Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Egyptians Ponder Israel Peace Terms

The Egyptian army has been quick to commit to all its international agreements, however ordinary people say they want more dignified relations with their neighbour.
By Daniella Peled
  • Israel-Egypt border. They used to have a cold peace, but what sort of relations are Egypt and Israel likely to have in future? (Photo: Jaan-Cornelius K/Flickr)
    Israel-Egypt border. They used to have a cold peace, but what sort of relations are Egypt and Israel likely to have in future? (Photo: Jaan-Cornelius K/Flickr)

The cliché is that Israel is a handy excuse for protest in the Arab world. But during the heady days of the Egyptian revolution, they didn't need one. It was about Mubarak, plain and simple.

I witnessed the crowds chanting for the president to go in Tahrir Square. I heard no shouts of “Death to Israel”, and as hard as I looked amongst the torched wrecks of police trucks littering the streets of Cairo, there were no burning blue-and-white flags.

“We used to take to the streets to protest against Israel,” said Mohamed Kalfat, a 29-year-old translator, told me as he walked through central Cairo with his fellow demonstrators. “Now it is this regime, because it is killing us.”

But while this revolution had nothing to do with the Jewish state, and the Egyptian public doubtless has more pressing concerns before foreign policy, Jerusalem has responded to the fall of Mubarak with an ever-heightening anxiety.

“Our prime minister has got into a bunker mentality, seeing the events in Egypt only in terms of danger and threat and dark clouds ahead,” said David Landau, former editor of the Haaretz newspaper. “There is danger, but hunkering down with the forces of reaction and regression is not a solution. I wish that instead we could see the beginning of a change in Israeli discourse with a little bit less paranoia and a little more perspective.”

It’s undoubtedly in the interests of both sides to maintain the 1979 Camp David peace treaty, Israel’s most important strategic alliance after that with the United States and one long viewed as a pillar of regional stability.

Egypt gets 1.3 billion US dollars a year in military aid from Washington as a result. Israel, for its part, has become happily accustomed to a secure southern border.

Thanks to the peace agreement, the Israel Defence Force, IDF, was able to decommission many army units which existed purely to defend against Egyptian attack. The Negev is now used mainly for training; the Southern Command is mostly concerned with Gaza.

And Egypt has been not only an important interlocutor in talks with the Palestinians but also a vital partner in containing what Israel sees as the threat from the Hamas regime in Gaza.

It was a cold peace, but a stable one.

Following Mubarak’s fall, the Egyptian military was quick to declare that Egypt would abide by all its international agreements, but this has done little to reassure the Israeli government, which views any change in the status quo with grim foreboding.

While the protests were ongoing, Israel allegedly called on its diplomatic envoys abroad to lobby host governments to soften their criticism of Mubarak. When it seemed inevitable he would leave, Netanyahu hinted that a new and democratic Egypt would have to fulfil certain ideological requirements, an apparent reflection of concern over the potential role the Muslim Brotherhood might play in a future government.

Trumpeting an anti-Israel agenda is not going to be enough to win a political party power and influence in a democratic Egypt. Domestic concerns over the economy, justice and political reform are too pressing for this kind of grand-standing to have any currency.

Yet even if the Muslim Brotherhood or other Islamist groups do not have a major role in the new government, popular feeling will want Egyptian policy towards Israel and the Palestinians to change.

“We don't like war but we also want the Palestinians to have their rights,” Hela Badri, a journalist, told me in Cairo. “We want peace, but what kind?”

There’s a question of pride, and dignity. If Egypt is to maintain its place as the leader of the Arab world, it needs to show its strength when it comes to Israel, too.

Egyptians are already saying they want the terms by which they supply Israel with cut-price natural gas changed.

They are asking why, if Israelis can enter Sinai with only a visa on arrival, they can’t cross over to Israel under a similarly arrangement.

And with Egyptians viewing their leadership as having been complicit in the blockade on Gaza, a pressing demand is likely to be a change of policy towards the Palestinian regime there.

Indeed, there have already been reports that the Rafah crossing between Egypt and Gaza will open completely this week.

There are few voices calling for the entire peace agreement to be cancelled, but it’s clear that change is coming. That in itself seems to frighten decision makers in Jerusalem, concerned with maintaining short-term stability as a substitute for bold thinking.

The upheaval in the Middle East is taking place at a time when Israel’s regional and international allies appear to be shrinking.

Relations with Turkey have been in freefall, even before the May 2010 flotilla fiasco in which nine Turkish activists were killed. Further afield, ties with the Obama White House have long been strained and Europe is viewed as far from friendly.

Some progress in the peace process or some concessions to the Palestinians could make a real difference in gaining Israel much-needed diplomatic credit right now. But Jerusalem is never good at risking what it perceives as potential losses amidst an atmosphere of uncertainty.

So rather than attempting to break the current impasse with bold thinking and statesmanship, the Israeli government appears to be clinging to a position of wait-and-see.

The complex alliances it has built with supposedly stable regimes and the consensus it had painstakingly established over the perceived threat from Iran and Islamist elements all seem to be dissolving. As yet, there is no coherent strategy with which to replace them.

The revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt weren’t about Israel; the current unrest in Bahrain, Libya and Yemen has no connection to the Jewish state. But very soon, Israel may no longer be able to trade on its position as the only democracy in the Middle East.

The reality is changing and Jerusalem is going to have to negotiate new relationships with both friends and foes, or find itself even further isolated.

Daniella Peled is an IWPR editor in London.