Live from Cairoston

what it means for Israel

February 25, 2011

I don’t think it’s too early to speculate a bit on the ever controversial question of what the evolving geography means for Israel.

The initial and unsurprising take on this issue was that Israel was afraid to be losing a reliably peaceful neighbor in Mubarak. And indeed, Netanyahu expressed great relief when the Egyptian Army reaffirmed the peace treaty.

But at the moment, it’s starting to look to me like this probably missed the point. Yes, as a rule the Egyptian people do not have positive feelings about Israel, and it follows that if the Egyptian people are put in charge of their own political destiny, some things might happen that the Israelis don’t like, such as the border crossing into Gaza being re-opened. There may be more incendiary statements about Israel from Egyptian cabinet ministers in the future, and so forth. And the Brotherhood will be throwing free speech firebombs at the Israelis in the newspapers, which they weren’t really in a position to do under Mubarak. All somewhat uncomfortable for Israel compared with before, yes.

But as for the other concerns, I suspect they are really non-issues. For example, many Egyptians don’t like selling Egyptian natural gas to Israel. (Egypt has very little oil, but a good amount of natural gas). The problem is that there’s not really anyone else to sell it to in large quantities other than Turkey, and it won’t be possible to build a pipeline stretching from Egypt to Turkey due to the mutual loathing of the various neighbors who lie in between. (You’d think Egypt could have an underwater pipeline to Europe just as Libya does, but I read a detailed article about this once and for some reason that doesn’t seem to be an option, on technical grounds pertaining to natural gas, I believe.) I suppose an especially hardline Egyptian government could simply not sell the gas to anyone, but that seems unlikely. Egypt needs the money badly.

Second, Egypt is simply not going to attack Israel. That’s a completely unrealistic idea. For one thing, Israel has nuclear weapons and Egypt does not. For another, Egypt, uncomfortable though the fact may be, has certainly benefitted from the 30 years of peace with their unloved neighbor to the northeast.

Third and finally, Egypt has big future problems coming with Nile water, which is a matter of life and death for this growing nation. It seems inevitable that their foreign policy will have to be reoriented toward the South. Since Sadat, the Egyptian policy has been to bomb any Nile dam constructed by any other country, and though Egypt has lately shifted more towards the “charm” approach to other African nations concerning Nile water, Sadat’s more candid policy accurately reflects the underlying danger to Egypt. Obviously, this country desperately relies on Nile water (its only real source) but has no control over the first thousands of miles of the river and what other countries do with it. This thorny problem will be occupying most of Egypt’s diplomatic attention in the coming decades. There was an agreement signed on this years ago, about what percentage of the water goes to each Nile country, but it was agreed upon during the British colonial period and thus is no longer accepted by the other Nile nations.

For all of these reasons, I don’t think Israel should be worried about an aggressive Egyptian military. Instead, I think they should be worried about the complete reframing of the narrative of the region. Here indeed, they’re in the same boat as Mubarak.

Before now, some people would say: “Palestinians = Hamas = crazy al-Qaeda-like radicals = must be kept down in order to prevent numerous atrocities against innocent civilians by murderous theocrats.” (Much like Mubarak vis-à-vis the Brotherhood.)

In the new situation, the narrative cuts across all these national lines and says something more like: “Arab people = good but oppressed, and ready for democracy if only they weren’t so oppressed.”

That’s obviously not a narrative that plays into the hands of the Israeli government as presently constituted. All differences in situation aside, they’ll be in danger of looking more like the last Mubaraks and Qaddafis than like a threatened and isolated citadel of democracy in the region. In fact, Al Jazeera is already calling for Egypt-style protests by Palestinians against the Palestinian Authority.

The Saudis will also be in a very unattractive-looking position, though they probably won’t care, and so far we’ve seen no signs of unrest there. But won’t they at least have to reform a bit as a safety valve?

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