in Cairo. Israel might even resort to initiating a "charm offensive" to impress the new rulers in Cairo by showing readiness to resume stalled -- and arguably pointless -- peace talks with the Palestinians.


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