JERUSALEM – Around the world, peoples revel in anticipation of the fall of a regime that has denied its citizens their basic rights. But most Israelis are haunted by nightmare scenarios of ‘the day after’, as if their country’s stability was anchored in the continuity of the rule of Hosni Mubarak – not in peace.
Their instinctive reaction to the sight of the demonstrations in Tahrir Square was to barricade themselves behind the self-serving conventional wisdom that "Israel is a villa in the (Middle East) jungle," as Defense Minister Ehud Barak likes to say.
All of a sudden, the embattled Egyptian President is being hailed as Israel’s best friend in the Arab world, the key go-between with much of the Arab world. His beleaguered regime is longed for as the most significant strategic ally in the region, a security bulwark against Islamists.
Although dubbed "the cold peace", Israelis are re-discovering the value of the 32-year old treaty with Egypt that broke the circle of Arab enmity, allowing Israel to reduce its defense expenditures and to divert resources to its economy, to the settlement enterprise, and to the defense of the Lebanese and Syrian fronts.
What’s more, hasn’t peace with Egypt sustained the brunt of two Israeli wars in Lebanon (1982 and 2006) and of two Palestinian uprisings (1987-1993 and 2000-2005) against Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands? So, Israelis believe their country has the most to lose from the revolution-in the-making.
In truth, Israel has been caught off guard. On the eve of the evolving events, the new military intelligence chief, Maj. Gen. Aviv Kochavi told the Knesset’s Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee, "There are currently no doubts about the stability of the regime in Egypt."
During the first five days of the popular uprising, a cautious wait-and-see approach was adopted. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu instructed his ministers to keep a low profile. A directive was discreetly sent to Israeli embassies in the U.S., Europe, Russia and China. Diplomats were instructed to stress to their host countries the importance of Egypt’s stability.
On Day Six of the protests, Netanyahu issued his first public statement, telling his cabinet, "We are closely monitoring events in Egypt and the region and are making efforts to preserve its security and stability. The peace between Israel and Egypt has lasted for more than three decades and our objective is to ensure that these relations will continue to exist."
The next day, as the demands of the Egyptian demonstrators grew more boisterous, Netanyahu’s reaction rose to a crescendo. He warned that what had happened in Iran in 1979 could happen in Egypt: "Our real fear is of a situation that could develop – and which has already developed in several countries, including Iran itself – repressive regimes of radical Islam."
On the day of the ‘one-million march’, much in the spirit of a recognition of Hamas by the international community on condition, amongst others, that the Islamist movement accepts past Israeli-Palestinian agreements, a statement from the Prime Minister’s office read, "The international community must require any Egyptian government to preserve the peace agreement with Israel."
On Day Nine, in his toughest reaction yet, Netanyahu declared, "The basis of our stability, our future and for maintaining peace or widening it, particularly in unstable times – this basis lies in bolstering Israel’s might." It was the Mubarak regime’s might that Israel was quietly trying to bolster.
For the first time since its withdrawal from Sinai in 1982, regardless of the demilitarization arrangements, Israel allowed two Egyptian army battalions into the peninsula, to assist in quelling Bedouin unrest and preventing arms smuggling into Hamas-ruled Gaza.
Decision-makers are grappling with a string of unanswered questions: If Mubarak goes away, who will replace him – the Muslim Brotherhood? Will regime change also affect Cairo’s ties with Hamas, and Israel’s relationship with the PA?
Could Jordan, Israel’s other peace neighbor, be next to fall as a result of what looks already as the emergence of a new Arab world order? What about the so-called "moderate" Gulf States?
Notwithstanding the fact that Israel under Netanyahu has already lost a key regional ally with Turkey, would post-Mubarak Israel return to the situation ante-1979, when it was surrounded by enemy states? Will Barak’s dictum turn into prophecy?
Sinking in is the realization that, in the best possible outcome, the "cold peace" with Egypt might get even colder.
"It doesn’t look good, for us. It’s only a question of time – a short time – before peace with Egypt pays the price," gloomily predicts former Israeli ambassador to Egypt Eli Shaked. Military analyst Amos Harel ponders, "The dilemma is most acute. Should Israel prepare for confrontation on all fronts, expand the ground forces and increase defense expenditures accordingly?"
Yet, more immediately, what has troubled Israel is the pro-demonstrators stand of its other best ally. Benjamin Ben-Eliezer, a former minister in Netanyahu’s government regarded as Mubarak’s best Israeli friend, sounded the alarm: "The U.S. is inflicting a catastrophe on the region."
"Pulled along by public opinion, the U.S. (and the EU) aren’t considering their genuine interests," one Israeli official told IPS. "Even if they are critical of Mubarak they have to make their friends feel that they’re not alone. Jordan and Saudi Arabia see the Western world’s reactions, how they’re abandoning Mubarak. This will have very serious repercussions."
The prevailing sense of strategic distress is further being exacerbated by the growing diplomatic isolation of Israel due to the collapse of the peace talks with the Palestinian Authority. The blame for the failure is increasingly assigned on Netanyahu for his refusal to freeze settlement construction.
This, as only two weeks ago, Al-Jazeera and the Guardian jointly published the Palestine Papers which showed that the previous Israeli government was seriously engaged in peace negotiations with the Palestinians.
"Without Mubarak, Israel is left with almost no friends in the Middle East," bemoans political commentator Aluf Benn in the daily Haaretz.
"It’s not enough to marvel that ‘Israel is (for the time being) the only democracy in the Middle East’," said the head of the opposition Tzipi Livni, in a clear warning to Netanyahu. "It must also take tangible measures to advance peace."
Lest the Israeli leader, in some strange alliance of convenience with other autocratic Arab regimes, is left safeguarding the old Arab order on his own, without the U.S.
(Inter Press Service)