With support for his regime crumbling faster than you can say “How long is the flight to Saudi Arabia?” Mubarak still has a friend in Israel. Before you start to get sentimental, it’s important to realize that this is not good either for Israel or Mubarak. The ostracized Jewish state comes across as supporting the ill-fated autocrat, sacrificing Egyptian democracy and human rights at the alter of a cold peace, and the Egyptian president does himself no favors with his people by cuddling up with the perceived enemy.
So what is behind this odd friendship? Nothing more than some good old fashion politics and strategy. Israel and Egypt were mortal enemies before the peace accord of 1979, having fought 4 wars (1948, 1956, 1967, and 1973) that left thousands dead and fears high. Egypt, the self-anointed champion of the beleaguered Arab people, believed in the mission of fighting the young Jewish state, which Arabs saw as the last outpost of western colonialism. Israel viewed Egypt, with its towering population and revolutionary rhetoric, as the little nation’s biggest threat.
While historians have debated over the lead up to the historic peace agreement at Camp David, it is largely believed that the first important step was made when President Anwar Sadat decided to make a fundamental shift in Egypt’s political orientation. During the Nasser years, Egypt had danced between being pro-Soviet and non-aligned. Sadat determined that Egypt must ally herself with the United States, and, in order to do so, would have to make peace with Israel. So what does he do? He starts a war with the enemy (1973) to increase his clout (the October war is remembered in Egypt as a victory even though they lost the war) and then the triumphant Sadat takes on the role as peacemaker, traveling to the Knesset with an olive branch. As Ira Lapidus puts it in his monumental “A History of Islamic Societies”
Sadat was able to break the aura of Israeli invincibility, claim a moral victory in the war, and go on, in a dramatic speech in the Israeli parliament in Jerusalem, to offer Israel peace with Egypt. By the Camp David accords brokered by President Carter in 1979, Egypt agreed to recognize the existence of Israel in return for the Sinai territories conquered in the 1967 war. These gestures made Sadat an international celebrity, and won American aid and Saudi and Gulf state investments.”
Israel and Egypt could now sleep at night, no longer fearing that the other might launch a sneak attack across the Sinai desert. But the peace never produced a robust friendship. While there were Israelis who protested the peace treaty–especially the settlers in Sinai who had to leave their homes–the treaty was ultimately approved by the Israeli parliament. This was not required on the Egyptian end, which as we all know (at least now) is not known for its democratic processes. While there were undoubtedly Egyptians who supported the treaty, and the subsequent flow of aid from the United States, most Egyptians never felt the benefits of this new era in Egyptian policy. Furthermore, Egyptians had been taught since 1948 that Israel was a threat, and the continued plight of the Palestinians gave such sentiments further fuel. The Muslim Brotherhood has stated that it would work to revoke the peace treaty with Israel, as have other secular parties in Egypt.
So is Israel’s fear of a post-Mubarak world grounded in reality? I would argue that if Mubarak is toppled and a new government is formed, any revocation of the peace treaty with Israel would halt U.S. aid faster than you can say “Zbigniew Brzezinski.” Let’s be honest, there are three main reasons why the United States supports Egypt:
1. It’s good to be friends with the country that controls the Suez Canal, through which 8 percent of global trade passes
2. Egypt’s geographic position makes it a prime spot for U.S. military strategy. With easy access to Europe, Africa, and the Persian Gulf, Egypt presents itself as an important location for U.S. military bases and personnel.
3. Egypt’s peace with Israel is perhaps the most important factor. For a variety of reasons that this post will not address, the United States has a special relationship with Israel. It wasn’t until Egypt made peace with Israel that the United States agreed to supply aid, and I would be stunned if the minute that any peace agreement was broken off the United States didn’t cut off the supply.
Considering this, I would be equally stunned if any new Egyptian government was quick to revoke peace with Israel. U.S. aid, both military and economic, is not something easily tossed aside, especially for a country as poor as Egypt. Just as Sadat played the game of realpolitik, I imagine that any successor to Mubarak would do the same. I think it’s time that Israel (and the United States) live up to their democratic principles and embrace the end of an authoritarian regime.