February 1, 2011

Egypt, Tunisia, and shifting options for Israel

Unlike Iran, Egypt's revolution is not primarily a revolt against foreign domination. The next Egyptian government will have no reason to pick a real fight with Israel. The United States will not cut off vital cash assistance to Egypt, since most of the funds constitute a perpetual offset for Egypt sticking its neck out in the Arab world to make peace with Israel. Israel will not violate the terms of the peace treaty.

One lasting lesson of Camp David may be that Israelis could never get such an agreement with whatever government replaces Mubarak, but the treaty they have will be honored by Egypt and guaranteed by outside powers -- so lock in your terms now, while you still can.

Whether from a sense of necessity or opportunity, the Israeli Government may see this as the right moment to reassess its approach to negotiations with the Palestinians. Until this week, the assumption of the right-leaning coalition and its right-leaning voters has been that time is on their side. However unrealistic that may have been in the long run, now the short run is rapidly catching up with them.

Even though Egypt's army will probably retain a veto over military strategy and measures to secure the frontiers, Israel still needs to steel itself for the possibility of increased incursions and unrest in Gaza.

The old Middle East really is changing. On the Arab side, each succeeding government, and each passing year, could push peace and security further away from Israel's reach. In the "new" Middle East, if rulers cannot show their citizens some progress internally or externally, blaming it on Israel will no longer bolster their popularity. If these leaders will not open up their societies, they will be replaced by less practiced and/or more radicalized elements. This may not lead them to attack Israel, but it reduces the benefits from peace or sustained inaction. 

Leaders with lower internal support have less incentive and less capacity to make difficult decisions, or -- as in the case of Hosni Mubarak -- to push the Palestinians or Lebanese to make those decisions.

With or without justification, Israelis have often complained there is no reliable Palestinian partner with whom to make peace. If the idea of biding time made little strategic sense before, it seems unfeasible today. In the near term, Israel may need to bolster its military defenses, but it also needs to engage its neighbors and win back support from European and other Western nations. It cannot get through this on its own, and the United States is by definition not going to be the central address vis-a-vis compromised regimes like Egypt or Syria. France could prove especially important in this regard, and President Sarkozy is sympathetic.

Rehashing the wisdom of Camp David or the Gaza withdrawal is now an irrelevant academic tangent. Whatever domestic political incentive, further settlement expansion will soon carry exorbitant diplomatic and strategic costs for Israel. The options are fading away, unless Israelis can seize the moment. This will require thought, not slogans.

No comments:

Post a Comment