February 6, 2011

Iran, Israel (and the U.S.) face up to Egypt

Is Egypt all about the rest of us, or isn't it? Iran has high hopes for the Egyptian revolution, but they may be running out of revolutions (Stuxnet pun, sorry). Israel is more in damage-control mode, while also figuring out how to remain low-key. The United States has stakes and responsibilities in Egypt, plus a score to settle with Iran and deep bonds with Israel.

How dangerous is the potential for Islamist influence in a future Egyptian government? The Iranian regime is now scrambling to protect against the possibility of a new round of protests inspired by the Egyptian uprising. The chances of the Islamic Republic taking over the Egyptian revolution while also defending its own are... remote.

Israelis do have good reason to be concerned about the willingness or ability of the next Egyptian government to enforce all terms of the 1979 peace treaty with Israel, as well as stopping weapons from reaching the Hamas-ruled Gaza Strip. It is unlikely that any Egyptian leader would abrogate the treaty and risk the wrath of Israel's military -- and Egypt's military will probably maintain control over national security regardless of who's running the country (see under: Turkey). But Israel is in no position to dismiss any contingency.

There have been specific warnings about Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood, which could end up joining a transitional coalition. It is on record opposing the peace with Israel, and one of its leaders recently reaffirmed this position. But those so concerned about what leaders of Egypt's Muslim Brotherhood say might take comfort from the experience of Avigdor Lieberman, who notoriously said Mubarak could "go to hell" if he didn't want to pay an official visit to Israel. This wasn't just some fringe member of Knesset, and no religious fanatic, and subsequently -- and currently -- Israel's foreign minister. (He has also been known to stress Israel's capability to bomb the Aswan Dam, should the need arise.)

Has Israel been Mubarak's best friend? Beyond that direct insult to Mubarak, the current Israeli Government and its Palestinian counterpart have done little more than take turns spitting at each other past U.S. President Obama and generally ignoring Mubarak's attempts to play regional statesman. Though Prime Minister Netanyahu has cultivated a close, public friendship with the Egyptian president, a little more responsiveness to Mubarak's diplomatic risk-taking certainly wouldn't have hurt Mubarak's standing among his people (see under: hero of Palestine). But this is a footnote -- the peace process is about Israel and the Palestinians, and Egypt is about Egypt. Right?

The good news is, Egypt may not be lost. Instead of putting a hold on the billion-plus in annual assistance -- a guarantee of Egypt's peace with Israel -- the United States can prepare a package of democracy programs and economic incentives that should be conditioned on progress toward responsible and representative government. That -- and not our past patronage of Mubarak -- should be what gets the United States a seat at the Egyptian table.

For Americans, this will be better use of our time and resources than pointing fingers, challenging the bonafides of moderately popular Egyptian factions, or being the first to let down our side of the Egypt-Israel peace treaty. If we don't want the protests in Cairo to become all about America and Israel, then let's not introduce the subject. And let the good vibrations rattle in Tehran.

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